When Florida released its depth chart on Monday, it tied up one loose end from last winter. There were reports that Kyle Pitts would officially move to receiver, but he showed up as the co-starter at tight end with Lucas Krull. It doesn’t make much difference on the field, since Pitts is nearly a pure receiver who won’t do a lot of in-line blocking, but at least we know how to talk about him this fall.
Pitts is one guy who got a lot of attention late last year and early in the offseason but not as much during fall camp. I think a lot of that is a testament to how loaded UF is at the skill positions. Make no mistake, Pitts can be a real playmaker for the team given his size of 6’6″ and 239 pounds.
This year’s UF tight end group is reminiscent of the one Dan Mullen had in his last year at Mississippi State. He had four of them that he used with regularity, with three of them catching passes. Given that UF used an OR for both starter and backup on the depth chart, I think we’ll see four used this year too.
The part Pitts will be playing is that of Jordan Thomas. He was bulkier than Pitts at 6’5″ and 280 pounds, but he was the pure receiver who seldom if ever did in-line blocking. Pitts didn’t do a lot of different things last fall, as he kept to the basics as a freshman just getting into the college game. Looking at how Mullen used Thomas in 2017 is likely a better preview of how he will use Pitts this year.
The simplest option
The first example is from the Alabama game and is as basic as it gets. Mississippi State has three receivers wide right and will send the running back that way after the snap. Thomas is isolated on the left against cornerback Anthony Averett. Averett was listed at 6’0″ and 185 pounds, so Thomas had almost half a foot and a hundred pounds on him.
The safety on that side takes a step forward in response to play action and then drifts around in the middle of the field. That’s all the signal that Nick Fitzgerald needs to know that Averett is not going to get any help.
Thomas runs a simple vertical against Averett’s press coverage. Fitzgerald throws back shoulder, Averett slips while trying to stop, and Thomas gets an explosive gain.
Going back shoulder there has two advantages. One, it allows Thomas to box out the corner with his larger frame. Two, if the safety was disguising something and actually was going to help, it’s a safer throw than going over the top.
Isolating Pitts against a corner like this is a no brainer. It makes for an easy decision for the quarterback and puts Pitts’s size to good use.
Lining up outside
The next play comes from MSU’s bowl game against Louisville. Mullen has gone twins to each side with Thomas the widest to the right. He also sends the back in motion to the right.
The motion forces the defense to tip its hand as it adjusts. The defensive back closest to the line will take the running back on a swing pass route. A linebacker will cover the middle of the field short while the safety takes long. That means Thomas will get one-on-one coverage outside against a much smaller corner. This time it’s Trumaine Washington, listed at 5’10” and 181 pounds.
Thomas and the other receiver on the right are both running slants. Quarterback Keytaon Thompson needs only to wait for the receiver’s shallower slant to pull the safety toward him before hitting Thomas on the longer slant. Thomas is wide open since Washington gave him room, and then his much larger size lets him shake the tackle and pick up yards after the catch.
Again, this is an easy play for the quarterback to read. It also uses Mullen’s knowledge of the coverage to scheme Thomas open. Any time Mullen can get Pitts one-on-one with a corner, it’s probably going to be a win.
Here against Ole Miss, Mullen has a trio of players close to the left side of the line. This formation has become a staple of his, and he used it plenty last year. The player closest to the offensive line and a couple steps off the line of scrimmage is a tight end; the furthest away of the three also off the line of scrimmage is a receiver. Thomas is in the middle right on the line.
Ole Miss will drop into soft coverage with a pair of linebackers patrolling the short middle of the field. The play will send three guys into that area: the close tight end does a slant to the right, a shallow cross comes from the right side going left, and Thomas will curl at the hash and stop. The shallow cross pulls one linebacker away, while the slant pulls the other away. Thomas gets an easy catch to convert the first down, though he ends up fumbling while trying to pick up extra yardage.
Spread offenses are about, well, spreading out the defense horizontally to create more space. Sometimes it makes sense to flood an area with players before then spacing them out in order to give the quarterback a chance to see who falls through the cracks. Going with a bunched formation such as this one can do just that, and Mullen most often uses it in two-tight end groupings. Pitts will be in such groupings, and he will have a chance to take advantage for some gains.
In the hurry-up
Turnovers were a huge part of the 2017 Egg Bowl. MSU coughed it up five times, which is a big reason why it was down late in the game. These final two plays come from the fourth quarter as Mullen tried to pick up the pace to catch back up.
On the first play, Thomas is isolated to the left with triplets right. The running back will go in motion to the trips side, making it like the first play above only with the back moving before the snap.
The safety on Thomas’s side drops back deep before the snap even happens. I’ll tell you why that’s important shortly. For now, it means Thomas is going one-on-one with a defensive back listed at 5’11” and 199 pounds. He makes a fake to the outside before cutting in on a slant, and it’s an easy pitch and catch for a first down. This kind of isolated slant is something we’ve already seen from Pitts as a Gator.
Because the team is in hurry-up mode and that play worked, the Bulldogs run it again on their new first down. This time, Ole Miss shows blitz by bringing one safety up. The other safety on Thomas’s side rotates to the middle showing one-high coverage, and he follows the running back motion to leave no one deep.
As there is no help deep, Thomas goes outside this time for a longer sideline fade. The smaller defensive back does grab the big tight end’s back, prompting Thomas to ask for a flag. Either the ref misses it or Thompson overthrows it enough that it’s judged uncatchable.
Players have talked about wanting to go hurry-up this year. Pitts will be a real weapon in such scenarios, especially if he does do some real in-line blocking at times. Teams will have to staff appropriately for a tight end being in the offense or else risk giving up lots of rushing yards. They will also have to deal with Pitts being a terrific outside receiver with a big size advantage over cornerbacks.
If Mullen finds something like he did with Thomas here, they can keep running that play until the defense figures out how to stop Pitts. And if they do, the personnel choices make it possible that doing so will open up something for someone else.
A big advantage
The depth Florida has at wide receiver and running back has gotten a lot of attention this summer. It’s easy to forget the tight ends, especially since Krull’s six catches for 75 yards leads the returners in the unit in both categories.
Pitts is someone who has the coaches excited, though. As if opposing defenses didn’t have enough to worry about with all those backs and receivers, Pitts has the capacity to be a big play threat of his own. If Mullen is able to use him as well as he did Jordan Thomas, it makes the offense that much more dangerous in 2019.