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COLLEGE FOOTBALL PRESEASON TOP 25
ACC Coastal PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Paul Chryst, 6-7 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Joe Rudolph | DEF. COORDINATOR: Matt House
Pittsburgh makes its debut in the Atlantic Coast Conference facing more question marks than a CSI detective. Second-year coach Paul Chryst must replace three-year starting quarterback Tino Sunseri, No. 2 all-time rusher Ray Graham and blue-chip tailback Rushel Shell, who transferred during spring drills after producing 641 yards as a freshman. He was to be the centerpiece of the offense.
At quarterback, fifth-year senior Tom Savage is intriguing. Savage began his career at Rutgers as the “future” of that program, having been ranked among the top-10 prep quarterbacks in the nation. He started 11 games as a freshman in 2009, but got injured, lost his job, and transferred to Arizona in 2011. He then bolted for Pitt. The question is: Will he regain the form that made him one of the most sought-after players in the nation four years ago, or will he be a casualty of unfulfilled promise? If he struggles, dual-threat redshirt freshman Chad Voytik could take over.
Pittsburgh’s top two running backs — Isaac Bennett and Malcolm Crockett — are relatively untested. The hope for Pittsburgh is that the offensive line can dominate like the ones Chryst used to oversee as coordinator at Wisconsin, easing the burden on the backs.
Pittsburgh features a game-breaker at receiver in Devin Street (73 catches for 975 yards last season), though he’ll need one of the inexperienced receivers opposite him to emerge.
First-year coordinator Matt House returns eight starters from a unit that ranked 17th nationally. Senior tackle Aaron Donald is a two-time All-Big East player who ranked 12th in the nation in tackles for a loss. He and nose tackle Tyrone Ezell form a potent one-two punch in stopping the run. On the outside, the tandem of returning starter Bryan Murphy and David Durham, a converted fullback and Ohio State transfer, look to improve the Panthers’ sack totals of a year ago.
The linebacking corps teems with athleticism, a necessity in facing ACC spread offenses. Middle linebacker Shane Gordon, who finished second on the team in pass breakups, is flanked by former blue-chip quarterback Anthony Gonzalez and versatile playmaker Todd Thomas.
The secondary, which helped Pitt rank 20th against the pass, is led by safety Jason Hendricks, who ranked sixth nationally in interceptions per game. Returning starting cornerbacks K’Waun Williams and Lafayette Pitts are primed for big years.
It is imperative that the defense carries Pittsburgh early while the offense transitions.
Pittsburgh must replace departed placekicker Kevin Harper, who made 20-of-27 field goals in 2012. That job will likely go to incoming freshman Chris Blewitt. Matt Yoklic returns as the punter for the third season.
Change is sweeping through the Pittsburgh football program as it moves from the Big East to the ACC. But the absolute biggest storyline is what remains the same: Chryst. By returning, Chryst ended a tumultuous three-year odyssey in which Pittsburgh saw three different coaches lead its program. The next step for Chryst is to elevate a team that has been mediocre the past three seasons.
With uncertainty at quarterback and running back — and with the transition to a new conference — Pittsburgh likely will endure growing pains. The Panthers, though, could go a long way toward building instant momentum by defeating ACC foe Florida State in a nationally televised season opener at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh nearly pulled off a triple-overtime win at Notre Dame last season, so an upset isn’t out of the question. Nor is a slight improvement in Chryst’s second season.