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Freshmen football players join the Panthers

By Mark Powell / Staff Writer

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Pitt football has finished the last two seasons with a combined record of 13-13, so why should fans be optimistic?

Coach Paul Chryst’s steady improvement of the football program may not be obvious, but after examining his second recruiting class, it’s hard to ignore the depth the coach added this offseason at positions of both need and strength.

Quarterback

The Panthers only signed one quarterback this recruiting season, picking up Ohio-based Marion High School’s Adam Bertke. Bertke won three straight state championships as starting quarterback and should fit well into Paul Chryst’s offense, should he be given the chance. The offense style Bertke ran in high school is the same style that Chryst uses at Pitt.

Even with the loss of this year’s quarterback Tom Savage to the NFL, it’s still a position of strength for the Panthers. Chad Voytik is coming off of an impressive bowl victory over Bowling Green State University, and he’s expected to improve going into his redshirt sophomore season. Trey Anderson, although still relatively unproven, is a serviceable backup as a senior.

The addition of Bertke adds depth to the position. Like most quarterbacks fresh out of high school, the newcomer is still considered a project, but with Chryst’s experience in grooming young quarterbacks, he could make an feature on a regular basis sooner rather than later.

Running Back

Pitt is bringing back last season’s three top rushers, including sophomore James Conner and senior Isaac Bennett, so the addition of 4-star recruit Chris James to the backfield should be a scary thought for opposing ACC defenses. James had an impressive high school career, highlighted by his junior season when he ran for more than 2,089 yards and 30 touchdowns. 

The Panthers also signed running backs Qadree Ollison from Canisius High School in Buffalo, N.Y., and Dennis Briggs from Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh. Ollison is a 3-star recruit and should add more depth to a strong backfield. Briggs could have multiple roles on the team in the future, as he was recruited as an athlete and may not be restricted to one position.

Wide Receiver/Tight End

The Panthers’ biggest recruiting splash came on Jan. 5 when wide receiver Adonis Jennings announced his commitment at the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl in Carson, Ca. Jennings, who led Timber Creek High School in New Jersey to three straight sectional titles, finished his senior season with 1,434 yards and 14 touchdowns and is expected to start in his first season. He could play opposite of Tyler Boyd as the team’s No. 2 target.

“He’s competed annually against the best competition he could find, comes from a pretty complicated passing system and absolutely loves football,” Robert Hinson, Timber Creek head coach, said. “I feel Adonis will have an immediate impact at the next level.”

Hinson also praised Jennings’ work ethic, football IQ and leadership ability.

The addition of Jennings, along with 3-star recruits Jaquan Davidson and Elijah Zeise, should help make up for some of the production lost from the graduation of wide receiver Devin Street, who finished his college career with the most receptions in Pitt history.

The Panthers added another receiving threat in tight end with Brian O’Neill, who could be a future security blanket for quarterback Voytik. But O’Neill will have to battle his way up the depth chart first as the Panthers return all of their tight ends from last season. 

Offensive Line

Pitt’s offensive line was the subject of much public scrutiny last season, as the players gave up 43 sacks for a total of 361 yards lost. The Panthers must improve their pass protection moving forward in Voytik’s first season as starter. 

To do this, Chryst and offensive line coach Jim Hueber emphasized recruiting to satisfy the team’s glaring weakness. Recruits Alex Bookser from Mt. Lebanon, Pa., Mike Grimm from Bethel Park, Pa.,  and Connor Hayes from Michigan should dramatically improve the depth on the offensive line over the next few seasons. 

“They all love football, they all play hard and they all will hit you,” Hueber said.  “Our plan is to throw them in, let them compete and see how it all unfolds.”

Defensive Line/Linebackers

The Panthers’ biggest question mark going into the season is their defensive line. With the loss of senior leaders Aaron Donald and Tyrone Ezell, it’s unclear who will step up as Pitt’s next great pass rusher or run stopper.

Replacing Donald and Ezell is no easy task, but the Panthers will try to fill the void with depth. Pitt added five recruits on the defensive line, led by three-star recruits Shane Roy, Mike Herndon and Connor Dintino.

The defensive line will benefit from having experienced linebackers behind them, led by senior Todd Thomas. Although linebacker is a position of strength for the Panthers, incoming freshmen Jamal Davis from Canton, Ohio, and Quintin Wirginis from Chapel, Pa., will only increase the depth and quality.

Secondary

Pitt’s secondary had a resurgent second half of the season after a disappointing start last year. Still, there is room for improvement, especially after the loss of cornerbacks Jason Hendricks and K’Waun Williams.

The Panthers added cornerback Phillipie Motley and safety Jalen Williams to try and fill the void left by Hendricks and Williams. Chryst and secondary coach Troy Douglas also recruited several players as athletes, such as Avonte Maddox and Patrick Amara who could play in the secondary or at wide receiver and have an immediate impact.

“If they have high football IQs and adapt quickly, defensive backs and skill players have the best chance to play early,” Douglas said. “We didn’t recruit them to be backups.”

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Freshmen football players join the Panthers