Pitt Panthers Football: 2014 Spring Practice Preview

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

With their schedule set up for success, Coach Paul Chryst and his Panthers are looking to shed the title of ACC rookie and contend for the Coastal Division crown.

We continue our "Behind Enemy Lines" series by taking a look at our seventh opponent—and third ACC opponent—for 2014: the Pittsburgh Panthers. The Hokies will rightfully be back on Thursday Night Football for this one. Let’s Goooooooo!

From the "What Had Happened Was" File:

Overview   Pitt finished the 2013 season at 7-6 with a 3-5 record in their inaugural ACC season. They finished 6th in the Coastal Division—one spot behind North Carolina, and one spot above the winless in-conference UVA Cavaliers.

vs. the Hokies Bud Foster’s LPD rang up 8 sacks—including 3 from Dadi Nicolas and 2 from Derrick Hopkins—in holding the Panthers to 210 total offensive yards and an average of 1.85 yards per play. The 8 sacks were the Hokies’ most since a 2006 36-0 blanking of Duke.  Logan Thomas turned in his third consecutive game without an interception, going 19 of 34 for 239 yards and a TD pass to TE Kalvin Cline on VT’s opening possession. Oh, and the Cody Journell streak continued, as he missed a 33-yarder in the 3rd quarter.

Losses Florida State (41-13), Virginia Tech (19-9), Navy (24-21), Georgia Tech (21-10), North Carolina (34-27), Miami (41-31)

Signature Win Pitt bested then-#24 Notre Dame 28-21when they visited Heinz Field in late November.

Postseason The Panthers squeaked by Bowling Green 39-17 in the 2013 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.

From the "Who’s the Man?" File:

The Panthers return starting running back Sr. Isaac Bennett (5-11, 205), who rushed for 797 yards and 7 touchdowns on 171 carries in 2013. However, even seniority hasn’t cemented his starting role, as sophomore James Conner (6-2, 230), who rambled for 799 yards and 8 touchdowns on 146 carries is expected to challenge for an even greater slice of playing time. Says Sam Werner of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in this nifty piece:

"…it looks like sophomore James Conner might be ready to take center stage, especially after his monstrous performance in the bowl win (229 yards, 1 touchdown).

The most likely scenario for the spring will be Conner getting the lion's share of first-team snaps with Bennett and sophomore Rachid Ibrahim coming in as third-down backs as they did toward the end of 2013. Chryst (and new running backs coach Settle) aren't afraid of using multiple backs, though, so there's a good chance each will get plenty of carries.

The complicating factor will be how much Conner is used at defensive end. He played a handful of snaps there in the bowl game and Chryst hasn't ruled out having his running back moonlight on defense a bit in 2014."

Running back/defensive end? Is Chryst running a high school team? I was always told growing up that a jack of all trades is a master of none. But hey, what do I know?

From the "Wait, What?" File

Pitt’s 2014 schedule is one that is—putting it mildly—set up to ensure success:

Date


Opponent


13 Record


13 Conf.


Aug. 30

Delaware (FCS)

7-5

4-4, CAA

Sept. 5

@ Boston College

7-6

4-4, ACC

Sept. 13

Florida International

1-11

1-7, CUSA

Sept. 20

Iowa

8-5

5-3, B1G

Sept. 27

Akron

5-7

4-4, MAC

Oct. 4

@ Virginia

2-10

0-8, ACC

Oct. 11

BYE

Oct. 16 (Thurs)

Virginia Tech

8-5

5-3, ACC

Oct. 25

Georgia Tech

7-6

5-3, ACC

Nov. 1

Duke

10-4

6-2, ACC

Nov. 8

BYE

Nov. 15

@ North Carolina

7-6

4-4, ACC

Nov. 22

Syracuse

7-6

4-4, ACC

Nov. 29

@ Miami

9-4

5-3, ACC

Seriously? FOUR away games? FOUR!?!?!? How does that happen? With the most intimidating being either late in the season at fairweather Kenan Stadium with a bye week to prepare or at soggy, empty Miami in the season finale, once "The U" has already likely played itself out of the ACC race?  A bye week to prepare for the Hokies, just in case the Hoos whip up on them a bit.  Editor's Note: Confused here Krista, when I saw UVA, I thought that WAS the bye week....

Oh, and the Panthers’ opponents combined 2013 record? 78-75. Well part of that HAS to be the "weak" ACC, right? Subtract Pitt’s upcoming out-of-conference cupcakes and their 2014 ACC opponents went a combined 67-47 in 2013. A middle-of-the-road MAC team, a middle-of-the-road B1G team, an abysmal Conference USA team, and an average FCS school: this is the most comical schedule I’ve seen in a while.

I can’t wait to hear the talking heads tout "undefeated" Pitt when they’re 6-0 in mid-October. I swear, though, if they don’t win at least 8 games, I say we vote them out of the ACC, effective immediately. Not kidding. Trade them for ODU. Trade them for Oscar Smith High School. One of the schools on Esquire Network’s "Friday Night Tykes." Anybody.

Two Biggest Question Marks for 2014

Who Will Fill Aaron Donald’s Rather Large Shoes?

The Panthers will have a huge void to fill on their defensive line, as they lost 2013 starter Ty Ezell and every NFL Draft pundit’s darling Aaron Donald to graduation and fellow starting defensive end Bryan Murphy chose not to return to the Panthers in 2014 and instead focus on academics. Says Anson Whaley over at SBNation’s Pitt blog, Cardiac Hill in this nifty piece:

"The Murphy departure is really a big one. Pitt's defensive line was already going to be without Aaron Donald and Ty Ezell to graduation, and with Murphy gone, the Panthers will now be replacing three of four starters in that unit.

James Conner moving from running back to defensive end was already a question before. I don't know that this makes it a done deal, but if there were ever a reason for it to happen, this might be it.

The question marks about the defense just continue to grow and Pitt better hope that the more inexperienced guys like Ejuan Price and Shakir Soto adjust quickly. The good news, little as it is, is that there is some experience with the returning Khaynin Mosley-Smith and Darryl Render, who played a decent amount as a backup last year. Still, not having Murphy makes this a thinner unit and someone else will have to step up."

Khaynin Mostley-Smith (6-0, 305) was slated to be Ezell’s backup at nose tackle last year, but was suspended for the entire season by Head Coach Paul Chryst after an April arrest resulting in a possession of drug paraphernalia charge. The former Milford prep product will be one to watch throughout the spring and heading into summer.

Way Too Early Prediction:

The Panthers will obviously miss Donald, but the loss of Ezell is underrated, at least for the Hokies. He had a heavy presence in VT’s 35-17 tail-whipping at the hands of the Panthers in 2012. They’ll find someone capable to plug in there, but they’re going to be hard-pressed to find two guys as disruptive as those two. Will the Hokies be able to block them? That all depends on who new Offensive Line Coach Stacy Searles chooses to throw as his interior linemen. Personally, I’m praying nightly that it’s not David Wang.

Musical QB’s With Your Only Two QB’s?

Pitt will have their third starting quarterback in as many seasons, after journeyman-turned starting Panther quarterback Tom Savage exhausted his eligibility and is a 2014 NFL Draft hopeful. (In fact, one scout recently declared Savage as having the strongest arm in the draft. (I’m not getting into that, but if you’re curious, punch here.)

In fact, the quarterback situation in Pittsburgh can reasonably be described as dire, as the Panthers currently only have two quarterbacks on their entire roster, with only incoming Ohio high school product Adam Bertke (6-6, 210) expected to arrive in the fall.

Two. How does that even happen?

The frontrunner for the job is easily r-So. Chad Voytik, who saw all the second-half action in the Little Caesars Bowl after Savage left due to a rib injury. Voytik ultimately led the Panthers to the win, going 5 of 9 for 108 yards and a TD. Curiously, Coach Paul Chryst has decided to split the spring reps evenly between Voytik and senior Trey Anderson. Whaley attempts to delve into Chryst’s psyche in this nifty piece, saying:

"…the Panthers are very thin under center right now. The problem is that Pitt will be breaking in a new quarterback this year and expected starter, redshirt sophomore Chad Voytik, has next to no experience. Typically, you'd want to get him as many reps as possible with the starters that he'll be working with, but Chryst is going the opposite route here.

It's a little difficult to grasp, but I actually don't think it's a terrible move. If Voytik gets injured or struggle, Chryst needs to have another guy ready. Bertke isn't someone the team will want playing this season, so unless someone else comes in, these two guys are essentially 'it.'

You can make the argument that Anderson as an upperclassman should be ready and not need as many reps, but he also has little game experience. The fact is that Chryst probably would like to get more reps to Voytik but he simply can't afford that right now."

I suppose. What I do know is that Chryst better get to work recruiting quarterbacks or next season Pitt will find itself in the exact same predicament with only two QB’s on his roster.

Way Too Early Prediction:

Let’s not pretend: Voytik will be the starter here. I completely get Whaley’s point above; however, I don’t think that’s at all the right move. Why spend that percentage of starter reps on a guy who is all-but-certainly going to be your backup? It just doesn’t make sense to me. But, with Pitt’s ginormous cupcake schedule—particularly early—I guess it doesn’t matter because Chryst can afford to.

The Final Word—Fun Fact Edition

Three FBS schools will not have a Spring Game in 2014: Texas A&M, due to ongoing renovations at Kyle Field, Oklahoma State opted against it in favor of an open practice, and Pitt. Why? Great question. Let’s defer again to Cardiac Hill’s Anson Whaley who rails Coach Chryst’s decision in this nifty read:

"Just when you thought the handling of the Blue-Gold game couldn't get any worse, it did.

ICYMI, Pitt announced they've decided they're not even going to bother hosting a game this year. That's right - while major programs all around the country are doing their best to get fans excited for the season (including, by the way, every ACC program), Paul Chryst and company are essentially taking their ball and going home.

The move, of course, is being made because there's been zero momentum built over the years - not for the outlandish reasons Chryst gave (yeah, I'll get to that in a minute). Pitt has never (in my lifetime, anyway) been able to gain any traction for the event despite other schools with far less football tradition doing just that.

Last year, in fact, football powerhouses Texas State and Duke reportedly even outdrew Pitt for spring game attendance. Instead of ranking up there with other traditional football schools, Pitt's spring game was much closer to schools like UTSA and South Alabama in terms of interest. Seriously.

Disgusting.

So perhaps Pitt has a good reason for not hosting the game. Perhaps there's a really important reason for this that we're all just missing. Roll the footage:

Chryst said Thursday he believes finishing spring drills with a regular practice will be better for his team.

"The thinking behind that is to get one more good work day out of (the players)," he said. "Most, if not every, spring game you end up really sacrificing a lot.

"These days are really valuable for us."

Really? That's what we're going with? So Pitt is canceling a tradition that's gone on at Pitt since 1940 for one practice. Six months before the season begins?"

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