Football: Pitt looks to close up-and-down camp strong

Head coach Paul Chryst’s third spring football camp reached its midpoint this week, and the Panthers’ results on Tuesday mirrored the way camp has gone in its first two weeks.

“As far as results, it was up and down on both sides of the ball,” Chryst said. “I think we’ve done a lot up to this point, but we have to make sure we finish the second half on a high note.”

Moving forward, one area the Panthers have to address is offense. Starting at quarterback, redshirt sophomore Chad Voytik is working hard, which Chryst said he appreciates, but the starter needs to continue to work on consistency.

As for the players protecting the signal-caller, the offensive linemen, Chryst said the beginning of building the group comes not just from players doing the right thing, but doing the right thing as a unit. He used combination blocking as an example. 

“If one guy isn’t doing the right thing, then he’s not giving an accurate picture to his partner,” Chryst said. “You can see a start in that cohesion, but we’re a long way away from where it needs to be.”

Behind the line, Chryst hopes freshman running back James Conner can build off his strong finish to the 2013 season, in which he won Offensive Most Valuable Player at the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl on Dec. 26. 

The Erie, Pa., product carried the football 146 times in his first season as a Panther and rushed for 799 yards — an average of 5.5 yards per carry — earning eight touchdowns. When Pitt begins fall camp in August, the competition for the starting running back job between Conner and rising senior Isaac Bennett will be the premier position battle of camp.

For Conner, who is participating in his first spring camp, Chryst prioritized not only the performance aspect of his game but also how improvements in his knowledge of the game can help Conner take the next steps in his development. 

“He’s obviously played a lot of football and has done some very good things, and you hope it lasts his whole career here,” Chryst said. “As he continues to learn, with that knowledge comes confidence and with that confidence the game kind of slows down a bit and then you can truly play it.”

Outside of the offensive line, Pitt needs production from its receiving corps to replace that of departed senior Devin Street, who ended his career as the Panthers’ all-time leader in receptions. 

That process starts with receiver Tyler Boyd and tight end Manasseh Garner. Boyd broke Larry Fitzgerald’s record for receiving yards in a season, hauling in 85 catches for 1,174 yards and seven touchdowns. 

Underneath, Garner was a reliable option for last year’s quarterback, Tom Savage, and was the team’s third-leading receiver with 33 receptions for 391 yards. Chryst noted the accomplishments of each player, but also pointed out that they must improve moving toward next season. 

“I really believe in and like those guys as players,” Chryst said. “We have to do a good job of making sure we use them and they both will be big parts of the season.”

Garner says he and Boyd have a relationship on the field that allows the two players to “feed off each other.”

“Tyler, he’s quite an athlete,” Garner said. “We’ve got two different skill sets. I’m a bigger body, I’m able to do some of the things that he can’t do and he’s able to do some stuff that I can’t.”

While Boyd posted exciting numbers in his freshman campaign, his goals for the spring and future are team-oriented. 

“My main focus is just to win. I love to win,” Boyd said. “All the stats that really come as we progress, I ain’t really a big guy [for] individually getting my stats up. I want to win.”