Barnes Burner: Still too soon to pass judgment on Chryst, state of Pitt football

By Nate Barnes | Sports Editor

Another year, another 6-6 regular season finish.

The variables were different for the Pitt football program in 2013, but the end result of the 2013 regular season was the same as the previous two years. A shiny new conference, different players and a different schedule did little to change the recurring narrative that Pitt football has authored early in the 2010s. 

Steve Pederson’s bio in Pitt’s media guide begins not with anything specifically about the Pitt athletic director, but rather a passage that states: “In Pitt’s long and storied athletic history, perhaps there has never been a more anticipated year than the Panthers’ inaugural campaign in the Atlantic Coast Conference.”

But more than six months removed from the date Pitt officially entered the ACC with a party at Stage AE on the North Shore July 1, what’s different? And what is there to look forward to?

More importantly, what is there right now? Where is the Pitt football program? Is it making any progress, declining or in a state of limbo?

It’s weird to think about, because the narratives pushed by those outside of the program focus on one of two things: Talking about the past (e.g. 13-9, Larry Fitzgerald, Pitt’s 33-3 stretch from 1979-81, etc.), or looking to the future (e.g. moving to the ACC, recruiting). 

But what about right now? Where is Pitt football right now?

After watching four seasons of Pitt football, from the first game of the final year of the Dave Wannstedt era to the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl on Dec. 26, 2013, the best way to describe the Panthers is that they are just … stuck. 

College football teams need to win to recruit better players, and college football teams need to recruit better players to win. 

Pitt’s recruiting efforts look better under head coach Paul Chryst. Chryst is building from the interior, bringing the majority of his recruits onto the offensive and defensive lines — this makes sense for a guy who says the teams that win the battle on the line of scrimmage usually win their games. 

It’s unlikely that Pitt will ever be able to recruit in the nation’s talent-rich pipelines of California, Texas or Florida. But the focus for Pitt right now must be on controlling what the program can control.

For the Panthers, recruiting starts with bringing in the best players from the WPIAL. Wide receiver Tyler Boyd and offensive tackle Dorian Johnson were a good start last season, and pulling in Alex Bookser and Mike Grimm should continue to increase Chryst’s pull in the WPIAL. 

In addition to the recent success of Chryst’s local recruiting, he was able to secure a commitment from Adonis Jennings, a four-star wide receiver from New Jersey ranked in the ESPN 300.

There will always be challenges, though, as top programs such as Ohio State and Alabama will always be able to show up at the 11th hour and poach those players from under Pitt’s nose by offering scholarships to the area’s premier talent. 

Not to mention what will happen to Pitt’s local recruiting efforts once Penn State emerges from its sanction years. Early forecast: probably nothing good, especially with new head coach James Franklin laying down the gauntlet, stating that the Nittany Lions will “dominate the region.”

On gameday, the Panthers’ philosophy is centered on winning the games they should, meaning beating teams like Youngstown State and Navy, two notable losses the team suffered under Chryst. Not giving up multiple punt returns for touchdowns, as they did against North Carolina this season. Not fumbling opening kickoffs as they did against Miami.

The mental errors should be attributed to whomever is coaching the special teams, but withhold judgment on Pitt’s second-year head coach. It’s unfair to evaluate Chryst in any less than five years, in which time he can bring in his own players and put his brand of football on the field.

If he is the right man to pull Pitt out of the rut the football program is in, then we’ll find out sometime around the beginning of 2018. That’s not to say the Panthers will be playing for the Orange Bowl at that point, but they might ascend to something better than the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.

Write to Nate at [email protected]