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Pitt football team rallies around its youth

| Friday, Aug. 22, 2014, 7:21 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Pitt running back Chris James goes through drills during practice Friday, Aug. 8, 2014 on Pittsburgh's South Side.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Pitt running back Qadree Ollison goes through drills during practice Friday, Aug. 8, 2014, on the South Side.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Pitt coach Paul Chryst looks on as quarterback Chad Voytik sets up to pass during practice Monday, Aug. 4, 2014, on the South Side.

The numbers add up. Truth is hard to ignore.

Pitt will carry a young team into this season that opens against Delaware next Saturday at Heinz Field.

The starting lineup includes 11 sophomores, seven seniors, five juniors and a redshirt freshman. Of the 82 scholarship players, 61 (74 percent) have three years of eligibility remaining. Only 11 are seniors.

Offensive line coach Jim Hueber hears that and immediately reacts, his voice firm and serious. Maybe it's more realistic to expect bigger feats next year, but that doesn't answer the question of now.

“We won't take youth or inexperience as an excuse,” Hueber said. “The guys who don't have game experience or minimal game experience, they have to step up for us in a big way early and continue it through the season.

“We don't need to struggle because of any kind of youth.”

Coach Paul Chryst won't admit it — he always defers to the players in the locker room — but this is finally his team. His unremarkable 13-13 record the past two years was partially the result of somebody else's players.

Now half of the recruits from the 2011 and '12 classes are gone (19 of 38). A total of 49 players (60 percent) were recruited exclusively by Chryst, including eight sophomores who weren't redshirted last year and are part of this season's starting lineup.

“You can't even remotely think that this looks like the same team when we took over (in December 2011),” Hueber said. “Attitude, body type, the way we practice, the way we move around.

“Now will that equate to wins? Time will tell.”

To that end, the seniors are important and won't be ignored by the coaching staff. Four of them — linebackers Anthony Gonzalez and Todd Thomas and defensive end David Durham and safety Ray Vinopal — are valuable pieces on defense. Vinopal and senior offensive tackle T.J. Clemmings are co-captains, voted by their teammates and endorsed by Chryst as two of the hardest workers on the team.

Even backup seniors such as running back Isaac Bennett and wide receiver Kevin Weatherspoon will play a role. Bennett is insurance if freshmen Chris James and Qadree Ollison are slow to adapt to the college game: Weatherspoon easily could slide into that third wide receiver spot while the younger pass catchers deal with growing pains.

“It's small in numbers,” Chryst said of the senior class when he spoke Friday at the kickoff luncheon, “but it's got substance.”

Sophomore quarterback Chad Voytik never has started a game in college, but he is a leader by virtue of his position. He respects his elders.

“We have guys who are still here from past regimes,” he said. “They are our leaders. We do feel we have a group (of younger players) we can all rally behind, but we are really relying on the seniors.”

Stirring the mix and forming a winning team is a difficult trick to accomplish. Hueber, who will start sophomores Adam Bisnowaty at left tackle and Dorian Johnson at left guard, said he can't spend an excessive amount of time correcting older players when the young ones need more attention.

“The seniors have to help us, and the young guys have to not ride along,” Hueber said. “They have to get involved right away.”

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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