Thursday, August 21, 2014

2014 season preview: Pittsburgh Panthers


8/30: Delaware
9/5: @ Boston College (Fri.)
9/13: @ Florida Int'l
9/20: Iowa
9/27: Akron
10/4: @ Virginia
10/11: BYE
10/16: Virginia Tech (Thu.)
10/25: Georgia Tech
11/1: Duke
11/8: BYE
11/15: @ North Carolina
11/22: Syracuse
11/29: @ Miami

Skip: Clemson, Florida State, Louisville, NC State, Wake Forest

2013 results:

Florida State: L, 41-13
New Mexico: W, 49-27
Duke: W, 58-55
Virginia: W, 14-3
Virginia Tech: L, 19-9
Old Dominion: W, 35-24
Navy: L, 24-21
Georgia Tech: L, 21-10
Notre Dame: W, 28-21
North Carolina: L, 34-27
Syracuse: W, 17-16
Miami: L, 41-31
Bowling Green: W, 30-27 (Motor City Bowl)

Record: 7-6 (3-5); 6th, Coastal

Projected starters:

QB: Chad Voytik (rSo.)
RB: James Conner (So.)
RB: Isaac Bennett (Sr.)
WR: Tyler Boyd (So.)
WR: Manasseh Garner (5Sr.)
TE: J.P. Holtz (Jr.)
LT: Adam Bisnowaty (rSo.)
LG: Dorian Johnson (So.)
C: Artie Rowell (rJr.)
RG: Matt Rotheram (5Sr.)
RT: T.J. Clemmings (5Sr.)

DE: David Durham (5Sr.)
DT: Darryl Render (Jr.)
DT: Khaynin Mosley-Smith (rJr.)
DE: Shakir Soto (So.)
WLB: Todd Thomas (5Sr.)
MLB: Matt Galambos (So.)
SLB: Anthony Gonzalez (5Sr.)
CB: Lafayette Pitts (rJr.)
CB: Reggie Mitchell (rSo.)
SS: Terrish Webb (So.)
FS: Ray Vinopal (5Sr.)

K: Chris Blewitt (So.)
P: Ryan Winslow (rFr.)

(Italics indicate departed player.)

Coach: Paul Chryst (3rd season)

Media prediction: 6th, Coastal


2013 1st team: DT Aaron Donald
2013 2nd team: WR Tyler Boyd
2013 3rd team: WR Devin Street
2013 HM: OG Matt Rotheram, S Ray Vinopal, S Jason Hendricks
2014 preseason: none

I tried to think of something worth pointing out about Pittsburgh's season last year, but the truth is, it's hard to think of a more milquetoast entrance to a conference than Pitt's ACC debut.  A 6-6 record, nowhere near the division race, and a fourth-tier bowl against a MAC school; you suspect Pitt fans will completely forget 2013 without even meaning to.  The media seems to have so as well, picking the Panthers sixth in this year's Coastal race - by default, one gets the feeling.

-- Offense

There was, after all, one notable thing about the Panthers' offensive performance last year: the breakout season had by freshman receiver Tyler Boyd.  This was predicted by quite a few people, but maybe not even to the level of the 1,100 yard season Boyd produced.  As star senior Devin Street wore down with nagging injuries and finally sat the last two games, Boyd only continued to shine.  He eventually broke Pitt freshman receiving records held by Larry Fitzgerald, and the ACC receptions record for a freshman previously owned by Sammy Watkins.

Boyd could probably put up more terrifically gaudy numbers all on his own, but Pitt still needs some more help for new QB starter Chad Voytik.  Voytik has always been the presumed heir to the job, but has yet to really grab it with both hands; the job was announced as his only just today.  About the only other proven receiving options Voytik has are Manasseh Garner and tight end J.P. Holtz.  Holtz is a dependable short-yardage player but nowhere near a big-play threat.  Garner has played some H-back and tight end in the past and his main value is his flexibility - again, not going to stretch the field.  Pitt will need some options to step up from the bottom of the depth chart, and may once again turn to a true freshman, this year in the form of heavily recruited four-star Adonis Jennings.

Boyd wasn't the only freshman to impress for Pitt last year; freshman running back James Conner led the team in rushing yards - by two, 799 to 797 over now-senior Isaac Bennett.  Neither are blazing home-run hitters, but Conner is a beast of a back at 250 pounds, and averaged 5.5 yards a carry last year, probably 5.4 of them after contact.  Bennett has some pass-catching skills and will probably expand on his 10 receptions last year as a third-down back.

After what looked like some shakiness going into last year, Pitt maintained some quality continuity on the line.  There are high hopes for sophomore LT Adam Bisnowaty, who would've started the whole season but for a back injury that cost him the final four games.  Right guard is the other strength of the line, where Matt Rotheram picked up some all-ACC votes last year, and is entering his third season as a full-time starter.  At RT, T.J. Clemmings returns after a full season of starting that followed a move from defense, and center Artie Rowell took control of the job late in camp last season and started all 13 games as well.  Only left guard does not see a returning full-time starter, but Dorian Johnson did start three games as a true freshman last year and is ready for the job.  It looks like a solid starting five; Pitt will need to stay healthy, though, as the second string of the depth chart is populated almost exclusively with redshirt freshman, the only exception being the almost equally inexperienced Gabe Roberts - a kick-protection guy for three games last year before getting hurt.

Pitt's offense will be dangerous as long as Boyd is running loose, but there's reason to be a little skeptical of the quarterback play they'll get, and other than Boyd, the O simply lacks playmakers.  Players like Conner and Bennett are good, useful players, but don't strike much fear into the opposition.  And while the starting five on the line did stay pretty steady barring injuries - a good sign for the most part - they were also atrocious in pass protection.  Voytik is somewhat more mobile than the painfully slow Tom Savage, which should help; still, 3.3 sacks allowed per game is awful.  Good teams will likely shut this offense down, especially those with a working plan for Boyd, but the Panthers will find their share of success too.

-- Defense

The Panthers are going to have to adjust to life after Aaron Donald here.  Donald was a freakishly good defensive tackle, with over half of his 59 tackles coming behind the line of scrimmage.  The middle of the line is all-new this year, with Darryl Render and Khaynin Mosley-Smith having rotated in during a number of games but started only a couple here and there.  Three-tech Render has been productive when on the field, but Mosley-Smith's experience is limited, and he sat out the entire 2013 season after having been caught up in a drug bust during the offseason that year.

David Durham is a returning starter at defensive end, but wasn't terribly productive last year, and the player to watch is probably Shakir Soto.  Soto increased his productivity as time went on last year, and found himself starting the bowl game against Bowling Green.  Pitt will be very, very thin at end; they'd been hoping to count on veteran Ejuan Price, who would've been a quality member of the rotation if not an outright starter, but tore a pectoral in the summer and was lost for the year.  Pretty much the only other player with any experience is Devin Cook, a semi-regular backup in 2012 who missed most of 2013 with a knee injury.

Linebacker, at least, is in much better shape, as Pitt brings back veteran OLBs Anthony Gonzalez and Todd Thomas.  These two had 79 and 72 tackles last year, respectively; not spectacular, but highly dependable.  The Panthers also broke in Matt Galambos in the middle last year, starting him in two games as a true freshman, and they've declared him ready for the job this season.  Depth is a little better here, too, though backup Will linebacker Nicholas Grigsby may move up to DE full time given the issues up front.  Grigsby is undersized for DE but speedy, and could be a major boost for the pass rush when in the game.

Cornerback is another place where Pitt faces a depth crisis.  Paul Chryst suspended Titus Howard for the season earlier this month, and his original replacement, Trenton Coles, recently announced his transfer from the program.  Coles was handed the job almost on a silver platter and couldn't get a grip on it, which doesn't say much for the next guys up.  Lafayette Pitts is the lone returning starter at corner, and he didn't intercept a single pass in 2013 and was only credited with four PDs.  Wisconsin transfer Reggie Mitchell appears to be the front-runner for the job now, but he's receiving a challenge from the diminutive Avonte Maddox, a low three-star true freshman who picked Pitt over Cincy, Purdue, and a handful of MAC offers.

This leaves Terrish Webb as the only real contender for the strong safety job; like Soto, Webb saw his playing time increase as the year went on and earned a starting role in the bowl game.  Webb is taking over for one of the conference's better safeties in Jason Hendricks, so there's likely to be a dropoff in productivity here.  Free safety Ray Vinopal, at least, is a solid presence at a place where that's vital to have.  Vinopal was the team's top pass defender last year and forced two fumbles as well.

This defense is a great reason for the media to vote Pitt down near the bottom of the Coastal.  Vinopal is a good player and Soto carries some promise, and the linebackers are at least decent.  But major depth issues at DE and even worse ones at CB promise to make this a really awful pass defense.  Vinopal can only do so much, and he's not really a star.

-- Special teams

The unfortunately named Chris Blewitt took the kicking job last year and did a solid job, hitting 5 of 6 from outside 40 yards.  More consistency - which he has plenty of time to learn - and he should become one of the top kickers in the conference.  Pitt is spending a scholarship on redshirt freshman Ryan Winslow, so he's the clear favorite for the punting job.  Blewitt and Winslow are each other's backups, as well.

-- Outlook

I think this offense is likely to be halfway decent.  In a good way.  Voytik was the #4 pro-style QB in his class, and if the offense is short on playmakers, it does at least have one big-time star in the making and what should be an improved offensive line.  The defense though.... it probably would've been workable at full strength, but problems abound at two key positions and there's not one single player you look at and say "that guy's a star."  Vinopal might be the defense's best, and it's hard to influence things as a free safety.  With some respectable linebacking play and potential at DT, it ought to be OK against the run, but the cornerbacks have the makings of a unit that's ready to get torched.  The Panthers are likely to struggle to reach six wins this year, and I don't think they'll make it unless the defense surprises.

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