Pitt football must prepare for different type of athletes in ACC
By Jerry DiPaola
Published: Monday, July 22, 2013, 11:51 p.m.
GREENSBORO, N.C. — Pitt wide receiver Devin Street used the phrase so many times that the next step might be tattooing it on his hands or reflexively repeating it in his sleep.
“Football is football,” said Street, when asked the difference between his former conference, the Big East, and his new one, the ACC.
There is some truth to that cliche. The playing surfaces of the ACC are 100 yards long, and touchdowns are worth six points. There have been great players in both conferences.
But even Street admitted times are changing at Pitt, and the Panthers must prepare for increased speed, athleticism and tempo from their ACC opponents.
“We have to be impervious to that and persevere,” Street said. “We have to do the little things and make plays, not go out there and play conservative football.”
The perception is that the ACC has bigger, faster players, and it's hard to argue the facts: Six ACC All-Americans the past two seasons, one from the Big East; 30 ACC players drafted by the NFL this year, 21 from the Big East (and none from Pitt since 2011). Since 2005, Pitt is 3-3 against the ACC.
More to the point, Pitt ended the past two seasons with blowout losses in the BBVA Compass Bowl to average teams from Conference USA (SMU) and the SEC (Ole Miss). In both cases, the Panthers couldn't keep up with those teams' speed and ended up losing, 28-6 and 38-17, respectively.
“They had different speed, bigger, a little stronger,” Street said.
Street said he expects a few new twists in the offense, a product of a second season of exposure to coach Paul Chryst's style and the need to adapt.
Chryst, of course, had no interest Monday in discussing his game plans or what changes he may make — not with rival ACC coaches sitting with reporters only a few arm lengths from him during ACC media day.
“I have to ask Devin what the heck he is talking about,” Chryst said, smiling.
But he has looked at Florida State, he said. What he saw was what he expected: a good team that knows what it's doing. College football has been full of such teams throughout its existence.
“It looks to me like the players understand (their systems),” Chryst said. “They have not just athletes but the football part of the athletes. They are worthy of the praise and accolades.”
Asked if the ACC brand is based on speed, he said, “There are some good players who happen to be fast. I don't have to figure that out. I just have to know who we are playing and prepare for it.”
Duke cornerback Ross Cockrell, who plays Pitt on Sept. 21 in Durham, N.C., said he doesn't expect the Panthers to have trouble adjusting to the speed in the ACC.
“They played against guys at West Virginia (NFL rookies Tavon Austin and Steadman Bailey, for example) for a long time,” Cockrell said. “It may take a few games to get adjusted, but there are fast guys in each and every conference. ... As long as you respect the kind of talent that's out there, you should be fine.”
Cockrell did admit there are different types of athletes in the ACC, from elusive wide receiver Rashad Greene of Florida State to Clemson's Sammy Watkins, who combines speed and size.
Then there is Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd, the 2012 ACC Player of the Year, the preseason choice this year and a Heisman Trophy candidate.
“Each one presents different challenges,” Cockrell said. “What's tough is you have to change your game each and every week to kind of fit the receiver you are going against. And Boyd is the most challenging you have to defend just because he has so many weapons (receivers) at his disposal.”
Where will Pitt emerge in the hierarchy of ACC teams? It's too soon to ask Chryst.
“We can talk about who we want to be,” he said. “That doesn't mean jack. Do we have a vision? Do we have a direction? Absolutely. Our plans better be that way.”
Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.
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