The Pitt Panthers football team has been rolling along since the start of training camp on Aug. 3. Some motivation for the Panthers came from ACC Media Day, as Pitt was selected to finish sixth in the ACC’s seven-team Coastal Division.
This Panthers team is young, as freshmen and sophomores make up 81 of the 103 roster spots. This is more than any other school in the country, according to the University of Colorado sports information department.
First we will start with the offensive side of the ball:
Though a starting QB has not been named, I expect redshirt sophomore Chad Voytik to be given the reigns. The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder was impressive coming off the bench in the Little Caesars’ Bowl last season, and I like the added dimension of a mobile QB for the Panthers. Voytik will likely win the job over Trey Anderson, and he could be Pitt’s leader for the next three seasons.
Last year, Pitt sophomore running back James Conner, fresh off of 799 rushing yards and eight TDs, talked to Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons at the South Side training facility. Timmons told Conner he should be playing defense.
Conner is Pitt’s starting running back, but he also will focus on defensive end as a second position. Coming into camp, Conner indicated that he wanted 10 sacks, 10 rushing TDs, and 1,300 rushing yards. Coach Paul Chyrst advised Conner to take it day by day and focus on the task at hand.
It is expected that Conner will play both sides of the ball, so it is important to keep track of the incoming freshmen running backs, aside from senior Isaac Bennett and sophomore Rachid Ibrahim. Freshman Chris James is an athletic playmaker who is learning by the day, and Qadree Ollison is a bruising 230-pound back who won’t be easily tackled.
An important position battle is the third wide receiver behind sophomore playmaker Tyler Boyd and senior Manasseh Garner, since Pitt lost Devin Street to graduation. Pitt moved Garner from TE to WR this offseason.
Senior Kevin Weatherspoon, junior Ronald Jones (who was suspended last season), sophomores Chris Wuestner and Dontez Ford, and freshmen Zach Challingsworth, Jester Weah, and Adonis Jennings all are competing for depth. I expect true freshman Jennings (6-foot-3, 195) to make an impact this season.
Pitt sophomores Boyd and Conner have been named to watch lists for the Maxwell and Hornung college football awards, and the two will likely take on leadership roles as their sophomore seasons commence.
Pitt’s offensive line looks to be a strength, as four starters return. Returnees include sophomore LT Adam Bisnowaty (6-foot-6, 305), junior C Artie Rowell (6-foot-2, 315), senior RG Matt Rotheram (6-foot-6, 335), and senior RT T.J. Clemmings (6-foot-6, 315).
Pitt allowed 43 sacks last season (last in the ACC), and the Panthers hope to reduce that number this season. Likely starter at LG is sophomore Dorian Johnson (6-foot-5, 300), while Gabe Roberts (6-foot-5, 305) and freshmen Jaryd Jones-Smith (6-foot-7, 335) are also competing for playing time.
This is a monstrous offensive line. Doesn’t this remind you of Wisconsin offensive lines of the past? This past July, Pitt received a verbal commitment from a Class of 2015 offensive lineman in Hempfield’s Tony Pilato (6-7, 300).
I envision the Pitt line being a strength of the squad, and this will only improve numbers for starting runnign back Conner and mobile sophomore QB Chad Voytik.
Now switching over to the defensive side of the ball:
Pitt CB Titus Howard, who was at the top of the depth chart, was suspended for the season, so the loss of the Clairton product will open the door for others at the position. This includes increated playing time for freshmen Avonte Maddox and Phillipe Motley behind 6-foot-3, redshirt sophomore Trenton Coles.
Howard can still practice with the team and has gained support from teammates, including Boyd. I expect Coles to be a key player on defense for the Panthers, and the Howard suspension is definitely a tough loss.
Another position battle in camp includes strong safety Clairton-grad Terrish Webb and Wisconsin-transfer Reggie Mitchell have been battling for the starting position.
The defense also lost DE Bryan Murphy, who left the program, and LB Ejuan Price was lost for the season with a pectoral injury. Pitt must find depth and replacements on a defensive that lost significant pieces, including DT Aaron Donald, DT Tyrone Ezell, LB Shane Gordon, CB K’Waun Williams, and S Jason Hendricks.
I expect senior LB Todd Thomas, who finished third on the team for tackles for loss, junior CB Lafayette Pitts, senior FS Ray Vinopal, and senior LB Anthony Gonzalez to emerge at team leaders on the defensive side. It will be important to watch how the defensive line rebounds from the loss of Donald and Ezell, as only senior DE David Durham returns with experience.
A handful of young Pitt DTs will try to compensate for Donald, who was a first-round pick of the St. Louis Rams, including sophomore Tyrique Jarrett, and freshmen Justin Moody, Jeremiah Taleni, Trent Naevin, Mike Herndon, and Connor Dintino.
Pitt football will hold its annual FanFest at Heinz Field this Friday from 6-8 p.m. I suggest checking it out and meeting some of the team.
Pitt opens the season at home against Delaware on Saturday, Aug. 30 at noon.