CFN Preview 2013 - Pitt Panthers
Pitt RB Isaac Bennett
Pitt RB Isaac Bennett
Posted May 11, 2013 2013 Preview - Pittsburgh Panthers

Pitt Panthers

Preview 2013

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By Richard Cirminiello

Head coach: Paul Chryst
Second year: 6-7
Returning Lettermen
Off. 19 Def. 24, ST 3
Lettermen Lost: 19
Ten Best Pitt Players
1. DT Aaron Donald, Sr.
2. WR Devin Street, Sr.
3. FS Jason Hendricks, Sr.
4. CB K’Waun Williams, Sr.
5. DT Tyrone Ezell, Sr.
6. QB Tom Savage, Sr.
7. LB Todd Thomas, Jr.
8. CB Lafayette Pitts, Soph.
9. RB Isaac Bennett, Jr.
10. TE J.P. Holtz, Soph.
2013 Schedule
9/2 Florida State
9/14 New Mexico
9/21 at Duke
10/12 at Virginia Tech
10/19 Old Dominion
10/26 at Navy
11/2 at Georgia Tech
11/9 Notre Dame
11/16 North Carolina
11/23 at Syracuse
11/29 Miami
The upcoming season will mark the beginning of a new era for Pittsburgh football. And for a refreshing change, it’ll have nothing to do with a different coaching staff.

For the first time since 2010, the Panthers will begin a season with the same head coach who was on the sidelines the previous year, Paul Chryst. Oh, there were a few uneasy moments, such as when Bret Bielema announced last Dec. 4 that he was leaving Chryst’s former employer, Wisconsin, for Arkansas. But Chryst resisted the temptation to return to the Big Ten, opting instead to pilot Pitt into the ACC.

After being a member of the Big East since 1991, the Panthers are making the bold—and wise—move of changing conferences. No matter how the decision is dissected, it’s a major victory for the school, both on and off the field. But will competitiveness be a problem? Pitt wasn’t exactly tearing through its old league, never winning an outright championship, and finishing 6-7 in each of the last two years. While the balance sheet is going to look markedly better in the ACC, the Panthers want to avoid becoming Western Pennsylvania’s version of Boston College.

Chryst had a decent first season on the banks of the Allegheny and Ohio Rivers. There were upsets of Virginia Tech and Rutgers, and a third straight trip to the BBVA Compass Bowl. Still, the big news was that Pitt maintained continuity on the sidelines, good news for the players, the fans and the program as a whole.

The majority of Pittsburgh’s talent heading into 2013 lives on the defensive side of the ball. Nine starters return, led by frenetic DT Aaron Donald and an underrated defensive backfield. It won’t be easy throwing the ball on the Panthers, which could entice opposing teams to test a brittle corps of linebackers on the ground.

The offense will be a work-in-progress, especially after the projected focal point, RB Rushel Shell, announced in April that he’d be transferring to UCLA. Without a lot of ready-made talent, WR Devin Street aside, the attack is pinning its hopes on a quarterback who hasn’t played in almost three years. Tom Savage, the one-time Rutgers starter, will attempt to use his final year of eligibility to resurrect both his career and his fourth school’s production.

New league. New opponents. New expectations. Same coach. Pitt is thankful for the relative stability it’s taking into 2013, even in a year when so much around the program is changing.

What to watch for on offense: Did the mass relocations work? Success on offense will—again—hinge on the development of the offensive linemen. The staff has taken an interesting approach to its problems up front, moving around their options like chess pieces. Guards Cory King and Matt Rotheram were starting tackles in 2012. C Gabe Roberts is a converted guard. And T.J. Clemmings? Well, he was at defensive end last fall. LT Adam Bisnowaty has stayed put, but he’s only a redshirt freshman. Are the coaches mad scientists or just plain mad? Time will tell.

What to watch for on defense: The development of the D-ends. Yeah, the Panthers generate plenty of heat from interior linemen Aaron Donald and Tyrone Ezell, but it’s time for the ends to begin pulling more of the weight. Pitt was seventh in the eight-team Big East in sacks in 2012 because the team infrequently pressured the pocket from the edge. David Durham has transferred in from Ohio State, where he’ll be joining holdovers Bryan Murphy, Jack Lippert and Devin Cook in the quest to mount a more consistent pass rush in 2013.

The team will be far better if… it gives the quarterbacks more time to search for open receivers. Pitt was last in the Big East—and 102nd nationally—in sacks allowed in 2012, a perennial problem in these parts that shows no signs of going away. It looks as if the new starting tackles will be a rookie and a recently converted defensive lineman, a harbinger of bad things for the team’s quarterbacks. The Panthers no longer have the luxury of veteran Tino Sunseri behind center. The new hurlers have no experience with this program, one of a number of hurdles being faced by the offense.

The Schedule: Hi, Pitt. Welcome to your new life in the ACC with Florida State in the season opener. At least the interdivisional game is at home, as are September dates against New Mexico and Virginia, but going on the road to deal with Virginia Tech is a tough way to kick off a midseason stretch of three road games in four weeks. On the plus side, the Notre Dame game is at home to start a finishing kick of three home dates in the final four with North Carolina and Miami coming to Heinz.

Best offensive player: Senior WR Devin Street. The rule around Pitt these days is that there are no sure-things on offense. Street is the exception to the rule. The Second Team All-Big East selection pulled down a career-high 73 balls for 975 yards and five touchdowns in 2012, using his reliable hands and 6-4, 190-pound frame to beat opposing defensive backs. While not a burner, who’ll blow through the secondary, Street instead uses fundamentals and tactical skills to get open. He’ll have less help this season, with the graduations of QB Tino Sunseri and WR Mike Shanahan, but is ready for the challenge of being the Panthers’ most prolific playmaker.

Best defensive player: Senior DT Aaron Donald. Never judge a book by its cover. Or in Donald’s case, a tackle by his atypical 6-0, 275-pound frame. The senior has been toying for the past two seasons with opposing linemen who simply cannot contain his quickness or explosive moves. Despite receiving non-stop attention and frequent double-teams, Donald still managed to notch 64 tackles, a Big East-high 18.5 stops for loss and five sacks. Having mastered his old league, No. 97 is excited for the upcoming opportunity to face the ACC’s best blockers.

Key player to a successful season: Senior QB Tom Savage. Pitt needs a quarterback. Savage needs a second chance. In many ways, this has a chance to be a happy—if brief— marriage. If the Panthers’ offense has any chance of improving upon last year’s dismal output, Savage will have to be the key. The team lost feature back Rushel Shell to a transfer in the spring, so the ground game is hardly a certainty. It’ll be up to the former Rutgers quarterback to bring leadership to the huddle, and his powerful arm to the downfield passing game.

The season will be a success if ... the Panthers go bowling in their first season as a member of the ACC. The new schedule is prickly, but non-conference games against New Mexico, Old Dominion and Navy make bowl-eligibility quite a bit more realistic. Pitt isn’t going to compete for a Coastal Division title, but a 13th game will give the coaching staff those much-needed 15 additional practices. Oh, and good news, Panthers. The ACC does not have a tie-in with the BBVA Compass Bowl.

Key game: Nov. 23 at Syracuse. Might this be the tipping point for the postseason? While it’s possible that the Panthers will have already secured the necessary six wins, it’s more likely that they’ll still have a magic at this stage of the season. Pitt and Syracuse will be a renewal of a Big East rivalry that the Panthers have dominated of late with seven wins over the final eight games. The lone loss during the stretch was a one-point heartbreaker in the Carrier Dome last Oct. 5.

2012 Fun Stats:
- Interceptions thrown: Pittsburgh 3 – Opponents 15
- Sacks: Pittsburgh 24 – Opponents 38
- Second-quarter scoring: Pittsburgh 122 - Opponents 63
- 2013 Pitt Preview | 2013 Pitt Offense
- 2013 Pitt Defense | 2013 Pitt Depth Chart