With the exception of last year's Orange Bowl
victory trouncing over Mississippi State, our game against Pittsburgh was the most fun for me to watch. The game came right after back-to-back losses against Duke and UNC, so the Jackets needed a turn around. This game definitely served that purpose. It did not take very long at all for the Jackets defense to make itself known, forcing a fumble on the very first drive of the game, but it wasn't until that second drive that Tech cemented themselves as a legitimate threat for the rest of the season. Tech had just scored on offense and kicked the ball off to Pitt, who started their drive on the 25-yard line. First play, hand-off to James Conner. As he starts running up the sidelines, I begin to think that this game is going to turn into a shootout similar to the UNC fiasco the week before.
But then things changed. Junior cornerback DJ White chased him down and was able to force the fumble as Conner was about to score the touchdown to tie the game up. From that point to the end of the season, the Yellow Jackets never really looked back. Tech cruised through most of the rest of their schedule, winning the rest of the regular season games before giving Florida State their biggest scare of the season up to that point. It served as a turning point for the team and especially the defense. So before we get started previewing, take a moment (or two-and-a-half hours) and enjoy this game again (and again).
HC Paul Chryst
The first guy up that is no longer with the Panthers is the head man himself, Paul Chryst. After a moderately successful stint at Pitt, Chryst left the Panthers to go be the head coach for the Wisconsin Badgers, where he was the offensive coordinator prior to taking the Pitt head coaching job. In his three seasons with the Panthers, Chryst went 19-19, but had his best success last season, finishing in third place in the ACC Coastal division with a 4-4 conference record. He left the team before their participation in the Armed Forces Bowl.
WR Manasseh Garner
I'm guessing a lot of y'all probably saw this name and thought "Who?" Well Manasseh Garner was the second-leading receiver for the Panthers last season (after Tyler Boyd obviously). Garner finished the season with 17 receptions for 201 yards. He was also the only receiver, other than Boyd, to be targeted more than 30 times over the season.
RT TJ Clemmings and RG Matt Rotheram
It's never easy losing experienced players from the offensive line. Unfortunately for the Panthers, they lost quite a bit of experience between TJ Clemmings and Matt Rotheram. Combined, Clemmings and Rotheram started 65 games. And these were two pretty good offensive linemen too. In doing an excellent job of opening up holes for James Conner, Clemmings finished the season 1st Team All-ACC and Rotheram 2nd Team.
DE David Durham
Pitt's defensive front wasn't anything to write home about last season, but they still lost a key piece from the defensive line in David Durham. He contributed 3.0 sacks (good for second-best on the team) in his 12 starts last season and also had 3.5 tackles for loss.
LBs Anthony Gonzalez and Todd Thomas
Out of all of their losses, the losses of Anthony Gonzalez and Todd Thomas probably hurt the most. Together, Gonzalez and Thomas took care of over 20 percent of the team's tackles (source), while also both having at least 5.0 tackles for loss.
FS Ray Vinopal
The major loss from the secondary is Ray Venopal. Venopal was the leading tackler for the secondary with 55.5 tackles. In addition to being a solid tackler, he also had a knack for making plays, shown by his two interceptions, two forced fumbles and five pass break-ups.
QB Chad Voytik
As un-good as Pitt's defense is (they're really not terrible), their offense more than makes up for it. Most of that comes from these next three players. First up is the starting quarterback Chad Voytik. Voytik had a pretty solid year last season, completing 61.3 percent of his passes for 2,233 yards, 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions. With another year of development and a new offensive coordinator in Jim Chaney, Voytik could very easily take a step up into the upper echelon of ACC quarterbacks. He will need to learn to throw it to someone other than Tyler Boyd though. Out of his 287 pass attempts last season, 122 of those were directed at Boyd. In other words, he was targeted 42.5 percent of the time. Other teams are going to notice that.
RB James Conner
In addition to being the key cog in this offense, James Conner may very well be the best player in the ACC. He's big, strong and decently fast at 6-foot-2 250 pounds. The thing to worry about with Conner, though, is his workload. Last season, he carried the ball 298 times (seventh-most in the country). For a running back his age, that is a heavy workload. Granted, he averaged nearly six yards a carry last year, a continuation of that workload could wear him out. For Conner to stay in top form, I would suggest they look at either passing a little more often or doing a better job of rotating in other running backs (no other player for Pitt had even 90 carries last year).
WR Tyler Boyd
Does Pitt have anyone else to throw it to? Not really. Like I said earlier, in passing situations, Boyd was targeted about 43 percent of the time. Looking at that reminds me of how Tech was when Calvin Johnson wore the Old Gold and White. It always seemed like we were trying to get the ball to him in some form or fashion. It's nice to have a good receiver, but if he's the only one you got, that makes it really easy for defenses to key in on him and take him out of the play.
A Fairly Experienced Offensive Line
In spite of losing the two most experienced players on the O-line, Pitt still returns four players with at least 10 starts. The two guys to keep an eye on in this group made up the entire left side of the line last season: Adam Bisnowaty and Dorian Johnson. As former four-star and five-star recruits (respectively), a lot was expected out of these two players. It took them a little while, but they definitely started to come into their own towards the end of last season.
DE Rori Blair
I've said it before, and now I'm going to say it again. Pitt's defensive line is nothing to write home about. Rori Blair is probably the closest you get though, at least in terms of pass rushers. He finished the season leading the Panthers in sacks with 5.5 as a true freshman and former two-star recruit. Gaining another year in a college-level strength and conditioning program and being able to work under new head coach Pat Narduzzi can do nothing but help Blair turn into a dynamite pass rusher.
LB Matt Galambos
With two linebackers leaving the defense, someone needs to step up and help replace them. Gonzalez and Thomas may have been the best that Pitt had to offer, but Matt Galambos was not very far behind them. He had a pretty good year last year, finishing with 57.5 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss.
CB Lafayette Pitts
Pitt's secondary has a chance to be pretty good this season, even though they lost Ray Vinopal at free safety. Lafayette Pitts is a big reason for that. Last season, Pitts tied for the team lead in interceptions with two, but also managed six pass break-ups. As a senior and the most experienced player in the secondary, he will be relied on as a leader there.
SS Reggie Mitchell
Reggie Mitchell is the other key cog in the secondary. Pitts was pretty good last year, but Mitchell was even better. He finished the season with 53 tackles (3.0 for loss), a sack, two forced fumbles and seven pass break-ups. He still has two years of development, so he still has plenty of time to keep growing and getting better.
K Chris Blewitt
As ironic as his name is for a kicker, Chris Blewitt is actually a pretty solid kicker. He was nearly perfect on PATs (50-51) and also was very respectable on his field goals (16-21, including 7-10 from 40+). The Panthers are just going to need him to improve and hope he doesn't blow it in a big situation again.
HC Pat Narduzzi
This is probably the most important addition for the Panthers. I really like Pat Narduzzi as a coach. Despite living in Mark Dantonio's shadow at Michigan State, he was able to craft some very formidable defenses that nobody would want to face. Now that he has the opportunity to be in charge, I think he's got a chance to be a very good head coach. It will probably take him a year to get settled in at Pitt and to bring in some more talent on defense, but when it's all said and done, Narduzzi is going to be a name to remember.
RG Alex Bookser
Now a redshirt freshman, Alex Bookser may very well be given a chance to start. Standing at 6-foot-6 310 pounds, Bookser has great size for an offensive lineman and was rated highly coming out of high school (four-star by Rivals and 247Sports). In the post-spring depth chart, Bookser was listed as the starter at right guard, but he also has the versatility to play right tackle as well.
DB Jordan Whitehead
Jordan Whitehead was far and away the best recruit Pitt had last season. Rated as a four-star by both Rivals (5.9) and 247Sports (0.9494), Whitehead is a defensive back who stands at 5-foot-10 180 pounds. After some recruiting drama last season, Whitehead landed with the Panthers. He is projected at safety and could be in play for playing time as soon as this year.
It's kind of tough to get a read on Pittsburgh. I know the offense is going to be good riding their trio of Votik, Conner and Boyd, but there's not a whole lot to like on the defensive side of the ball. There is still a lot of growth and development that needs to happen there. If Pat Narduzzi can have as much of an impact as I think he can on that defense this year, then watch out for the Panthers. At this point though, I think it's likely that Pitt finishes around 7-5 this year. The nonconference schedule is a little tough with both Iowa and Notre Dame on it, but I think the schedule as a whole is pretty manageable for the Panthers. As for their game against Tech, it'll probably look a whole lot prettier for the Panthers, but at this point I see them losing somewhere in the neighborhood of 35-24.