Sam Werner's Pitt football chat transcript: 9.12.13

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Poll Question:

Who will be Pitt's leader in total yardage this week?

Answer #1:

Tyler Boyd (50%)

Answer #2:

Devin Street (34%)

Answer #3:

Isaac Bennett (0%)

Answer #4:

James Conner (16%)

Answer #5:

Other (0%)

Mike Burk, Sarasota, FL: Sam, out of towner, so i am not asking because I looking at next year but you our eyes and ears in the program. Any redshirts and/or freshman catch your eye in practice that you would like to talk about?

Sam Werner: Now that the season has started, our practice viewing window has been severely reduced. We only get a half-hour twice a week, as opposed to the full practices we could watch during training camp. So most of these observations will be made on what I saw during camp. The obvious one is offensive lineman Dorian Johnson, who it seems like is heading for a redshirt this year (barring an injury forcing him into action). He has the talent to be a four-year (or three-year if he jumps early) starter for the Panthers. Beyond him, I think some of the freshmen that played Monday are going to end up having good careers for Pitt. Titus Howard and Terrish Webb definitely have futures in the secondary, and I was pretty impressed with how natural Shakir Soto looked at defensive end. Of course, if Tyler Boyd can count as an answer, he's pretty good too.

Pitt13to9: It seems that Todd Thomas is still on the outside looking in. Do you believe he will play a lot more this week, despite not being named a starter?

Sam Werner: For now, I'd say so. All the coaches I've talked to have been pretty terse and non-committal when asked about Thomas. Both Matt House and Paul Chryst said some variation of "Todd's just like everyone else. He has to earn his spot," which seems to imply that he has not done enough, in their eyes, to earn a starting job. I'm not sure how long they plan on punishing him for the stunt he pulled during training camp, but at a certain point I don't see how you can keep him off the field. Facing a ground-based attack this week, his athleticism could go a long way towards stopping the New Mexico option.

Tom Savages kitten: Do you expect more balls thrown Boyd's way this week?

Sam Werner: Probably, though it's tough to say for certain. There are a couple of ways it could go: first, they could find Boyd open because the defense is keying on Street or, two, the Lobo defense could respect Boyd and open things up for a monster game from Devin Street. The only designed way I think Boyd will get more touches is in the end-arounds and maybe a couple of screen passes. Given what we saw from him against Florida State, getting the ball in Boyd's hands should be a priority against the Lobos.

Matt: In your opinion, is Chris Haering doing a poor job coaching the linebackers and is he any good as a recruiter?

Sam Werner: It's tough to say on his coaching ability, since he has split up the linebacker duties with John Palermo this year, but there's no doubt that the unit struggled against Florida State (especially on their pass responsibilities). As far as a recruiter, I think this year will be pretty telling. He was brought on to help Pitt bring on the elite WPIAL kids, and they've done a good (not great) job in that respect so far. As far as guys Haering coached at Mt. Lebo, they lost out on Troy Apke to Penn State, but are still very much in the running for Alex Bookser. Bookser is the kind of recruit that Haering was hired to land, so it'll be interesting to watch.

Davieson: What things does Pitt need to focus on in order to stop New Mexico's Offense?

Sam Werner: The biggest thing will just be playing sound, disciplined football and sticking with their assignments (something Pitt did not do very well at all against Florida State). Against an option team, it can be really tempting to ditch your man and swarm to the ball on a run, but if you do that and you're supposed to cover the pitch man, you'll get burned on the pitch. The key to stopping an option is not being discouraged by giving up runs of 4-6 yards. That's going to happen. What you can't do is give up the 60-yard home runs because you got caught out of position. Eventually, you'll get the offense in a third-and-long and force the offense into an uncomfortable position.

Sam Werner: An addendum to that answer is that it's very important for Pitt to jump out to an early lead. If you fall behind an option team early, they can just grind the ball on the ground all day long. If you take a lead, it forces them to play catchup and get out of their comfort zone.

Alex in Shadyside: What's the running back rotation going to look like this week?

Sam Werner: I would expect the same as we saw against Florida State, with a heavy mix of both Isaac Bennett and James Conner leading the way. Those two will probably have roughly the same number of carries, unless one of those guys gets hot and the staff wants to ride the hot hand. If they run the ball the way they want to, I also wouldn't be surprised to see more Rachid Ibrahim and even some Malcolm Crockett in the mix. Paul Chryst has said that he's going to stick with a running back by committee, so that's what we'll see.

HerkwasonBoardwalkSunday: Do you expect the Tight Ends to be more of a focus this week? We heard a lot about them all camp and there were not a ton of passes sent their way on Labor Day night.

Sam Werner: Wait Herk was on Boardwalk Empire this Sunday? I don't watch Boardwalk Empire, but that's pretty cool. Anyways, the short answer is yes. I think, similar to the running game, Pitt's offense was just thrown out of whack against Florida State by how that game went. They had to take some more chances since they were down big pretty quickly. I also think guys like Scott Orndoff and Manasseh Garner, who were making their debuts against Florida State, will be a little more comfortable in game action this week against New Mexico.

Joseph: Do you expect Coach House's play calling to be more aggressive this week, with particular focus on getting pressure on the QB?

Sam Werner: No. If anything, I would expect a slightly more conservative game plan this week. New Mexico is terrible at passing the ball (rank 121st in Div. I-A), and their offense is predicated on a run-based option. If you get aggressive and blitz the heck out of them, they'll burn you with option runs. The best way to stop New Mexico is by playing back, controlling your gaps and limiting most of their runs to 3-5 yards. Pitt will probably give up a lot of rushing yards Saturday, as long as they avoid giving up one or two home runs, they'll be fine.

Alex in Shadyside: Are any other receivers going to get looks besides Devin Street and Tyler Boyd?

Sam Werner: Those guys will be the two main targets, but Chryst did say this week that he thought Kevin Weatherspoon had a nice game against Florida State, even though he didn't register a catch. He's a guy who could get some looks against New Mexico. I think the tight ends will also be a bigger part of the passing game this week, as I mentioned before. Overall, I would expect the Pitt offense to look more diversified and in-rhythm against New Mexico than it did against Florida State. The Seminoles did a great job taking Pitt out of its groove early, while I think Pitt will probably control the game against the Lobos.

Jon: What do you make of the early season struggles the last two years in pass coverage? Last year, the pass defense got much better as the season went on. I was expecting a much better performance vs FSU in that regard.

Sam Werner: That's a really good question, and one I'm not sure I have a great answer for. The defense struggled mightily overall early on the last two years. In the Cincinnati game last year, the Bearcats gashed Pitt on the ground, but Pitt bounced back to have a good year defensively. The one thing that may play in is that this staff has long held a philosophy that they'll tailor the game plan around their players, rather than vice versa. It could be that they're still figuring out what kind of talent they have on defense and what is the best way to use it. A lot of the faces are back, but there are some new guys in there too. The one thing I know for sure is that if Pitt's defense rebounds the same way it did last year, the Panthers will be just fine.

Sam Werner: That's all the time we have for today, folks. Pitt vs. New Mexico kicks off at 12:30 p.m. Saturday on the ACC Network (WTAE in Pittsburgh). You can follow me on Twitter @SWernerPG for the latest.

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