Summer Opponent Preview: Pittsburgh Panthers

Jonathan Daniel

Pitt is making the transition to the ACC this season but will host Notre Dame at Heinz Field once again.

Notre Dame and Pitt will meet this fall for the 69th time. Here's a preview of the Panthers.

PITTSBURGH PANTHERS

Pittsburgh_old1_medium

Location: Pittsburgh, PA

Head Coach: Paul Chryst (2nd year)

2012 Record: 6-7

2012 S&P Rating: 58

'12 S&P Offense: 50

'12 S&P Defense: 52

'12 FEI Rating: 44

Pitt had an incredibly up and down season in the first year under head coach Paul Chryst, with an emphasis on the down part. The Panther 2012 season began with an embarrassing 31-17 loss to FCS program Youngstown State and then a 34-10 loss on the road at Cincinnati. With Virginia Tech coming to town it looked like a 0-3 start was unavoidable but Pitt broke free and dominated the Hokies 35-17.

A blowout of Gardner-Webb got the Panthers back to .500 on the season but they would finish the year alternating pairs of losses and wins. Pitt lost close contests against Syracuse and Louisville to drop to 0-3 in Big East play, but rebounded with 2 wins over Buffalo and Temple.

The next set of losses came on the road, the first in the classic overtime comeback by the Irish and then a close loss to UConn. Pitt did play well down the stretch and beat ranked Rutgers 27-6 and then bounced USF 27-3 in order to get bowl eligible.

The season didn't end well in the BBVA Compass Bowl as Pitt played without leading rusher Ray Graham and were soundly defeated by Ole Miss. The loss gave the Panthers back-to-back 6-7 seasons, their most losses over a 2-year period since 1997-98.

~~~

Q&A with Anson from Cardiac Hill:

1. Are you more comfortable with a veteran like Savage leading the Pitt offense this fall or are you in the camp that if it's a close race then build for the future with Voytik?

I've said all along that I'd rather play Chad Voytik over Tom Savage if the pair are reasonably close. I've found that not everyone agrees with that, but to me, this isn't a year when Pitt will compete for an ACC title. If it were, I'd say to go with the better guy - even if it's only by a slim margin. But getting Voytik a full year of playing time is more valuable to me than winning an extra game.

If Savage is so much better that his experience can win two extra games or means the difference between making a bowl and not making one, then I'd go with him. But if we're talking the difference between six and seven wins or something, to me, I'd rather get the Voytik train started so that he's ready when some of Pitt's younger talent develops over the next couple of years.

2. Is there a player on offense that Notre Dame fans may not have heard of yet who you think will have a big impact in 2013?

Irish fans may remember him from last year, but true freshman tight end JP Holtz had a pretty good game against them in 2012 (three catches, 54 yards, and a touchdown). That was perhaps his best game of the season and he's expected to do big things this year. He's one guy that could go under the radar a little bit.

There's also Isaac Bennett, the team's new starter at running back with the graduation of Ray Graham and Rushel Shell's transfer. Bennett's a junior who has played extremely well in some scrimmages and practices, breaking long runs. Also at wideout, incoming freshman Tyler Boyd, a four-star recruit, should play right away and could even start immediately.

3. Pitt has a lot pieces returning on defense, do you think that side of the ball takes a big step forward this fall?

The secondary could be the best unit on the team with safety Jason Hendricks, the Big East leader in interceptions last year, and returning starters at cornerback, Lafayette Pitts and K'Waun Williams. I'm telling anyone that will listen that Pitts, only a sophomore, will be a star. There's one open spot at safety with the departure of senior Jarred Holley, but the unit is strong and will play well this year. They were 20th in the nation in pass defense last year and could be even better this season.

4. Paul Chryst seemed to be a very good fit for Pitt but his first season as head coach was disappointing. How confident are you that Chryst is the long-term answer for the Panthers? Was the program dysfunctional and needed a lot of work when he arrived or is he simply having a hard time building the program up due to his inexperience?

Chryst hasn't been perfect but overall, I'm pleased with the job he's done. It's still too early to tell if he's a long-term solution, but with all of the coaching changes, he'll get his chance to turn things around as the administration is all in on this hire. The program was in a lot disarray when he came in and he had a big challenge ahead of him. The other factor is that whatever talent he had was largely recruited for an entirely different system on both offense and defense. Some players have left and more could do so, but I think that after this year, we'll see Pitt turn the page.

His inexperience has cost Pitt a little - there's no question about that. He had some questionable on-field decisions last year, opting to take chances with the lead right before halftime of a couple of games. Chryst went for first downs twice on fourth and short around midfield and failed. It cost him a field goal in the game against Louisville and nearly did as Notre Dame missed one. He definitely has room for some improvement on gamedays.

One area where he's done pretty well so far is in recruiting. Pitt's classes the past two years, based on the success they had on the field, have been pretty solid. His goal from the start was to come in and try replicate what Wisconsin has done by building a strong rushing attack behind quality offensive lines. Time will tell if he's able to do that, but he's off to a good start. Dorian Johnson, a five-star tackle, came to Pitt in last year's class and the five offensive linemen they recruited were the most the program has had in a decade. He's added two more this year and just landed a big local target they've been after in Michael Grimm. Chryst is clearly making a priority out of the offensive line and that's something Pitt hasn't done in a while.

5. What are the general expectations for Pitt football this fall as they enter their first year in the ACC? The move will be great for the Panther basketball program but it also toughens up the football program's schedule. Will this be a tough opening year in the ACC or will Pitt surprise some people?

Pitt's schedule is definitely a step up this year. Fans are raving about the home schedule which includes games against Notre Dame, Miami, and the highlight - a Labor Day primetime matchup against Florida State on ESPN. But those games will all be extremely difficult and when you throw in a road trip to Virginia Tech as well as games against teams like North Carolina and Georgia Tech, it's a difficult slate.

I think Pitt will do what they typically have done over the years. They'll sneak up and pull off a big upset but will also lose to a team (or a couple of them) that they shouldn't. My expectations for this year are right around six or seven wins. I could see eight if everything breaks their way and five as a worst-case scenario.

~~~

PROJECTED PANTHERS 2013 DEPTH CHART

BOLD denotes returning starter

*Quarterback

Tom Savage, 5th Sr.

Chad Voytik, RS Fr.

Trey Anderson, Jr.

TraVon Chapman, Fr.

The Tino Sunseri era is over in Pittsburgh after a shockingly efficient senior season (256 for 393, 65.1%, 3,288 yards, 21 TD, 3 INT) as he's taken his talents to the CFL. For the first time in a good while the Panthers head into the fall looking for a new starting quarterback.

Tom Savage appears to have a slight edge after the spring but not by much. If you remember, Savage started as a true freshman at Rutgers in 2009 but left the Scarlet Knights following the 2010 season. After transferring to Arizona State in 2011 and not playing he transferred again to Pitt in 2012 and is eligible this fall for a 5th year.

Redshirt freshman Chad Voytik played well during the spring and received a lot of snaps. Pitt may decide to go with the veteran Savage but Voytik has been right there with him through spring. Upcoming junior Trey Anderson played a decent amount as a freshman and very little last year as the nominal backup. He's dropped down the depth chart and doesn't really fit the type of offense the Panthers want to run.

Incoming freshman TraVon Chapman was arrested in the spring and suspended indefinitely. His career at Pitt may be over before it ever gets started.

*Running Back

Isaac Bennett, Jr.

Malcolm Crockett, RS So.

Desmond Brown, 5th Sr.

First team All-Big East running back Ray Graham is gone and leaves behind 3,271 rushing yards and 32 rushing touchdowns for his career. To make matters worse, former 5-star recruit and rising sophomore Rushel Shell left the program after 641 yards in 2012 during his first year and is currently deciding on a new team.

Heading into the fall depth is a major concern at running back for Pitt. Redshirt freshman Demitrious Davis was moved here from wide receiver but has also transferred out of the program. That leaves Isaac Bennett (141 yards in '12) as the lone experienced runner. For now he's backed up by only Crockett and a 5th-year former JUCO athlete so I'd expect some more bodies to switch to running back.

*Fullback

Mark Giubilato, RS Jr.

Adam Lazenga, RS Jr.

Anthony Rippole, RS Fr.

There are a trio of walk-on fullbacks return for Pitt, although none of them received any carries last season. Giubilato is the starter and is backed up by Lazenga. Perhaps one of these players move to running back?

*Wide Receiver 1

Devin Street, 5th Sr.

Chris Wuestner, RS Fr.

Brendon Felder, RS Jr.

*Wide Receiver 2

Ed Tinker, 5th Sr.

Brandon Ifill, RS Jr.

Tyler Boyd, Fr.

*Wide Receiver 3

Ronald Jones, Jr.

Kevin Weatherspoon, RS Jr.

Devin Street returns after leading the team with 73 receptions last fall but Pitt has to replace their other two starters in Mike Shanahan (62 & 983 yards) and Cameron Saddler (16 & 229). They'll also be replacing Ray Graham's 36 receptions from a year ago.

Outside of Street there are still a bunch of question marks. Chris Davis (twin brother of the above Demitrious) has also transferred which leaves the team short on weapons here. Ed Tinker is in line to start after being limited to 5 receptions in 5 games last year. The other projected starter is Ronald Jones who caught 7 passes last year. Beyond that no one else on the current roster caught a pass in 2012.

Walk-on Kevin Weatherspoon had a big spring and has impressed the coaching staff. Pitt will also welcome 5 freshmen receivers with open arms this August, including former Irish target Tyler Boyd. It shouldn't be surprising if Weatherspoon or a couple of the freshmen have an impact this season.

*Tight End

J.P. Holtz, So.

Mannasseh Garner, Sr.

Pitt had a nice 1-2 combination at tight end last year as J.P. Holtz and Drew Carswell combined for 26 receptions, 336 yards, and 5 touchdowns. Holtz is back after a promising freshman season but unfortunately Carswell was arrested this off-season and has been dismissed from the team.

Wisconsin transfer Mannasseh Garner becomes eligible this fall and should add some depth at tight end. Pitt will also have the benefit of 4 freshmen coming in this summer to add to the ranks here.

*Left Tackle

T.J. Clemmings, RS Jr.

Adam Bisnowaty, RS Fr.

*Left Guard

Cory King, 5th Sr.

Shane Johnson, RS Jr.

*Center

Ryan Schlieper, 5th Sr.

Artie Rowell, RS So.

Gabe Robert, RS Fr.

*Right Guard

Matt Rotheram, RS Jr.

Arthur Doakes, RS Jr.

*Right Tackle

Juantez Hollins, 5th Sr.

Dorian Johnson, Fr.

John Guy, RS Fr.

Pitt is replacing 2 full-time starters from 2012 and has moved players around during the spring to try and get the best 5 on the field. Matt Rotheram started 12 games at right tackle and 1 game at right guard last season---he's projected to stick at the latter position this fall.

Fifth-year senior Ryan Schlieper started 8 games at right guard in 2012 and moves over to fill the vacancy at center. Another 5th-year senior Cory King started every game last season at left tackle and is projected to move inside to left guard. As you can see Pitt is trying to get some different bodies at tackle after giving up 38 sacks (110th nationally) and 81 tackles for loss (94th) in 2012.

4 players look to start on the edge. Juantez Hollins is probably the least likely of the four and could be passed by incoming 5-star freshman Dorian Johnson. The staff is very high on redshirt freshman Adam Bisnowaty while T.J. Clemmings has moved over from the defensive line and is projected to start. Pitt also has Arthur Doakes on the interior who started 4 games last year to add some depth in addition to 4 more true freshmen coming in with Dorian Johnson.

*Defensive End

Devin Cook, RS So.

David Durham, RS Jr.

*Defensive Tackle

Aaron Donald, Sr.

Jack Lippert, 5th Sr.

Darryl Render, So.

*Defensive Tackle

Tyrone Ezell, 5th Sr.

Khaynin Mosley-Smith, Jr.

*Defensive End

Bryan Murphy, RS Jr.

LaQuentin Smith, Jr.

Pitt has to replace one starter in Shane Hale (36 tackles, 9.5 for loss, 3 sacks) but 8 out of the team's top 10 tacklers on the defensive line return---the other player gone is T.J. Clemmings who moved to the offensive line. This unit is led by All-American candidate Aaron Donald who had a great 2012 with 64 tackles and led the team with 18.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks.

A couple more starters return including end Bryan Murphy (27 tackles, 4.5 for loss, 2 sacks) and tackle Tyrone Ezell (39 tackles, 7 for loss, 3.5 sacks) giving the Panthers a really solid corps of veterans up front. Devin Cook (14 tackles, 8 for loss, 1 sack) figures to be the new starter at defensive end.

Their depth has taken a hit recently with the transfer of redshirt freshman defensive tackle Terrell Jackson. What's more junior defensive tackle Khaynin Mosley-Smith (8 tackles) was arrested during the off-season although it is not known how long his suspension will last. Adding depth are Jack Lippert (5 tackles, limited to 2 games in 2012), Darryl Render (6 tackles), and LaQuentin Smith (3 tackles) plus Ohio State transfer David Durham moves here from fullback. Pitt also welcomes 6 freshmen defensive linemen this summer to add to their ranks.

*Weak-side Linebacker

Todd Thomas, RS Jr.

Ejuan Price, Jr.

Mike Caprara, RS Fr.

*Middle Linebacker

Shane Gordon, 5th Sr.

Dan Mason, 5th Sr.

Bam Bradley, RS Fr.

*Strong-side Linebacker

Nicholas Grigsby, RS So.

Anthony Gonzalez, RS Jr.

Devon Porchia, RS Fr.

Pitt would have had all 3 starting linebackers returning for 2013 but an off-season arrest by Eric Williams ended in his dismissal from the program. Following 27 tackles as a redshirt freshman Nicholas Grigsby is projected to move into a starting role at the strong-side spot with Anthony Gonzalez (10 tackles) moving from strong safety to push for playing time as well.

Todd Thomas (59 tackles, 1.5 sacks) returns as the starter at the weak-side but the depth is hurt as the highly regarded Deaysean Rippy is transferring after taking a redshirt in 2012 as a freshman.

Shane Gordon is back patrolling the middle following 48 tackles, 6 for loss, 1.5 sacks a year ago. He's backed up by Dan Mason who's started in the past has but been limited over the past two seasons due to injuries. Pitt welcomes 3 redshirt freshmen and 1 true freshman to the linebacker corps this fall.

*Cornerback

CB K'Waun Williams, Sr.

CB E.J. Banks, 5th Sr.

CB Trenton Coles, RS Fr.

CB Pat Fisher, RS Jr.

*Cornerback

CB Lafayette Pitts, RS So.

CB Cullen Christian, RS. Jr.

CB Jahmahl Pardner, RS Fr.

CB Titus Howard, Fr.

*Strong Safety

FS Ray Vinopal, RS Jr.

SS Jevonte Pitts, RS Fr.

SS Ethan Brown, RS Fr.

SS Tony Harper, Fr.

*Free Safety

FS Jason Hendricks, 5th Sr.

FS Ryan Lewis, RS Fr.

FS Rachid Ibrahim, Fr.

The Panthers are replacing strong safety Jarred Holly who was 2nd on the team in tackles last year with 75 but a trio of starters return in the secondary, including free safety Jason Hendricks who led the team in tackles with 90 in 2012. Former Michigan Wolverine Ray Vinopal looks to take over the strong safety spot after totaling 14 tackles in his first season in Pittsburgh.

The corner position is well stocked with quality starters returning in K'Waun Williams (47 tackles, 4 INT) and rising star Lafayette Pitts (35 tackles). A pair of transfers look to see the 2-deep this fall in former Irish player E.J. Banks and former Michigan player Cullen Christian. In addition, Pitt welcomes 3 freshmen into the secondary this year.

~~~

Final Thoughts

On November 19, 2009 Notre Dame went into Pittsburgh and played a top ten ranked Panther team with a shiny 9-1 record. The Irish would go on to lose that game by 5 points as Pitt football reached a high water mark this century with that evening's victory. Since that win Pitt is 21-21 and gone through 4 coaches. They may be gaining stability as Chryst enters his 2nd season in the Steel City, but some off the field problems, transfers, and losses on offense will ensure some major issues continue to linger.

Defensively the Panthers should be pretty solid and because of that there's a decent chance they turn in a fairly strong season. However, I just don't see the weapons to have an effective offense. Given Chryst's background the running game would scare the heck out of me if I were a Pitt fan, and it's probably going to take a very strong performance by either Savage or Voytik at quarterback to get this team to 8 or 9 wins.

Predicted Game Day Spread: Pittsburgh (+9.5)

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