Pitt’s deep tight end group gives assistant coach Tim Salem lineup options

Tim Salem didn’t want to answer the question. Which was a surprise.

Normally, Pitt’s tight ends coach loves to talk about his men, but this question didn’t interest him:

Is Pitt’s current crop of tight ends the program’s deepest since he was hired nearly nine years ago?

Salem started to answer. But he is so singularly focused on Wofford and what he and his players must do to prepare for Pitt’s opener Saturday at Acrisure Stadium that the past doesn’t fit into his thought process.

“I’m worried about today and tomorrow,” he said.

Of course, he only included tomorrow in his answer because today’s practice — this was Tuesday — already had ended.

So, what about the current crop of tight ends? Salem has four on scholarship who figure to play a significant number of snaps this season: Gavin Bartholomew, Karter Johnson, Malcolm Epps and Jake Renda.

“They’re all contributing,” he said. “Love the effort, love the attitude. We’re going to need everybody in this whole run of September, October, November.”

The group is led by Bartholomew, a junior who has shown flashes of athleticism and productivity at various times over the past two seasons. Sporting an NFL body (6-foot-5, 250 pounds), Bartholomew has caught 49 passes for 609 yards and six touchdowns in 27 games (18 starts). Who can forget him hurdling 5-11 Tennessee defensive back Trevon Flowers last season on the way to a 57-yard touchdown?

That’s nice for “SportsCenter,” but Salem looks much deeper when assessing his tight ends.

“The best thing he’s done now is blocking with hands inside, the real technical part of blocking, instead of sometimes getting caught outside the shoulder pads,” he said. “He’s improved his hands. His strike is much more violent.”

The tight end few people outside the program know is Epps, a big transfer from Southern Cal. When asked to describe Epps’ catch radius — how far from his body a football can travel and still be catchable — Salem said, “The size of the Cathedral.”

He’s not 535 feet tall like Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning. But at 6-6, 255 pounds, he has the potential to make an inviting target for quarterback Phil Jurkovec.

“Nice, tall, long, can run, displays good hands,” Salem said. “Lucas Krull (another 6-6 Pitt tight end who scored six touchdowns in 2021) was the same way. If you’re a quarterback and look down the field, (you say), ‘I can see that guy.’

“(Epps’) blocking has improved immensely since we started pads back on Aug. 2. He’s taken to coaching, spends time with tackles and tight ends in groups and different pods. He’s gotten tougher. He’s learned to use his hands better.”

On coach Pat Narduzzi’s depth chart, he lists all four tight ends, with Bartholomew as the starter and the word ‘or’ next to the other three names. Those three backups — equals, for now — will earn playing time, based on performance in practices and games.

Salem looks at Johnson, who was recognized by coaches as the most improved offensive player in spring drills this year, and sees a shorter player (6-2). “But (he) has got a lot of grit to him.”

“He’s probably more of that fullback type, although he does run down the field nicely and does a good job at the line of scrimmage.”

Renda, a 6-4 sophomore, receives what might be considered the ultimate words of praise any football coach can bestow upon a player.

“He got tougher … lifting weights, knocking some people, putting his face in there,” Salem said. “In football, you block, you tackle. You have to put your shoulder pads on people. He showed that this August. He’s got receiver skills, too.”

Overall, Salem is most pleased that the tight ends stayed on the field.

“They did a nice job this August of fighting through bumps and bruises,” he said. “They’re not getting hurt. They’re not on the injury report. They’re out there playing football and showing some toughness. That’s what this game’s about. Good for them.

“I kind of like those guys because they’re not selfish. They’re team players.”

Salem said that’s the culture Narduzzi has built.

“Kids walk in the front door every day, they want to come to practice. They want to lift weights. They want to meet. They like that.

“I’ve been other places where kids didn’t want to come to the building. It was like pulling teeth just to get them to practice. Our kids come over here ready to go. Thank you, players.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at jdipaola@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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