If you all remember I did a series of articles in June of 2017 that looked at the departing starters from the 2016 season and who I thought would be replacing them for 2017. With that I assigned a grade of “Upgrade“, “Downgrade” or “Draw‘.
What I’ll do first is look at each position, or unit, along the offense as of today and write down who I think will be the starter and why it will be that guy. Then I’ll assign a ranking of “Upgrade” if I see an upgrade in player quality, “Downgrade’ if I see a lessening of talent or “Draw” if I think we’ll match last year’s player(s) in the position or unit.
Might as well get this one out-of-the-way but it hurts me to even think about it – the 2018 Wide Receiver corps we’ll field this season. Let’s look at who has left the team first.
WR Jester Weah was the poster boy for high-end talent and inconsistent play. He came to Pitt in the 2013 recruiting class as a middling 3* recruit with his only Power 5 offer being ours. He did have good ‘measurables’ coming out of high school as a 6’3″ gangly 193 lb pass catcher but there was something off about him from the time he reported into ’13’s fall camp and when he blossomed into a solid player in 2016.
I remember watching him in Paul Chryst’s open practices that fall and through into spring of the next season and what was obvious to everyone there was that he just couldn’t catch passes on any consistent basis. I mean he’d high-point a circus catch one series and have the ball clang off of his hands the next.
Weah’s 2016 to 2017 performance:
As you can see (if you can see it) Weah had a drop in production overall even with five more pass reception last season. The lower TDs really hurt by going from 10 – which is a nice number for a WR to only four in ’17.
Of course the main play of his that sticks in our minds is his being caught from behind and tackled one yard short of the goal line on a long pass play in our 20-14 loss to Virginia Tech. Needless to say he’s moved on and I’d say just about no Pitt fans are too broken up about his graduating.
Our other WR loss was a player who didn’t really have all that much impact in the passing game. Quadree Henderson made his mark at Pitt as a kick returner and as a running back on jet sweeps. He totaled 17 catches for 186 yards and zero TDs. We’ll talk more about his leaving in our Special Teams article.
Of course having two below average QBs throwing the ball to them didn’t help our WRs last year either and let’s hope that problem is rectified with QB Kenny Pickett behind Center. But still a team has to have talented receivers for him to throw to.
So, what do we have for 2018 then? Well, our most productive WR coming back is SR Rafael Araujo-Lopes and you can see that he was a steady ballplayer in that he caught almost 80% of the passes thrown his way. That is pretty damn good considering that doesn’t take subtract QB misfires. Not too shabby especially compared to Weah’s poor 53% last year:
Another stat to look at for a WR is what his “Success Rate” is and here the explanation for that.
A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.”
So with that it opens the eyes up even more when see that Lopes had a very good 57% rate in that category (Weah’s was 51% in his good 2016 year). He’ll have to be even better as the WR1 this season. The question though is who is going to be playing alongside Lopes in the two or three (maybe four sometimes) WR sets?
Here are who we have returning in the WR unit who caught passes last season. Pretty sparse pickings all around.
Something to consider when you look at those three WRs’ stats is that of 2017’s Top 99 receivers listed by Yards Per Catch the least value was 15.4 ypc… No Pitt receivers even sniffed that last season and that is poor work all around. So these guys returning having a best of 12.3 ypc is worrisome.
Hopes were high for both Maurice Ffrench and Aaron Mathews when they were recruited in the class of 2016. Mathews mostly on the strength of his being 6’4″ and having a solid Penn State offer – actually he had committed to PSU and flipped to Pitt. But here is what he did in his first two years and it is certainly less than expected:
Ffrench is a different animal though and he may be a key to our offense in more ways than just catching the ball. With Henderson and his jet sweeps riding off into the sunset Ffrench is the next WR in line to be used that way – if our OC Shawn Watson can find a way to use him in that capacity. as he seems to have cut that particular and successful part of Matt Canada’s offense down to almost half. In 2016 we ran WRs 91 times (16% of carries) and last year only 50 (10%)
Here you can see that Matt Canada did just that with Ffrench in ’16 and it worked well to the tune of 10.2 ypc on 12 attempts – didn’t have any passes thrown his way back then though. In ’17 he was only used as a ball carrier nine times for a lot less yardage.
But that will change this season with him being no less than WR3 and most probably WR2 in front of Mathews. His 25 receptions last year is a good bit of experience for a receiver and now that he’s going into his Junior year it’s time for him to really produce.
Other than those two we go into the great Pitt unknown. Tre Tipton seems to be a fan favorite but he was hurt all last season in a bicycle accident no less (hope it wasn’t a stationary one!) and has been injury prone since coming onboard in 2015.
This will be the third consecutive year Tipton, an Apollo-Ridge graduate, will be forced to miss significant playing time. He was out for all but four games with a knee injury in 2015, his freshman year, and was given a medical redshirt.
Last year, he played in the first nine games, including a start against North Carolina, before missing the remainder of the season. Tipton said he suffered a collapsed lung in the Miami game Nov. 5.
Before that, Tipton caught 12 passes for 142 yards and a touchdown and added another 61 yards on 11 carries. He also completed an 11-yard pass to quarterback Nathan Peterman in the Virginia Tech game.
Supposedly he’s healthy enough to go now but we’ll see how he does in fall camp. He’s had a small smattering of catches in his rsFR year of 2016, none in his first 2015 year, and ran the ball a few times also:
But he’s now a rsJR and has to make his mark out in the field of play or drift down the depth chart. It’s too bad that one of Narduzzi’s few 4* recruits chose to leave the program this season; WR Ruben Flowers was a prime get for us and at 6’4″ he looked to be a player we could really have used but he chose to take off instead and play at Independence Community College.
Although when that happens, dropping down to a CC, the first thing I think of is academic problems because to transfer and play at any D2 or D3 school they still have to meet the NCAA academic minimums.
After sitting out their true freshman year we have three kids who are ready to try to get playing time and depending on how many time our offensive coordinator Shawn Watson wants to go to multiple WR sets they may get some.
rsFR Michael Smith just might be the best of that group as he was All-Everything in his Florida Class 8A league two years ago. His 66 catches for 1,556 and 24 TDs in his SR year is nothing to sneeze at and if we are looking for a kid who just might make a big time impact in his first year of play it may be this guy.
Here are the other two rsFR WRs who may also see time this season…but I kind of doubt it will be much really.
We have a freshman kid who, with the new four games played before redshirting rule, could see action early on also. That would be Cameron O’Neil but I think he’s a few years away.
A fan favorite, and as best I can figure out why is because of his funky name, is Shocky Jacques-Louis. He was listed by Rivals.com as an ATH and with that, and his speed you can see in this video, I think we’ll see him more as a special teams returner than as a WR in the offense. Maybe he’ll get some of those end-around carries also.
The bottom line here is that this is an interesting unit to evaluate for the 2018 season as compared to the 2017’s WRs. In all honesty I do not see more talent here than we had last season, less in fact and I think this is going to be a problem area for us going forward. Aside from Araujo-Lopes, who was good but just that, we have inexperienced and unproven receivers who I don’t believe posses the type of talent that will make them highly successful Power 5 producers.
If the fans have been keeping up on their Pitt football daily readings, listening to podcasts, etc. you’ll have heard most sports media saying pretty much the same things and that is that there are going to be two big problems with the Pitt team in 2018; first is the Offensive Line and second is the receiving corps.
I agree with that and so award this 2018 WR unit a:
You can find previous articles on units here: