Pitt forecast: Where the Panthers stand after spring
A position-by-position breakdown of how the Pitt football team looks after spring practices:
Fifth-year senior transfer Tom Savage has a clear edge over redshirt freshman Chad Voytik. But Savage isn't always accurate, and he admits that becoming a leader in his one and only season at Pitt will take time. With Savage, coach Paul Chryst trades Voytik's quick feet for age, experience, size and arm strength. The velocity on Savage's throws tops anything seen at a Pitt practice since Joe Flacco in 2004.
Rushel Shell's decision to leave school is a significant loss, but Chryst showed his team he will treat a potential star like any other player. It set the right tone. Pitt will miss Shell's power, but Isaac Bennett has the patience to pick the right hole, the determination to keep his legs churning and a team-first attitude. But the lack of depth is a big problem.
Starters include two redshirt freshmen (left tackle Adam Bisnowaty and center Gabe Roberts), a former defensive end playing right tackle (T.J. Clemmings), and guards (Cory King and Matt Rotheram) who were out of position as tackles last season. Good thing line coach Jim Hueber knows the right buttons to push. This looks like a unit with room for prize recruit Dorian Johnson, who arrives this summer.
Unless at least two of the inexperienced pass catchers fighting for a starting job emerge as reasonably legitimate threats, Devin Street will face double teams weekly. Summer — and Tyler Boyd — can't get here fast enough for an offense that needs playmakers. Street (151 career receptions, nine TDs) has the look of a star. Just as important, he seems to enjoy stepping into a leadership role.
Perhaps the signature play of J.P. Holtz's freshman season was when he lowered his shoulder into Syracuse safety Shamarko Thomas, a projected high NFL Draft choice. The helmet flew wildly from Thomas' head, and he lay motionless on the Carrier Dome carpet for several minutes before slowly getting to his feet. Holtz can catch and deliver a blow, but Drew Carswell, Manasseh Garner and Scott Orndoff will challenge him for playing time.
Pitt's offensive linemen spent much of the spring trying to figure out how to block tackle Aaron Donald, who has the strength to stand out from the crowd, the willingness to do whatever it takes and a love for the game. But there's more: Pitt coaches seldom rave about anything, but more than one has mentioned the developing depth on the line. When Ty Ezell lines up next to Donald, that's a lot of beef.
Todd Thomas brings good speed and enough upper-body strength to impact the run defense. Anthony Gonzalez is a gifted athlete who was miscast as a quarterback, but he has the instincts that all good defensive players need. Shane Gordon's return to the middle from a neck injury will make this unit better, but no one complained about his replacement, redshirt freshman Mike Caprara.
Cornerbacks K'Waun Williams and Lafayette Pitts can run and jump with most pass catchers, but here is their best trait: They play physical and nasty. Getting beat – and they will – won't bother them because they can't wait for the next play. Free safety Jason Hendricks' six interceptions last season represented the most at Pitt in 12 years, and his spring toe injury allowed Eric Williams to learn the position and build depth.
When freshman Chris Blewitt arrives with his scholarship and strong leg, he will compete for the No. 1 job with walk-on junior Drake Greer. But replacing Kevin Harper, who hit 14 of his final 16 field-goal attempts and 72 of 73 career extra points, won't be easy. Chryst needs to develop a level of trust with his new kicker, and that will take time. No worries at punter: Senior Matt Yoklic returns for his third season.