Column: With season approaching, a few Pitt football storylines to track


By Dan Sostek / Staff Writer

A football coach’s worst enemy is turnovers, both on the field and off. This offseason, Pitt head football coach Paul Chryst faced the latter type often, losing a large number of key players to graduation. 

Heading into the 2014 season, Chryst and the Panthers are without the dominant force of All-American defensive lineman Aaron Donald, as well as the big, strong-armed presence of quarterback Tom Savage and the sure-handed, ultra-reliable receiver Devin Street. Throw in the losses of defensive backs Jason Hendricks and K’Waun Williams and linebacker Shane Gordon, and there are countless questions that will serve as the X factors for Pitt’s success in their second season in the ACC.

What can Chryst get out of Chad Voytik?

Chad Voytik, the redshirt sophomore starting quarterback for the Panthers, has received some comparisons to another former protégé of Paul Chryst, Super Bowl champion Russell Wilson. Both short in stature (Wilson at 5’11” and Voytik at 6’1”) and mobile, the two seem to have similar skill sets. If Voytik can come even marginally close to replicating the success Wilson had in his one year under Chryst at Wisconsin in 2011 — throwing 33 touchdowns and only four interceptions — the Panthers could be surprise contenders in the ACC Coastal division. If he struggles or gets injured, without a viable backup to take his place, the Panthers will sputter mightily.

How can Pitt replace Aaron Donald’s production?

Over the last two years, Aaron Donald was the epitome of consistent productivity on a defense known for its inconsistency. The defensive tackle took home four major national awards in 2013, including the Chuck Bednarik Award, given to the nation’s top defensive player. He also collected 11 sacks and 28.5 tackles for loss in 2013. Pitt will face difficulty replacing that level of dominance, and it will simply be impossible to do so with just one player. Instead, the Panthers will rely on a group of defensive linemen to make up for Donald’s departure. The team will count on junior Darryl Render and sophomores Shakir Soto and Tyrique Jarrett to give defensive coordinator Matt House productive snaps. If the three can simply hold their own, that’s a plus for the Panthers.

How will the defensive backfield shape up?

Pitt’s defensive backs struggled for a good portion of 2013, unable to adjust to the elite size and speed of some of the ACC’s top flight wide receivers. Losing Williams and Hendricks — the Panthers’ two most consistent defensive backs last year — as well as promising sophomore Titus Howard to a year-long suspension,will only complicate matters further. Redshirt junior Lafayette Pitts, after a promising 2012 season, was inconsistent in 2013, and will  need  to dramatically improve his play this season as the team’s number one cornerback. Senior safety Ray Vinopal came on late in 2013 and will serve as the defensive captain in 2014. Besides those two, the rest of the defensive backfield is full of relatively unknown commodities, with the remaining players all sophomores or freshmen. Some newcomers like Wisconsin transfer Reggie Mitchell and freshman Avonte Maddox figure to make impacts at corner after their impressive performances at training camp. Sophomore Terrish Webb will start at strong safety and classmate Ryan Lewis will back up Mitchell. But without a single proven defensive back, the Panthers could potentially be involved in many offensive shootouts this season.

Will playing two ways help or hinder James Conner? 

Pitt’s biggest surprise in 2013 was running back James Conner, a converted defensive end who would end up serving as Pitt’s most dangerous and intimidating running back, including a stellar performance in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl against Bowling Green, where he ran for 229 yards in Pitt’s 30-27 victory. This season, the Panthers’ coaching staff plans to play Conner at defensive end as well. While Conner played a few snaps here and there last season, it will be intriguing to see whether this will limit his usage on offense, particularly with heralded incoming freshman Chris James being added to the mix at running back. If Conner can contribute even a dash of the spark he provided to Pitt’s offense in 2013 to the defense in 2014, and still maintain his contribution level on offense, he’ll be one of the most important and exciting players in the ACC.


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