Well, here we are. Pitt kicks off spring football for the 2013 season tomorrow. It seems like just yesterday I was frantically scrambling for wifi in the Legion Field press box. How the offseason does fly by...
Anyways, there are obviously plenty of storylines to look at over the next few weeks of spring practices, and we’ll certainly get to those. For now, though, let’s just do a position-by-position breakdown of what we’re looking for from the Panthers this spring.
Quarterback: This is, of course, one of the major narratives for Pitt this spring. For the first time since 2009, someone other than Tino Sunseri will be the starter under center for the Panthers. The battle will almost certainly come down to fifth-year senior Tom Savage, in his only year of eligibility with the Panthers, and redshirt freshman Chad Voytik. Voytik has shown flashes of talent during some of the practices we’ve seen over the past year, but, for my money, it’s hard to go against the experience of Savage. He’s big, strong and can make pretty much every throw in the book. Basically, he’s a perfect fit for Paul Chryst’s offense. For as talented as Voytik is (and I really wouldn’t be surprised to see him be a multi-year starter eventually), he was recruited for another system. It should work out pretty well for Pitt, actually. Savage can take the reins this year, since I don’t think Voytik or Tra’von Chapman are quite ready yet, then those two can battle it out for the job long-term next year. I’d be surprised if Chryst publicly named a starter this spring, but it will be interesting to see how the reps are split and what we see from each guy.
Running back: Welcome to the Rushel Shell show. No question marks here, as the starting job will be passed on to the former Hopewell star. Shell showed his talent last year, but will need to show he can take the beating that goes along with being a starter. The bigger question for spring is going to be how Chryst and the staff decide to spell Shell with other backs. Isaac Bennett and Malcolm Crockett were productive in short bursts last year, but I think the staff would ideally like one of them to turn into a “lightning” to Shell’s “thunder,” if you will.
Wide receiver: This one’s sort of interesting, because there’s an open starting job, but one of the leading contenders to grab it (Clairton’s Tyler Boyd) won’t be there until the summer. Pitt has a ton of receivers on the roster, but not really established beyond Devin Street. This spring is a chance for guys like Ed Tinker, Ronald Jones and Chris Wuestner to show they deserve that starting job. Tinker came on really nicely at the end of last season, so I’d peg him as the favorite at this point. I wouldn’t count out Wuestner, though, who has the perfect frame to play receiver in this offense and was a sort-of star last fall camp before redshirting the season.
Tight end: Another situation that’s pretty cut-and-dried. Since Hubie Graham missed so much time with various injuries last year, we already got a taste of what this position would look like in 2013. JP Holtz played plenty as a freshman, and I’d expect him to get more involved in the passing game, too. Freshman Scott Orndoff enrolled in January and, like Holtz last year, has the frame to play right away. Unlike Holtz, Orndoff is getting an extra semester of lifting and practice under his belt before his freshman season. Drew Carswell has been used in more of a split-wide role, so I would expect a lot of the two-TE packages to be Holtz and Orndoff.
Offensive line: This might be the position group I’m most intrigued to watch this spring. There will likely be some considerable shuffling from last year and (with one notable exception) all the pieces are already on campus. I wouldn’t be surprised to see one or both starting tackles from last year, Matt Rotheram and Cory King, move inside to guard. Ryan Schlieper is returning from the injury that cost him most of last season, and he’ll also be in consideration for the inside spots. Finally, Gabe Roberts is a guy to watch for as the staff tries to replace Ryan Turnley and Chris Jacobson.
At the tackle positions, Adam Bisnowaty is the guy to watch. With a whole year of strength training, he has likely put on enough weight to be able to play this year, and every single person who talks about him raves about his potential. The Panthers will also have Juantez Hollins returning from suspension and TJ Clemmings coming over from the defensive line. I don’t think the staff would move Clemmings, who was a solid contributor on defense, if they didn’t think he could play. Dorian Johnson will arrive in the fall to throw a wrench into things, but I think the staff would like to avoid playing the true freshman, if possible.
Pitt doesn’t have a lot of certainty on the offensive line heading into spring, which isn’t good. What they do have, though, is a lot of options and flexibility for coach Jim Hueber to work with.
Defensive line: Some of this depends on what exactly Pitt’s defense looks like under new coordinator Matt House, but we can at least look at some personnel options the Panthers have. Aaron Donald is obviously a sure thing in the middle, but I also wouldn’t be surprised to see the staff move him around a little bit more this year to create better one-on-one matchups for their star.
Pitt has a couple of other intriguing experienced guys in the middle in Tyrone Ezell and KK Mosley-Smith, but I think the guys to watch will be the younger players like Darryl Render, Terrell Jackson and Tyrique Jarrett. Jarrett, in particular, is a guy who is an early enrollee freshman, but spent last year at prep school, so it’s reasonable to think that he could see the field in 2013.
Defensive end is a position where Pitt is almost dangerously thin. The Panthers have just Bryan Murphy, Devin Cook and Jack Lippert returning from last year. This is probably Cook’s chance to break out and show that he can be the full-time player a lot of fans think. He showed some nice flashes last year. Early enrollee Shakir Soto will get some looks, and it’ll be interesting to see if he can put enough weight on to challenge for some playing time. At a position where most coaches like to rotate players to keep guys fresh, Pitt’s going to need as many bodies as it can get here.
Linebackers: Pitt has a lot of linebackers. It’s really that simple. The Panthers have everyone coming back from last year at this position, including some guys they lost to injury (Dan Mason, Manny Williams, etc. Pitt had a lot of linebacker injuries last year). Plus, the Panthers will start to look at guys like Deaysean Rippy and Bam Bradley coming off their redshirt seasons. I would think that there will be some attrition at this position, most likely by moving some guys (Anthony Gonzalez?) to safety. Right now, the Panthers just simply have too many guys to get everyone on the field. But, as we saw last year, injuries happen, so it’s better to have depth than not. I’m also interested to see how House uses and rotates linebackers in his defense.
Secondary: The cornerbacks are set. Barring injury, K’Waun Williams and Lafayette Pitts have the jobs and they should be very good, just like last year. From a depth perspective, I think redshirt freshman Ryan Lewis will at least challenge for playing time last year. The staff liked him enough last year that they brought him on most of the road trips even though he was redshirting, which says a lot (he was also their “break glass in case of emergency” cornerback in case they needed it).
Jarred Holley is the most notable departure from last year’s defense, but Ray Vinopal should be more than ready to step in. I’m not sure how much we’ll see of Jahmahl Pardner, who went down early last year with an ACL injury, but the staff clearly liked him a lot before he got hurt last year, as he was playing as Pitt’s main nickelback early in the season.
As for the scheme, House will mix up coverages with a little more zone coverage than Dave Huxtable used (which was none). There are a couple of ways to look at this. On one hand, it’s good to be versatile on defense and House noted that, especially when facing spread offenses, a good zone defense is almost essential. On the other hand, Huxtable created a very aggressive mano-a-mano attitude, especially with the corners, and I think that especially benefitted Pitts, who is best when he’s being aggressive. You don’t want a defense thinking too much, and that’s a risk you run when you try and mix things up too much.
Special teams: Tough to judge this one in the spring (also, not really much intrigue). Matt Yoklic is the punter. Walk-ons Drake Greer and Brad Lukasak will compete for kicking duties, but I think Chris Blewitt will eventually win the job when he gets here in the fall.
In the return game, I thought Pitts came along really nicely as a kickoff returner as last season went on. Ronald Jones was Cam Saddler’s backup on punt returns last year, but I wonder if the staff might give Pitts a look there this spring.
Coaching: Sure, we can evaluate the coaches, too. The biggest change is House shifting to defensive coordinator and what kind of scheme he’s going to bring to the Panther defense (which should be pretty good in 2013). In his introductory conference call, he promised to be multiple and attacking, so it’ll be interesting to see what kind of formations and personnel packages he goes with.
With the other new guys, I’m looking forward to watching Hank Poteat work with the cornerbacks. He’s another young guy and knows the position well. Also, with some name recognition from recently playing in the NFL, I would expect the players to have a lot of respect for him. Overall, here’s the breakdown of how the coaching staff will divide the positional duties up with the new additions:
Quarterbacks - Brooks Bollinger
Running backs - Desmond Robinson
Wide receivers - Bobby Engram
Tight ends - Joe Rudolph
Offensive line - Jim Hueber
Defensive line - Inoke Breckterfield/John Palermo (DEs)
Linebackers - Chris Haering/John Palermo
Secondary - Matt House (safeties)/Hank Poteat (CBs)
And there you have it. Chryst will hold an informal press conference at noon tomorrow, and the team will practice from 2-4:45 p.m. After that, we’ll be able to talk to players and assistant coaches. The Panthers have two practices this week (Tuesday and Thursday) before getting a week off for spring break. They’ll return from break March 17. Happy spring football season.