Friday, August 16, 2013

season preview: Pittsburgh Panthers


9/2: Florida State (Mon.)
9/7: BYE
9/14: New Mexico
9/21: @ Duke
9/28: Virginia
10/5: BYE
10/12: @ Virginia Tech
10/19: Old Dominion
10/26: @ Navy
11/2: @ Georgia Tech
11/9: Notre Dame
11/16: North Carolina
11/23: @ Syracuse
11/29: Miami (Fri.)

Skip: Boston College, Clemson, Maryland, NC State, Wake Forest

2012 results:

Youngstown State: L, 31-17
Cincinnati: L, 34-10
Virginia Tech: W, 35-17
Gardner-Webb: W, 55-10
Syracuse: L, 14-13
Louisville: L, 45-35
Buffalo: W, 20-6
Temple: W, 47-17
Notre Dame: L, 29-26
Connecticut: L, 24-17
Rutgers: W, 24-6
South Florida: W, 27-3
Mississippi: L, 38-17 (Compass Bowl)

Record: 6-7 (3-4); 5th of 8, Big East

Projected starters:

QB: Tom Savage (5Sr.)
RB: Isaac Bennett (Jr.)
FB: Mark Giubilato (rJr.)
WR: Devin Street (5Sr.)
WR: Ed Tinker (5Sr.)
TE: J.P. Holtz (So.)
LT: Adam Bisnowaty (rFr.)
LG: Cory King (5Sr.)
C: Gabe Roberts (rFr.)
RG: Matt Rotheram (rJr.)
RT: T.J. Clemmings (rJr.)

DE: David Durham (rJr.)
DT: Aaron Donald (Sr.)
NT: Tyrone Ezell (5Sr.)
DE: Bryan Murphy (rJr.)
SLB: Anthony Gonzalez (rJr.)
MLB: Shane Gordon (5Sr.)
WLB: Todd Thomas (rJr.)
CB: Lafayette Pitts (rSo.)
CB: K'Waun Williams (Sr.)
FS: Ray Vinopal (rJr.)
SS: Jason Hendricks (5Sr.)

K: Brad Lukasak (rFr.)
P: Matt Yoklic (5Sr.)

(Italics indicate new starter.)

Coach: Paul Chryst, 2nd season

Media prediction: 5th of 7, Coastal Division


2012 1st team: RB Ray Graham, DL Aaron Donald
2012 2nd team: WR Mike Shanahan, WR Devin Street, C Ryan Turnley, S Jason Hendricks
2012 HM: n/a
2013 preseason: S Jason Hendricks

(Italics indicate departed player.)

**2012 are Big East selections.

Finally it's time to get acquainted with the ACC's new additions.  First up is the more important one as far as we're concerned at UVA, as Pittsburgh is the latest addition to the Coastal Conference (ok, fine, Division.)  The Panthers' final season in the Big East saw them muddle their way to a low-level bowl game (one they've been to quite a bit lately) although they did manage to embarrass the Hokies by decisively beating them two weeks after losing to Youngstown State.  So they got that going for them, which is nice.

-- Offense

The Panthers have a quarterback competition going on to try and replace one of the country's most efficient QBs in Tino Sunseri.  The contestants are senior Tom Savage, the favorite, and redshirt freshman Chad Voytik.  Savage is a tall, strong-armed pocket passer who looked to be on his way to a promising career at Rutgers before blowing quite a bit of eligibility transferring all over the country.  He left Rutgers for Arizona, sat the requisite season, then left again for Pitt and sat out again.  He's the leader in the race, but hasn't played in two years.

He's not exactly surrounded by a litany of weapons, either.  Devin Street is a tremendously dependable receiver who caught 73 of Sunseri's passes last year for 975 yards; he represents Pitt's only really battle-tested option at any of their skill positions except perhaps Savage.  The entire remainder of the receiving corps has a grand total of five catches among all of them, and they all belong to fifth-year senior Ed Tinker, who had all of them last season.  Tinker is listed as a starter going into camp, but it's more likely that a freshman - either redshirt or true - emerges as the #2 option besides Street.  A good candidate: four-star true freshman Tyler Boyd, who turned down offers from Notre Dame, Penn State, and Tennessee, among others, to go to Pitt.

Similar issues emerge at running back, where the Panthers were a little bit shocked by the departure of Rushel Shell, who carried the ball 141 times last year as a true freshman and was primed to be the feature back.  That leaves the job to Isaac Bennett as the first option; Bennett has been OK coming off the bench the past two seasons and has shown himself to be useful in the passing game as well.  Malcolm Crockett will also get a chance - he's a sophomore who played in two games last season.  Neither is likely to be a star, but Pitt will at least hope one or the other can emerge as a load-carrier over the course of the season.

The offensive line might raise some eyebrows too.  Pitt actually has more depth than they need at guard.  Cory King started at left tackle last year, but Pitt likes the potential of redshirt freshman Adam Bisnowaty (someone who spent a long time on my recruiting board in as high a position as green) and moved King back to a more natural position at left guard.  Matt Rotheram and Ryan Schlieper both started a full slate of games last year, Rotheram at right tackle, and he too moves inside to take over at right guard, while Schlieper will no doubt be a heavy part of the rotation, as well as an insurance policy in case Rotheram has to move back outside.  T.J. Clemmings is getting the first crack at starting at right tackle; Clemmings was a part-time starter at defensive end last season and only moved to the offensive side during bowl practices.  Pitt is turning to another redshirt freshman at center: Gabe Roberts, who moves past the little-used Artie Rowell on the depth chart.

It's not really the profile you'd want to see from a successful offense: a QB competition between a redshirt freshman and a two-time transfer; one wide receiver who's ever played; two career backups at running back; and two redshirt freshmen and a defensive convert starting on the O-line.  Savage can be a good QB if he gets some weapons besides Street, but there's no difference-maker at running back and Pitt is taking a lot of flyers on the O-line.

-- Defense

Pitt has a couple big, big building blocks on defense, a unit which is in much more stable shape than their offense.  One of those is three-tech DT Aaron Donald, a ferocious playmaker who led his team in sacks and TFL last year with 18.5 and 5.5.  Tyrone Ezell lines up next to Donald at nose tackle, and is another player who can get into the backfield - he was second after Donald with 3.5 sacks.  That's a very good 1-2 punch in the middle, and sophomore Darryl Render is developing into a quality depth man to give Pitt a rotation.  The ends are a little less notable; Bryan Murphy has the most experience and can sometimes get into the backfield, but not consistently.  David Durham is a transfer in from Ohio State, where his only onfield action was at fullback; it's likely both he and Murphy will be pushed for their starting roles by sophomore Devin Cook.  Cook only had 14 tackles last year - but eight of them were behind the line of scrimmage.

The other major building block is strong safety Jason Hendricks, a preseason all-ACC pick.  Hendricks led the Panthers in both tackles and interceptions last season, with 90 and 6, respectively.  A very strong player in all aspects of the game.  He'll pair with Ray Vinopal, who as a true freshman started six games for Rich Rodriguez at Michigan (mitigating factor: that was an awful defense, but Vinopal played pretty well for a true freshman.)  There are two very solid cornerbacks in the backfield as well: K'Waun Williams picked off four passes in 2012, and Lafayette Pitts had 10 passes defended.  Williams is entering his third year as a starter; Pitts his second after being a full-season starter as a redshirt freshmen.  As long as the safeties stay healthy, this should be among the better secondaries in the conference; there are redshirt freshmen waiting to step in if Hendricks or Vinopal go down, however, always a scary though.

The linebackers are steady but unspectacular.  There'll be some questions about Sam backer Anthony Gonzalez, who started his career on offense and played half of last year at safety before settling in at linebacker, where he was sparingly used.  Shane Gordon and Todd Thomas, though, should be quality players; Thomas missed the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012 with a knee injury, but was a very productive player upon his return.  As with many other positions on the Pitt defense, though, most of the backups are freshmen, necessitating a healthy season if it's to be a good season.

That's the main story of the Pitt defense this year: health.  The starting 11 for the most part are very good players, although the cracks in the depth start to show even in the starting lineup at places like SLB and defensive end.  Behind the starters is mostly a ton of inexperience, so Pitt has to stay healthy or risk a defensive disaster.

-- Special teams

Brad Lukasak is being handed the placekicking job as a redshirt freshman, and is a mainly unknown quantity.  At punter, Matt Yoklic has a strong leg and averaged 41.8 yards per punt last year.  Of note, though, Pitt had trouble covering punts last year, allowing two TD returns and an average of 13.1 yards per return, which would've put them at the very bottom of the ACC.  Even below UVA and our awful units.  Pitt was otherwise middle-ground in special teams areas.

-- Outlook

Assuming health, Pitt's defense will keep them in most games.  The offense, though - aiyy.  It has potential to be one of the worst in the league if the chips fall the wrong way.  Put it this way: last year, they had Tino Sunseri - a very steady and productive quarterback who threw three picks all year - as well as two excellent running backs and two receivers who both fell within 25 yards of a 1,000-yard season.  Now they have none of that, save for one of those receivers, and the offensive line has two freshmen starting as well.  Last year they went 6-7.  Can they really do better, playing in a tougher conference?  Hard to see the answer being yes.

No comments: