Behind one of the top offenses in the country the Pittsburgh Panthers football program finished 11-3 with a conference title, its best season since 2009 when it went 10-3 under Dave Wannstedt.
The architect of that unit was offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, who was calling plays in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship against Wake Forest on Dec. 4, resigned from his position three days later and was officially named as Nebraska’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach on Dec. 8.
With Whipple calling the plays, Pitt averaged 43 points per game, third in the nation. Whipple helped develop quarterback Kenny Pickett into a Heisman Trophy candidate—Pitt’s first since receiver Larry Fitzgerald in 2003—after throwing for 4,319 yards and an ACC-record 42 touchdowns.
With head coach Scott Frost expected to heed the advice of Athletic Director Trev Alberts—stepping closer to a CEO role and further away from play-calling—Whipple will get the chance to put his stamp on the Husker offense.
“Whip’s just smart. He’s been there, done it. He’s experienced,” Frost said during an appearance on ‘Sports Nightly’ in December. “If I was going to share duties and turn over the offense to somebody, experience is one of the key things I was looking for. Whip’s coached at the NFL level, the college level, he’s been a head coach, a coordinator. It’s fun talking football with him.”
Those outside the program won’t truly know what the offense will look like until the unit trots onto the field against Northwestern in Dublin, Ireland, on Aug. 27. But a look back at Whipple’s Pitt offense in 2021 should excite a a specific Husker position group—the tight ends.
This season at Pitt, Whipple used two tight ends heavily in Lucas Krull and Gavin Bartholomew. Combined, those two caught 64 passes for 760 yards and 10 touchdowns. Krull, a 6-foot-6, 260-pound redshirt senior, hauled in 37 catches for 437 yards and six scores. Bartholomew, a 6-4, 260-pound true freshman, had 27 catches for 317 yards and four touchdowns. Bartholomew, a former three-star prospect according to the 247Sports Composite who was close to committing to Buffalo before flipping to Pitt in the 2021 class, was selected as a second-team All-American by The Athletic.
Krull and Bartholomew have similarities to a couple Husker tight ends who are expected to take on a larger role in 2022 in Travis Vokolek and Thomas Fidone II.
Like Krull, Vokolek is a seasoned veteran who’s played a lot of football in his career. Next season will be his fourth at Nebraska, but sixth overall as he spent his first two seasons at Rutgers before transferring to Lincoln. With Austin Allen, one of the program’s all-timers at tight end, leaving to chase his NFL dreams, Vokolek now becomes the sole leader of a room that is filled with intriguing players, none more than Fidone.
Rated as the top tight end and the No. 46 overall recruit in the 2021 class according to 247Sports, Fidone picked Nebraska over offers from Alabama, LSU and just about everyone else. He’s since grown, and is listed at a hulking 6-6, 235 pounds on the team roster. The Lewis Central High School product’s Husker career got off to a slower start than he expected, however, as he tore an ACL in the preseason. He attacked the rehab process, though, and was able to play against Wisconsin in a limited role.
Vokolek was used primarily as a blocker while most of the tight end targets in the passing game went to Allen. Though Vokolek finished 2021 with just 11 catches for 127 yards, he could get more opportunities to flash his skills as a receiver in 2022. Against Oklahoma and Michigan State, Vokolek showed he has the hands to be a receiving threat if given the opportunity.
Here’s Vokolek’s over-the-shoulder catch against the Sooners, which was a well-drawn-up misdirection play from Frost to get him wide open:
And here’s Vokolek’s nice grab at Michigan State:
Here’s an example of one way Whipple used his tight ends. In the play below, Bartholomew, lined up off the line of scrimmage behind the right tackle, runs a route to the flat while the two receivers to the field, or long side, both run slants in an effort to create picks for the Virginia Tech safety to maneuver around in man-to-man coverage:
Whipple liked to use Bartholomew in different ways, and that’s something Husker fans can envision happening for both Vokolek and Fidone, or anyone else in the tight end room who will get reps in 2022. Chancellor Brewington and Chris Hickman are interesting options as non-traditional-sized tight ends at 6-3, 185 pounds and 6-5, 215, respectively. James Carnie and AJ Rollins are intriguing in-state products from the 2021 class who are developing, too.
Whipple put the athletic Bartholomew in the backfield next to Pickett and ran play-action, especially in the red zone with an unbalanced formation in 12 (one back, two tight ends) personnel, like in these examples below.
Bartholomew was good at coming across the formation and faking like he was going to block before extending his route to the flat. Whipple drew up two touchdowns for Bartholomew this past season off the same unbalanced play-action pass against North Carolina and Syracuse.
Here’s the play against North Carolina, which was on third down:
And here’s the same play against Syracuse on second down:
Here’s a unique screen play designed for Bartholomew, who once again lined up next to Pickett in an unbalanced 12 personnel:
Whipple will look at what he has to work with for skill players at Nebraska, identify his most talented ones and devise a game plan centered around getting them the ball. Krull and Bartholomew were obviously those players last season at Pitt, as well as receiver Jordan Addison, the Biletnikoff Award winner and first-team All-American.
With Whipple in the fold at Nebraska, Vokolek and Fidone could be the ones who provide the Husker offense with what Krull and Bartholomew provided to Pitt’s.