Spring Look In: Pittsburgh

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Since the Frank Beamer era, Pitt has been a familiar opponent of the Hokies. Beginning this season, the Virginia Tech–Pittsburgh series will continue on a permanent basis as conference and division foes. Second-year head coach Paul Chryst and The Panthers will look to improve on an up-and-down 2012 campaign that included 6 wins, a bowl appearance, near upset of Notre Dame, inexplicable loss to Youngstown State, and dominating win against Virginia Tech.

In his first season, Chryst inherited a capable quarterback, Tino Sunseri, and talented backfield, Ray Graham and freshman sensation Rushel Shell. None of the three will return in 2013. Sunseri and Graham were seniors, and Shell had California dreams (transfered to UCLA) after friction with the coaching staff.

Shell's decision — based partially on coaches' criticisms of Shell — reached a critical stage March 22 when he was hurt and pulled himself from practice

Junior Isaac Bennett (29 carries, 141 yards, and 3 TDs) and sophomore Malcolm Crockett (12 carries, 50 yards) are now Pitt's top two tailbacks. Clearly the position has dropped from a strength, to one lacking in experience, and full of uncertainty. Although, Cardiac Hill doesn't foresee Bennett losing the starting running back job.

But there are also other reasons why Bennett could be difficult to unseat. First, he's a year older and has more experience - not only in games this year, but in practices. In the limited amount of time each saw on the field, Bennett also had a higher yard-per-carry average (4.9 to 4.2). Bennett also has proved himself as capable of catching the ball out of the backfield - something that made Ray Graham extremely valuable. And in case you don't remember, Bennett showed a ton of promise last spring. He had several 50+ yard runs and followed that up with a big Blue-Gold game effort, rushing for 124 yards.

And, oh yeah - Bennett made a good impression during this year's spring game on Friday, rushing for 114 yards and a touchdown on nearly six yards per carry. Nothing like cementing your status a bit as the top dog.

Because of Chryst's success at Wisconsin, it's hard for me to overlook Pitt's ground game. However, with a more talented stable of backs Pitt was 92nd nationally in rushing last season. Bennett figures to be solid, but tailback depth and a retooled offensive line are concerns.

At the start of spring ball, former Rutgers QB Tom Savage was thought to hold the upper hand in Pitt's QB competition. Savage started as a true freshman for the Scarlet Knights in 2009 (149 of 289, 2,211 yards, 14 TDs, and 7 INTs). However, injuries led to a sophomore slump, then a transfer (quick pitstop, no pun intended) in Arizona, before he finally landed in Pittsburgh. Redshirt freshman Chad Voytik (4-star) is battling Savage for the starting gig.

As best I can tell, Savage has worked the most with the first team, but he hasn't been without his struggles.

Savage looked pretty sharp in Thursday's practice according to the Post-Gazette's Sam Werner, but struggled mightily in Tuesday's session, tossing two interceptions. That was preceded by a miserable scrimmage where he completed only five of 18 passes earlier in the week.

Werner also has said that Savage has struggled with safety reads. And he's also had some passes that should have been interceptions.

For what it's worth, he played better in the first scrimmage (16-30 for 149 yards and two touchdowns), but it seems as if the bad performances have outweighed the good so far.

By design, Voytik took most of the snaps in Pitt's Blue–Gold game, because of such he put up big numbers (27 of 33, 358 yards, and 3 scores) and may have given the coaches something to think about over the summer. However, Pitt Blather still came away impressed by Savage's limited reps.

Completion percentage (54.5%) correlates to accuracy, but that doesn't mean he was off target; Savage was dead on. If you recall my article on his footwork, I immediately noticed an improvement. He wasn't throwing flat footed, he was stepping into his throws. Even on the 3 step throw to Garner, it was 1-2-3 step up and throw. Quick feet like that will do him well even if the OL struggles. Virtually no pass rush we'll face can get to a QB on a 3 step drop with a quick throw. A major difference between Savage and Voytik was the ability to throw in the pocket. While it's easy to look calm when you can't be hit, Savage was poised and kept his eyes downfield.

Again, it seems as if it's Savage's job to lose, but Voytik is nipping at his heels.

Regardless of who starts, Savage and Voytik will be without lengthy wide receiver Mike Shanahan. The then senior caught 62 balls for 983 yards (team high) in 2012, good enough for a second team All-Big East selection. One of Shanahan's best games came against Virginia Tech (111 yards and a score). Fortunately, Devin Street, Pitt's leader in receptions (73 catches, 975 yards, 5 scores) is back. According to Street, the deep ball was a focus during spring practice.

"We've hit so many deep balls in spring already," Street said. "Tom throws a great deep ball, so I'm really excited about that. Whenever I get a chance to go, I go and Tom hits it. The coaches are more comfortable in spring ball calling a lot more shots down the field. That has to be an emphasis for us. We have to make defenses play honest. We have to back them up a little bit and get them on their toes. If we can work on that, everyone will see a difference."

Pitt's still identifying it's receiving options after Street, but Ed Tinker (5 catches, 68 yards, 1 score), Ronald Jones (7 catches, 66 yards), Kevin Weatherspoon (3-star, class of 2010 signee), and former walk-on Chris Wuestner are all in the mix. Said Pitt Blather of Wuestner, "He reminds me of a bigger and faster Steve Largent — if that makes any sense. He runs surgical routes and catches everything thrown in his vicinity, at least in practices".

As a whole, the receiving corps is green, but Cardiac Hill wonders if the tight ends are the "strongest position for 2013?"

Pitt has the luxury of bringing back sophomore J.P. Holtz [13 catche, 173 yards, 3 scores] as the returning starter. After being pressed into action last season, Holtz responded with an impressive freshman season. He will likely come into a bigger role in the offense this season and his physical presence makes him an excellent blocker as well.

Manasseh Garner is a Wisconsin transfer, and he will add a different element to the team. It's hard to watch him play and not think of Dorin Dickerson. He is a big, strong player with athleticism to create problems for opposing defenses. Garner caught 10 passes for 100 yards in the spring game.

Pitt's fortunate to return 3 starting offensive linemen: Cory King (18 career starts), Matt Rotherran (15 career starts), and Ryan Schlieper (16 career starts), but there's some reshuffling happening.

The Panthers' offensive line lost All-Big East center Ryan Turnley, but return plenty of players with game experience. The issue this spring will be figuring out which players fit and each position along the line. After starting at tackle in 2012, both senior Cory King and junior Matt Rotheram will move to the interior line. Ryan Schlieper, who missed eight games in 2012 with a foot injury, will look to regain his starting position at guard or could end up playing center. Sophomore Artie Rowell and redshirt freshman Gabe Roberts are also in the competition to replace Turnley in the middle. Redshirt freshman Adam Bisnowaty impressed coaches and teammates alike during his time as a scout team tackle, and T.J. Clemmings is making a move from defensive end to right tackle. The Pitt offense under Chryst will need a strong offensive line to compete in the ACC Coastal Division, so hopefully the coaches will feel good about their lineup by the end of spring drills.

Also, Juantez Hollins, who started six games at left tackle and one at left guard in 2011, returns after being suspended for the 2012 season.

For both a paltry rushing team and one that gave up 38.0 sacks (T-102 nationally) in 2012, there's plenty of room for the offensive line to improve. Pitt's relying on inexperienced players to fill their two-deep, and that's always a dangerous proposition. Although, Bisnowaty was a 4-star prospect in the class of 2012, and Dorian Johnson a blue chip 5-star tackle in the 2013 cycle.

Luckily for Pitt, there are hardly as many questions on defense as offense. Having 8 returning starters from a unit that was 17th nationally in total D, and 23rd in preventing scoring will probably make Paul Chryst sleep better at night. The biggest loss was Jarred Holley (46 career starts) who had 2 picks and 75 total tackles in 2012.

Defensive tackle Aaron Donald led Pitt in sacks last season (5.5), and the Big East in tackles for loss (18.5). Tyler Ezell (3 sacks), who was named most improved defensive player during spring, joins Donald inside. Said This is Panther-lair.com's take on the defensive line.

Aaron Donald was arguably the best player on the team last season, and he hasn't taken any steps back this spring. Donald is still dominant, and now he's got a partner at defensive tackle - redshirt senior Tyrone Ezell - who looks like he is ready to be a complementary piece. And behind Donald and Ezell, sophomore Darryl Render and junior Khaynin Mosley-Smith [has since been suspended indefinitely] have emerged as viable backups, giving Pitt some real depth at defensive tackle.

The questions are on the outside. Bryan Murphy is a returning starter, and his bookend is David Durham, a converted fullback who transferred from Ohio State. The defensive ends weren't very productive in 2012; if that changes this season, the line could be a real force. So the defensive ends are worth focusing on during the spring game, but then again, just watch Donald. That's one of the more enjoyable things to do while watching Pitt practice.

Pitt returns two starting linebackers: MLB Shane Gordon (48 tackles) and WLB Todd Thomas (59). Gordon was sidelined with a neck injury during spring ball. Eric Williams was the starter at SLB last season, but he practiced at free safety during spring, and was dismissed from the team along with TE Drew Carswell after a drug raid on their house.

Pitt's depth at SLB took another hit when highly recruited redshirt freshman Deasean Rippy decided to transfer. Going into August, the competition seems to be between redshirt junior Anthony Gonzalez and redshirt freshmen Bam Bradley. Gonzalez, who originally came to Pitt as a dual threat QB, is the frontrunner for the job. He also started against Ole Miss in the BBVA Compass Bowl.

Pitt Blather was encouraged by the play of backup MLB Mike Caprara, backup WLB Ejuan Price, and starter Todd Thomas.

Caprara did not look out of place at all and while you can see he's a little slow in diagnosing pass coverage, he throws his head down in run support and was a tackling machine, finishing with 12 tackles, 9 of them solo. Price made a spectacular tackle in the open field on Desmond Brown in the red zone. If Price misses the tackle, Brown walks in. Those are the type of plays you have to make to win. Todd Thomas is just a monster. He has NFL size and speed and while he didn't make any wow plays, just watching him out there and what he can do is impressive. If he stays healthy and works on the little things, he'll play on Sundays.

Pitt's linebackers were plagued by injuries last season. If the group can get and stay healthy, they won't be a liability.

Pitt's secondary should be a position of strength. Chris Peak of Panther-lair.com wrote, "Pound-for-pound, cornerback might be Pitt's most talented position, at least on the first team, as K'Waun Williams and Lafayette Pitts make the best tandem to play that position for Pitt since Darrelle Revis and Josh Lay." Jerry DiPaola of TribLIVE had this to say about the duo, "K'Waun Williams and Lafayette Pitts can run and jump with most pass catchers, but here is their best trait: They play physical and nasty. Getting beat — and they will — won't bother them because they can't wait for the next play."

Ballhawk free safety Jason Hendricks returns and looks to improve on season where had 90 total tackles, 6 picks, and earned All-Big East second team honors. Unfortunately, Hendricks was sidelined all spring with a toe / foot injury. As I mentioned above, Eric Williams, the player that reaped all the valuable practice time at free, is no longer on team. Strong safety will be the most inexperienced position of the back end with junior Ray Vinopal (single start in 2012) and redshirt freshman Jevonte Pitts vying for the job.

I don't think Pitt will contend for more than a bowl appearance in their first ACC season, but they won't be a pushover either. Paul Chryst is a capable head coach, who wants to play physical football, but with a lack of playmakers, new quarterback, and reworked o-line I don't see them being able to do much except lean on their defense towards the beginning of the season. In absence of other wideout threats, Pitt may have to use its tight ends to free Street of double teams. If it can stay healthy and avoid some thin spots on the depth chart, the defense should be more than serviceable. Pitt's number of wins will probably correlate to how much the offense improves from start of the season (hosting Florida State).



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