Pamela Smith | Contributing Editor
On paper, Pitt is bringing back the vast majority of its 2021 starting offense in 2022. The entire ACC Championship winning offensive line is returning, its top three leading rushers will be back to carry the ball, budding star sophomore tight end Gavin Bartholomew will look to carry the momentum over from his first year and the wide receiver room brings back multiple key weapons.
Head coach Pat Narduzzi stayed busy in the transfer portal, too, and landed two top targets, with sophomore receiver Konata Mumpfield and senior quarterback Kedon Slovis joining the offense.
But the Panthers offense lost arguably their three most important pieces to success since the confetti settled after the ACC Championship. Offensive coordinator Mark Whipple departed for the same position with Nebraska, Heisman finalist quarterback Kenny Pickett moved next door to play for the Steelers and the 2021 Biletnikoff award winner Jordan Addison infamously entered the transfer portal and joined the USC Trojans.
This leaves Pitt with holes to fill and lots of offense to recuperate — 4,319 yards passing and over 1,500 yards receiving worth of offense left the program. Pitt also has an entirely new offensive scheme to install. Narduzzi brought back a hometown favorite, Frank Cignetti Jr., to take over for Whipple.
The Pitt offense will have to adapt to a new playbook and new leaders.
While Whipple and Cignetti both run pro-style offenses, they’re not identical. Whipple liked to air it out, and Pitt fans saw that last year, with Pickett throwing over 30 passes in almost every game in 2021. Under Whipple, the Panthers threw for 337.4 yards per game while rushing for 152 yards in 2021. Having the nation’s top receiver and the NFL’s top quarterback prospect certainly bolstered those numbers, but Whipple’s playbook opened a lot of doors through the air. He drew up plays that freed up receivers in the middle of the field and had Pickett’s help to make that type of offense thrive.
Cignetti ran a much more balanced offense at Boston College last year, with the Eagles throwing for just over 180 yards per game and rushing for nearly 170 yards per game, even after having lost star quarterback junior Phil Jurkovec to injury for most of the season. The former NFL quarterback coach also employs the use of his tight ends, putting them in motion and serving as a safety valve for the quarterback.
Since taking over, Cignetti has added three new tight ends via the transfer portal to the roster and foreshadows an offense that will be reliant on its tight ends to block in the run game and catch passes.
What Pitt fans may need to prepare themselves for is that the offense is not going to have the same level of explosiveness it had in 2021. That’s not to say it won’t be an offense that other teams will fear, but it may be a different kind than what everyone saw last year.
Cignetti is notorious for adapting to his players’ strengths. If his tight ends are athletic and can make plays in the middle of the field, he’ll play into that. If his running backs perform better running inside zone, he’ll implement that into his game plan just like he did at Boston College.
The personnel he has at his disposal going into 2022 does not lend itself to explosivity and a high volume of offense through the air. While the wide receiver room is still loaded with senior Jared Wayne and Mumpfield, there’s a question mark at the quarterback position.
Slovis and senior Nick Patti are going to battle it out in camp this summer to win the starting job. While both have a solid toolset, neither will have the same level of production that Pickett had — Cignetti isn’t expecting either to fill Pickett’s shoes.
Slovis hasn’t been impressive for some time now, faltering after his standout first year at USC. He didn’t do much to inspire hope at the 2022 Blue-Gold game either, struggling mightily to get the offense going. Patti has experience in the Pitt offense and played well before going down with an injury in the Peach Bowl.
Both have the potential to be very solid quarterbacks in the ACC.
But fans need to remember that Pickett was Pitt’s first Heisman finalist quarterback since Dan Marino over 40 years ago. What Pickett did was incredibly rare — fans should not expect this type of season from either Slovis or Patti.
Senior receiver Jared Wayne is a receiver who wins jump balls and is a true deep threat that can slot into the No. 1 receiver role. But he doesn’t have the same route running ability Addison had, nor does he achieve the same degree of separation. Mumpfield has a more similar style of play to Addison’s, but he still hasn’t played against the nation’s top talent after spending his first year playing for Akron. It’s not reasonable for Cignetti to expect either to replicate Addison’s production.
Cignetti will lean on his veteran offensive line, his tight ends and versatile running backs, to move the ball downfield. This isn’t to say the offense won’t put up points — they will. The drives will be longer, more didactic and more reliant on the running backs. Cignetti said himself that one of the things that excited him about coming to Pitt was establishing a more uniform rushing attack.
“We are very excited to get a run game identity going here,” Cignetti said. “When I looked at the offensive line and I looked at the talent of the running backs — wow, man, I’m really excited.”
It’s not going to be the same offense with the quarterback consistently slinging it 40 yards downfield to a wide-open receiver like last year. Pitt fans shouldn’t expect that either. The Panthers are losing the three biggest pieces to the offense’s success last year and it’ll have a new identity because of it. This isn’t a knock on the quarterbacks, it is simply a compliment to the running backs and offensive line.
Cignetti has lofty expectations to meet after joining a program that just won a conference championship. Right now, establishing a run game that will chip away at opposing defenses is his best option. This team will win and lose games in the trenches this season.