Pitt training camp notebook: Panthers look to develop big play offense as key for 2023

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
AUG 8, 2023 1:43 PM
Expect a change in how often Pitt’s offense employs a vertical passing attack in 2023.
The Panthers began their first day in full pads Tuesday at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. That allowed media to see that vertical passing attack come to life in some live drills. On one play, receiver Bub Means caught a deep pass from starting quarterback Phil Jurkovec up the left sideline over M.J. Devonshire in an impressive combat catch that got a big response from the team.
Pat Narduzzi said the Panthers offense has been making plays like that almost every day since training camp began.
“The offense had a really good day [Sunday],” Narduzzi said. “Phil and Christian (Veilleux) connected on some really deep throws. The receivers were not as rusty as the defensive backs. It was a good day for the receivers and the quarterbacks.”
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Narduzzi said some of those deep passes were completed to Means, Konata Mumpfield and Kenny Johnson, while a short pass turned into a big play by Che Nwabuko.
Last year, Kedon Slovis attempted 53 passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air last season and completed 19 of them with an average of 10.2 yards per attempt. That rate was tied for 13th-best among ACC quarterbacks who attempted at least 21 deep passes. It was indicative of how the Panthers offense focused on its run game and short passing scheme to move the ball.
Meanwhile, Jurkovec was at Boston College and posted 16.3 yards per attempt on deep passes, which was the highest rate among ACC quarterbacks who attempted at least 21 deep passes last season. Now, Jurkovec is with the Panthers, reunited with his former Boston College offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr., who enters his second season running Pitt’s offense.
The difference in how the offense runs is noticeable, even to the defense in practice.
“Last camp, there wasn’t as much passing,” linebacker Kyle Lewis said. “They ran a lot more, but now they’re running a lot more naked [formations] and a lot more deep passes. Both quarterbacks, Christian and Phil, they’re not scared to throw. They’ll come out on late nights and throw [with their receivers]. As a defender, I’ve seen their bonds significantly increase.”
Those spontaneous passing sessions have helped Jurkovec, Veilleux and Pitt’s quarterbacks develop a stronger connection with their receivers. That doesn’t just go for redshirt senior Means or junior Mumpfield, who are the clear top two pass catchers on the offense. But it also helps the Panthers’ four new freshmen receivers who’ve made waves in training camp. Israel Polk, Lamar Seymore, Kenny Johnson and Zion Fowler-El have all earned positive comments from Narduzzi this camp.
Johnson, as a recipient of one of the deep passes Narduzzi mentioned from Sunday, said the extra passing sessions with the quarterbacks have been a big help.
Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi applauds a play during the Blue-Gold spring game Saturday, April 24, 2021, at Heinz Field.
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“We get it in whenever we can,” Johnson said of Pitt’s receivers and quarterbacks working out on their own. “It helps me, especially to work on what I learn in the classroom and bring it to the field. We’re doing it less right now because of our workload during camp, but normally, we were doing that three to four times a week.”
The appearance, at least from Pitt’s early days of training camp, is that Pitt is looking for more explosive plays from its passing offense and less of the long, grueling drives it took last season to score touchdowns.
Nwabuko, a former track star, has also started to get some touches as a redshirt freshman receiver. He’s been used more on plays that involve shorter throws for the quarterbacks but also present opportunities in space for Nwabuko to use his speed to make big plays. When asked who the fastest player was on the team, Nwabuko wasn’t shy to boast.
“You know who it is,” Nwabuko said, implying himself. “But I’ve got some competition in A.J. Woods, Marquise Williams and Bub Means.”
Pitt’s rushing offense defined its success in 2022, when Israel Abanikanda led the ACC in yards per game and led the country in scoring. So a changed focus on the passing game with Jurkovec would go against the grain of success established by the offensive line last season.
But if you ask those on the offensive line, they welcome a bit more balance to the offense.
“Sometimes, but it depends on the situation,” redshirt freshman offensive lineman Ryan Baer said. “When we’re on the goal line, we want to pound it in and be aggressive. But we like having a bit of a balance. It helps to keep the defense from stacking the box against the run.”
A week into training camp, the Panthers are still developing their identity on both sides of the ball and how their returning and new players will fit into those plans. But it’s clear the change of pace in the offense is an important goal for Narduzzi and Cignetti — and something that could become one of the bigger storylines of the season.

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