To complement my “Better Know an Opponent” series, I’ve enlisted the help of some knowledgeable beat writers around the country who can help give a little more perspective about the teams the Hokies will be playing in 2013.
If you missed the first part of my look at Pittsburgh, you can get to it here.
Now to the questions …
AB: With Tino Sunseri gone, is former Rutgers/Arizona quarterback Tom Savage secure as the projected starter or is Chad Voytik’s big spring game a sign that there’s going to be a competition this fall?
SW: I would say that Savage is fairly secure as the projected starter come opening day, even if Paul Chryst won’t come out and say it. Savage is a big quarterback with a strong arm that should allow the Panthers to take advantage of the deep ball in a way that they really haven’t been able to in recent years. Just from watching spring practice, the velocity and distance Savage was able to get on his throws was very impressive. He did seem to have some issues with coverage recognition even as spring progressed, probably a sign of rust since he hasn’t seen game action in two years.
If anything, I think the fact that Savage played so little in the spring game (compared to Voytik) is a sign that Chryst is just very confident that he knows what he has in the fifth-year senior, and wanted to let the younger guy get some time under the lights. That said, Voytik was very impressive when he got his opportunity. He’s a smaller than Savage, but much more mobile. While I don’t think he’ll be the starter on opening day, he provides a very solid alternative if Savage is injured or struggles (something Pitt really hasn’t had in recent years), and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Voytik as a multi-year starter down the road.
Even as we get into fall camp, Chryst won’t be in a rush to name a starting quarterback, but when he does, it will likely be Savage.
AB: Former top recruit Rushel Shell was expected to take the reins from Ray Graham at tailback, but he transferred this offseason after going through some unspecified issues. How does Pitt going about filling that void?
SW: I think the Shell transfer came as a pretty big surprise to everyone, even many of the players I spoke to after it happened. He was poised to take over as the workhorse back in a run-first system with a coach who has a history of producing big-time running backs. While it sounds like there was some drama going on behind the scenes, it was a surprising decision, to say the least.
To replace Shell, Pitt will turn to junior Isaac Bennett and redshirt sophomore Malcolm Crockett. Those two will likely split the lion’s share of the carries, though Bennett will probably be the starter. Both were part of Todd Graham‘s only full recruiting class at Pitt in 2011, and neither has a ton of game experience (they combined for 41 carries last season). Pitt only has one running back coming in this recruiting class (James Conner), and he’s a guy most schools were recruiting as a defensive end. Originally, he almost certainly would have redshirted this season, but now I think he’ll probably be forced into playing as a true freshman.
AB: Coach Paul Chryst’s teams at Wisconsin were known for the play of their offensive line. Last year’s group at Pitt was decent at run blocking but struggled at protecting the passer. Is this year’s line closer to what Chryst has in mind up front?
SW: The offensive line is a bit of a question mark heading into the season. Each of the five positions will have a starter who didn’t play there last season. Matt Rotheram and Cory King, Pitt’s tackles last season, are both moving inside to guard, probably a natural position move for the both of them (King was actually originally recruited as a guard and only played outside last year as a necessity). Redshirt freshmen Adam Bisnowaty and Gabe Roberts will likely start at left tackle and center, respectively. The staff is very high on Bisnowaty, who put on over 30 pounds of weight during his redshirt year last season and could end up being a four-year starter along the offensive line.
The biggest question mark is at right tackle. During the spring, it was a rotation of Juantez Hollins, who was suspended for all of last season, and TJ Clemmings, a converted defensive end. Neither one seemed to lock down the job, so I would expect true freshman Dorian Johnson, a local five-star prospect [and former Hokies target], to compete for that spot right away when he gets to campus.
On a whole, I think this offensive line could be a little bit better than last year’s, just by the level of talent and guys playing their natural positions. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see some communication problems crop up, especially early, with a group that hasn’t played together before.
AB: The Panthers return eight starters from a defense that finished last season ranked 17th in total yards. Is the defense good enough to carry an offense in transition? And will it look any different under first-year coordinator Matt House?
SW: I think the defense, especially in the secondary, should be strong enough to keep Pitt in a lot of games. One of the common denominators in the Panthers’ best performances last year (the win over Virginia Tech and the triple-overtime loss to Notre Dame) was that they got a lot of key interceptions at crucial points to cut short any momentum. Cornerbacks K’Waun Williams and Lafayette Pitts are both supremely talented and can lock down receivers in one-on-one matchups that allow the safeties to freelance a little bit and go for some big plays.
Pitt doesn’t have a ton of depth up front, but a lot of that can be mitigated by defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who’s probably the best player on the roster. The biggest key for Pitt stopping the run and getting pressure on quarterbacks this year is how they’re able to match up Donald against opposing offensive lines, whether it’s getting him in one-on-ones or sending him to draw double-teams that leave other guys wide-open.
Under House, the biggest difference is you’re going to see a little bit more variation in terms of formations and playcalls on defense. With Dave Huxtable last year, Pitt pretty much lined up in a straight 4-3 alignment, occasionally going to a nickel or dime look against spread teams. Just watching during spring, they’ve used some different formations, getting a few more linebackers on the field for blitzes, for example. House will also mix in some zone coverage schemes, where Huxtable was strictly man-to-man.
AB: Chryst, now entering his second season at Pitt, brings some stability to a program in desperate need of it. How much do you think that continuity helps this program as it heads into the ACC? Can this year’s Panthers aspire to something higher than the ACC”s BBVA Compass Bowl equivalent?
SW: First off, I’m going to go ahead and assume that the ACC equivalent of the BBVA Compass Bowl is the AdvoCare V100 Bowl, in terms of its obscure sponsor, selection position (seventh) and location (Shreveport, La.).
I do think the continuity is a major factor heading into this season for Pitt. Just knowing little things like offseason routines, terminology and practice schedules can free up more time for practice and fine-tuning things. For the first time in three seasons, the Panthers don’t have to waste any time learning a new coaching staff’s routine and expectations.
That said, I think anything more than a 7-5 record and, yes, perhaps a trip to Shreveport, is the best-case scenario for Pitt this year. They’re thin at a number of positions (running back, wide receiver, offensive line and defensive line) where one injury could be disastrous. I think Chryst is making progress towards molding this team into what he would like, but there’s still a long way to go and the schedule isn’t doing him any favors this year. Pitt might be able to pull off an upset or two, but this will probably end up being a transition/rebuilding year as Chryst and the Panthers acclimate to their new conference.
- Alabama: Team overview | Ask a beat writer
- Western Carolina: Team overview | Ask a beat writer
- East Carolina: Team overview | Ask a beat writer
- Marshall: Team overview | Ask a beat writer
- Georgia Tech: Team overview | Ask a beat writer
- North Carolina: Team overview | Ask a beat writer
- Pittsburgh: Team overview