With another season of question marks for the No. 2 receiver spot, the idea of how much Pitt will utilize its tight ends comes to the forefront.
Tight end coach Tim Salem said after a recent practice that his players will be targeted. "We have pass plays put in for the tight ends," said Salem. "Plus we have the guy, number 23. It's kind of nice when we catches passes. They can't just put 11 guys on 23 and leave the tight ends open. The tight ends have caught some good quality passes this spring."
When you look at everything collectively, there are plenty of reasons for the Panthers to throw more to the tight end. First, while Dontez Ford may look like the No. 2 receiver to be paired with Tyler Boyd, he and the others behind him are unproven commodities. And while Chad Voytik made real strides in his first year as the starting quarterback but also showed some inconsistencies - and tight ends are good security blankets. Pitt also has talent at tight end with good pass-catchers in J.P. Holtz and Scott Orndoff.
Despite all that, however, there's no guarantee that Pitt will necessarily target their tight ends more than they have in the past for a variety of reasons.
For one thing, head coach Pat Narduzzi has talked about utilizing the running backs, and in particular, James Conner, in the passing game. Isaac Bennett and Rachid Ibrahim were the team's top receiving targets out of the backfield, but Narduzzi has already mentioned not having backs in set roles (i.e. using some guys primarily as pass-catchers and others for toting the ball). I expect the backs to continue to get a decent load of short passes.
Second, the Panthers' running game is the clear strength of the offense. While the Panthers will throw since having Tyler Boyd is too great a weapon to ignore, James Conner is arguably the feature of the offense. There has been some talk of Conner taking a lighter load, but with other guys like Chris James, Qadree Ollison, and Ibrahim in the mix, less carries for Conner doesn't necessarily translate into more passing. Those other three guys all stand to figure into the rotation. Make no mistake about it, Pitt is going to run the ball. A lot.
Finally, there's Boyd himself to consider. Last season, Voytik often appeared to have tunnel vision and was focused on Boyd a great deal. While Voytik now has a year of experience under his belt, Boyd's talent is a difficult thing to ignore when he comes down with so many balls. What's to say that Voytik suddenly focuses less on Boyd and more on the tight ends?
Don't mistake these for reasons why Pitt shouldn't throw more to the tight end more. Last season, Holtz, Orndoff, and Jaymar Parrish combined for 29 catches and 248 yards - really, there's no reason those numbers can't increase significantly. Personally, I think targeting the tight ends a bit more can only help take pressure off of Boyd in particular. And as Salem says, team's can't throw all of their defenders Boyd's way so the tight end is bound to be open more. Utilizing that position a bit more is something that just makes good sense.
But it's one of those things that I'll have to see to believe.