College football preview: Pitt
By Jerry DiPaola
Published: Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, 11:57 p.m.
3 reasons why Pitt will win
1. Another pass-catcher emerges to take the heat off Devin Street.
Street is an experienced senior who has taken on the added responsibility of reading the team's moral compass. “Sometimes, we weren't successful because guys were putting themselves ahead of the team,” he said of past Pitt failures. But on the field is where it really matters, and he can't do it alone. Tight ends J.P. Holtz and Manasseh Garner look like a legitimate candidates to lessen Street's burden. Plus, will the stage be too big for freshman wide receiver Tyler Boyd?
2. The secondary, which looks to be strongest area of the team, proves to be even more disruptive than expected.
For too long, Pitt players have lacked a nasty streak. It's time to change that. Cornerbacks K'Waun Williams and Lafayette Pitts seem to have it, enjoying their practice confrontations with Street, often winning them and celebrating with soft trash talk when they do. Pitt was at its best when Williams and Pitts played well last season; they'll need to do that for 12 games now. Safety Jason Hendricks also plays with an edge plus a nose for the football (six interceptions last year).
3. Quarterbacks step forward.
Before the start of training camp, Tom Savage, who has only one year of eligibility remaining, said he needed to play with a sense of urgency. He struggled to get in sync with his receivers early in camp but improved considerably at the end. Savage hasn't played since 2010, and the rust will show. Trust coach Paul Chryst to know how to minimize his problems at quarterback — just like he did when he turned Tino Sunseri into an efficient passer last season. Worst case scenario: Chad Voytik isn't a bad fallback plan.
3 reasons why Pitt will lose
1. The young offensive line struggles while trying to contain the speed rushers of the ACC.
Chryst is building a line, according to his plan: tall, thick and determined young men who work well together. But he can't do anything about their age. What happens if redshirt freshman left tackle Adam Bisnowaty lines up against preseason All-ACC senior end Kareem Martin of North Carolina? Bisnowaty has seen no end close to Martin in practice. How about Florida State defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, a projected NFL No. 1 draft choice, vs. inexperienced centers Gabe Roberts and Artie Rowell?
2. A poor pass rush gets no better.
The secondary could turn into a weakness if Pitt can't generate pressure on the quarterback. Junior defensive end Bryan Murphy had only two sacks last season, and his bookend counterpart, David Durham, sat out after transferring from Ohio State where he played fullback. Freshman Shakir Soto is in the mix, which indicates coaches are looking for help at the position. Which brings us to junior Ejuan Price: The previous coaching staff thought he could become an elite pass-rusher (four sacks as a freshman), but he missed last season with a pectoral injury.
3. Unfamiliarity with the ACC eventually catches up to players and coaches.
Pitt loves the ACC, with its fertile recruiting territory, better opponents that help create a bigger buzz and noisy stadiums that ESPN savors. One problem: The players are better, too. Pitt knew what to expect from UConn and Cincinnati — and had trouble with those teams, too — but the speed rushers and elusive backs and receivers create a new set of problems. Pitt hasn't been known for speed for a long time, and this year's team is faster but not fast. That's a problem.
Who to watch
RS freshman, offensive tackle
Bisnowaty, a Fox Chapel graduate, appears destined to be a fixture on Pitt's offensive line for two or three years after this one. He has the size (6-6, 300) coach Paul Chryst demands from his linemen but also the requisite flexibility and footwork.
Freshman, wide receiver
Coaches hate to put excessive pressure on a true freshman, but Pitt has little choice in Boyd's case. Clearly, he is the second-best receiver on an offense frightfully devoid of playmakers, and if he can handle it, he could be a fixture on offense.
Senior, defensive tackle
Ezell was a good player last season with 39 tackles, seven for a loss. But at 6-foot-4, 305 pounds, it's time for the Steel Valley graduate to put that big body to greater use. With Ezell and Aaron Donald side by side, Pitt will have a strong run defense.
Senior, middle linebacker
What you have to like about Gordon is his ability to run toward and beyond the line of scrimmage (six tackles for a loss last season) and drop into pass coverage (six pass breakups). All signs point toward the fifth-year senior having his best season.
If Pitts, one of five Woodland Hills graduates on the team, can find consistency, he has the skills and mindset to be one of the ACC's best pass defenders. Last season, he was brilliant against Notre Dame. Not so much six days later in a loss against a poor UConn team.
vs. Florida State
The Seminoles have six preseason All-ACC selections, and disruptive defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan can terrorize a young Pitt offensive line.
vs. New Mexico
Former Notre Dame coach Bob Davie won four games last year in his first season in Albuquerque, but the Lobos had three total victories in the three previous years.
Keep the football away from Duke cornerback Ross Cockrell, one of the nation's best, and Pitt has a chance. Overall, the Blue Devils ranked 105th nationally in total defense in 2013.
No ACC coach sits on a hotter seat than the Cavaliers' Mike London, who was 4-8 last season after an 8-5 record in 2011. OT Morgan Moses (6-foot-6, 325 pounds) can dominate Pitt's ends.
at Virginia Tech
Pitt caught the Hokies napping last season in a 35-17 victory at Heinz Field, but quarterback Logan Thomas is older, wiser and bigger — 6-6, 257.
vs. Old Dominion
Before jumping to Conference USA in 2014, the Monarchs enter this season as a projected top-10 team in the FCS with potential All-American quarterback Taylor Heinicke.
This will be the first of two consecutive games against option and run-oriented teams. Keenan Reynolds was the third freshman in Navy history to start at quarterback last season.
at Georgia Tech
Linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu had 10 sacks last season, but look on the other side of the ball. Whether Pitt can stifle the Yellow Jackets' flexbone offense will be the key to this game.
vs. Notre Dame
Pitt couldn't stop nose guard Louis Nix and defensive end Stephon Tuitt when it counted last year in South Bend. A year later, Pitt has less experience on its offensive line.
vs. North Carolina
Free from NCAA sanctions, coach Larry Fedora met reporters last month while sipping an energy drink. His offense is also high-powered, scoring 50 or more points four times in 2012.
The Orange lost their coach (Doug Marrone), quarterback (Ryan Nassib) and relatively cushy berth in the Big East. Running back Jerome Smith is back, though, after five 100-yard games.
The Hurricanes have two of the best players in the conference — quarterback Stephen Morris, who threw for 3,345 yards, and running back Duke Johnson, a freshman All-American last year.
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