Pitt’s championship hopes hinge on Pickett’s arm, Whipple’s playbook
Kenny Pickett doesn’t linger on the past. So forgive the Pittsburgh quarterback if he’s not still beating himself up over his team’s rough finish to 2018, when the Panthers lost their final three games and scored a total of 23 points, none of them coming on touchdown passes.
“I haven’t even thought about it,” Pickett said Wednesday. “I think I do a good job of putting things behind me and getting to work.”
There’s plenty of work to be done for a passing attack that ranked in the bottom three in the 14-team Atlantic Coast Conference in yards, yards per attempt and touchdowns. Pitt won the ACC Coastal Division title on the ever-churning legs of running backs Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall, both of whom topped 1,000 yards.
Yet when the running game couldn’t get going or the Panthers found themselves trailing and forced to take to the air — as it did in losses to Miami, Clemson and Penn State — Pickett and Pitt’s wide receivers struggled to get anything resembling consistent traction.
Enter offensive coordinator Mark Whipple. Hired over the winter after the Panthers parted ways with Shawn Watson, Whipple has built a reputation as a passing-game savant. Wherever he goes, eye-popping yardage totals tend to follow.
Even though Massachusetts struggled to gain a foothold in the Football Bowl Subdivision after moving up from the Football Championship Subdivision during Whipple’s five seasons at the helm (2014-2018), the Minutemen put on a show. UMass averaged 283.8 yards through the air during Whipple’s tenure. The Panthers, by contrast, haven’t averaged that number in any season since 2003, when wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald was embarrassing opposing defensive backs on a weekly basis.
Whipple doesn’t need his receivers to try to imitate Fitzgerald. But at least the threat of the pass could go a long way for Pitt, which opens on Saturday night at home against Coastal Division favorite Virginia. The offensive line has four new starters and starting running backs A.J. Davis and Todd Sibley Jr. enter the season with a combined 72 touches.
There is experience at wide receiver, where seniors Maurice Ffrench and Tre Tipton lead a group that believes it can do more than just be the skinniest blockers on the field, as they were for much of last season.
“Coach Whipple, his offense is like more ‘Get the playmaker the ball and find that spot that’s open in the defense,”’ Ffrench said. “It’s just up to Kenny and wherever he wants to throw, because a lot of people are open on every play. So Kenny’s just got to make the decision.”
Having receivers who are engaged on every snap would help. That wasn’t always the case last fall. Without naming names, Pickett said there were times when he would look to his third or fourth options and see something other than all-out effort.
“Sometimes in the game, I’m going to look there, and my read takes me there and I look there and he’s not giving 100% and he’s covered, you’re kind of in a tough situation,” Pickett said. “Now every guy is getting full-go every single play because they want the ball and they know they have a chance to score a touchdown.”
Whipple, whose past coaching stops include NFL stints in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, at least provides a dash of the unpredictable.
“The system he’s run in the past is explosive and very difficult to stop,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “How much of that now is tilted toward Pitt’s past identity of running the football and how much that’s emphasized, we can only speculate.”
Or maybe not.
Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi has no plans for the Panthers to get away from the run-centric approach that’s been a part of the program’s identity since Tony Dorsett was zigzagging to the end zone more than 40 years ago. Still, he’s well aware Pitt’s offense needs to evolve if it wants to keep pace in the competitive division. Pickett doesn’t have to turn into the second coming of Dan Marino. But when he drops back, something positive needs to happen.
“Our passing game has to be dynamic, too,” Narduzzi said. “When we throw it, let’s compete it, you know? I guess we find out Saturday night.”