Notebook: Young Pitt team benefiting from experience


Regardless of its win and loss total, a football team can only grow over the course of a season.

Players begin to master a coach’s system and, by January, they’ve learned more about their personal tendencies, as well as those of their teammates’.

A team with more underclassmen than any other in Division I this year, Pitt has epitomized this mind-set. When redshirt junior center Artie Rowell went down with a season-ending knee injury, redshirt freshman Alex Officer slid into his place. When freshman cornerback Avonte Maddox went down with a shoulder injury against Akron, head coach Paul Chryst thrust a true freshman, Pat Amara, into the cornerback spot, where Amara has recorded an interception.

But, Chryst said, “[We didn’t want] to come in at the beginning of this year and use youth as an excuse.”

So far, the Panthers haven’t. Running back James Conner and receiver Tyler Boyd, both sophomores, are in the discussion for All-ACC honors. Additionally, freshman defensive end Rori Blair leads all Panthers in tackles for loss (3.5) and is tied for the team lead in sacks (3).

“We’ve got guys who have played their first [career] snaps this fall. They’re over 250, 300 snaps. I hope we never stop growing, never stop learning,” Chryst said.

Pitt (4-3, 2-1 ACC) hosts Georgia Tech (5-2, 2-2 ACC) Saturday in its 2014 homecoming game at Heinz Field. Georgia Tech runs a renowned triple option offense. Without maximum discipline from its defensive line and linebackers to avoid confusion from fakes, Pitt defenders could find themselves tackling the wrong person.

However, Pitt brings tenure and experience to one key position heading into the matchup.

Two fifth-year outside linebackers, quarterback convert Anthony Gonzalez and Todd Thomas, finished 2013 as Pitt’s third and fourth-leading tacklers. They line up on either side of sophomore middle linebacker Matt Galambos. And redshirt junior Nicholas Grigsby plays his own position, “Freeze” linebacker, during passing situations.

Pitt lost 21-10 to the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta last season behind Georgia Tech’s 274 rushing yards, and if it weren’t for Aaron Donald’s 11 solo tackles, including six tackles for loss, Pitt would’ve likely been blown out. Navy, which uses a similar triple-option playbook, narrowly defeated Pitt a week prior behind 220 ground yards.

“We weren’t flawless by any means against either one of them, Navy or Georgia Tech,” Chryst said. “[Gonzalez] and [Thomas] played last year. [Grigsby] played quite a bit last year, so guys are seeing it. But each year is a new year …  [Georgia Tech] will have some things we’ll see that I would anticipate we didn’t see last year.”

Saturday’s game could have significant ramifications in the ACC Coastal Division, as Pitt is tied with Duke and Virginia for first place in the division, with Georgia Tech not far behind.

Pitt players and coaches still said that they will take a weekly approach to the remainder of the season, but the first-place team in the division will probably play No. 2 Florida State in the ACC Championship Game.

“I’m not going to lie, I think about it,” senior defensive end David Durham said. “I know Coach Chryst wants to stay in the now, but I think that gives you energy for the next game.”

The winner of the ACC Championship is awarded a spot in the Orange Bowl.

“We’re never out of it,” junior defensive tackle Darryl Render added.