The play’s most notable moment likely came two years ago when Pitt played at Notre Dame. Then-freshman tight end JP Holtz ran a delayed route across the middle, and quarterback Tino Sunseri hit him on a tight end middle-screen pass for 43 yards that set up a touchdown to give Pitt a 17-6 lead against the No. 4 Irish.
Flash-forward two years, Holtz is a junior now, but that tight end middle screen still comes up at least once or twice a week in training camp as the Panthers prepare for their 2014 season.
“I love that play,” Holtz said. “It’s a great play. It’s always open. Our defense knows when it’s coming, so they just sit there, but it’s a great play.”
Holtz, along with his fellow tight ends, are hoping that there are plenty of plays for them to make in 2014.
The four tight ends combined for 71 catches and 690 yards in 2013, but will lose a big chunk of production as senior Manasseh Gardner switches to wide receiver this season. Most of the responsibility for production at tight end will fall on Holtz and sophomore Scott Orndoff, with sophomore Jaymar Parrish again filling his hybrid H-back role.
“Me and JP, we’re big enough where we can block on the line, but we’re both polishing up our route-running a lot more, too, focusing on that,” Orndoff said. “I think it makes our offense more flexible so we can both be a lead blocker or be on the line, off the ball, we can hold our own doing either one.”
Orndoff, in particular, is anxious to get back on the field as he missed the final four games of 2013 because of a knee injury. Before that, he had become one of Pitt’s best red-zone threats, with his first two career receptions (he had six total) going for touchdowns.
“When I hurt my knee last year, I didn’t really realize how bad it would be just standing on the sidelines and watching,” he said. “So, being able to get back on the field and contribute to a new season, I can’t wait until [the season opener] August 30.”
Another factor that could increase the tight ends’ role in Pitt’s offense this year is the change in quarterback from graduated Tom Savage to redshirt sophomore Chad Voytik.
Where Savage was a pure pocket passer, and made his best throws deep downfield, Voytik is more of a scrambler and will rely on tight ends to give him safety valves when he escapes the pocket.
“They box people out,” Voytik said. “They always provide a throw, and that’s so helpful for me. Already going through plays, I’ll see a tight end who has a guy on his hip, but he’s still open. That’s been really helpful for me.”
Holtz said he and the rest of the tight ends have done a good job in training camp building rapport with the new starting quarterback.
“I think we have great timing right now,” Holtz said. “Chad’s going to do great this year. I’m excited for him to take over the team.”
Even though the numbers fans will focus on are the receptions, yards and touchdowns, Holtz is quick to point out what a tight end’s No. 1 priority in a pro-style offense is.
“Obviously, our first job is to block,” he said. “Our catches will come after that.”
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG.