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Pitt football team rallies around its youth

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Pitt's projected starters

Freshmen Position

Ryan Winslow* Punter

Sophomores Position

Adam Bisnowaty* Offensive tackle

Chris Blewitt Kicker

Tyler Boyd Wide receiver

James Conner Running back

Matt Galambos Middle linebacker

Dorian Johnson Guard

Reggie Mitchell* Cornerback

Jaymar Parrish Fullback/tight end

Shakir Soto Defensive end

Chad Voytik* Quarterback

Terrish Webb Strong safety

Juniors Position

J.P. Holtz Tight end

K.K. Mosley-Smith* Nose tackle

Lafayette Pitts* Cornerback

Darryl Render Defensive tackle

Artie Rowell* Center

Seniors Position

T.J. Clemmings* Offensive tackle

Anthony Gonzalez* Outside linebacker

David Durham* Defensive end

Manasseh Garner* Wide receiver

Matt Rotheram* Guard

Todd Thomas* Outside linebacker

Ray Vinopal* Free safety

* — Redshirts

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Friday, Aug. 22, 2014, 7:21 p.m.
 

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.

Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media - Pitt running back Chris James goes through drills during practice Friday, Aug. 8, 2014 on Pittsburgh's South Side.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media</em></div>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.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media</em></div>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.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media</em></div>Pitt coach Paul Chryst looks on as quarterback Chad Voytik sets up to pass during practice Monday, Aug. 4, 2014, on the South Side.
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