Pitt football preview: Three keys to the season


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1. CAN THE OFFENSE FIND PLAYMAKERS?

The Panthers enter the 2013 season with no shortage of uncertainty on offensive, especially at the skill positions. Quarterback Tom Savage hasn't played a competitive snap since 2010, presumed starting running back Rushel Shell left in spring practice and later transferred and the Panthers return virtually no experienced receivers behind redshirt senior Devin Street.

Junior Isaac Bennett will take over at running back, but Pitt also will rely on freshman James Conner to pick up some carries. Former Clairton star Tyler Boyd appears to have won the second receiver job and the Panthers will have to hope the freshman can be a game-changer at the college level right away, especially with Street likely drawing the focus from most defenses.

Street made the jump to being a big-time playmaker last year with 73 catches for 975 yards and five touchdowns, but Pitt will need someone else on offense to make a similar jump and provide a complementary weapon.

2. CAN THE DEFENSE CARRY THE LOAD, ESPECIALLY EARLY?

A common theme in Pitt's best performances of 2012 was a strong showing by its defense. The defense might have even been a bit underrated last year, finishing 17th in Division I-A in total defense.

They return nine starters on that side of the ball, including preseason first-team all-Atlantic Coast Conference safety Jason Hendricks and defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who is on the Bednarik Award watch list.

Linebacker Todd Thomas' role is still uncertain. The athletic Beaver Falls graduate quit the team for a week early in training camp, but has since returned to work with the second team. If he's on the field, Thomas can provide a major boost for the defense.

The unit will be adjusting to new defensive coordinator Matt House, who was the secondary coach last year. House has eight years of college coaching under his belt and has never been a defensive coordinator before. Players have said House has simplified the schemes this year with an emphasis on playing faster.

As the offense figures itself out early in the season, Pitt's defense could be called on to keep things close and give the offense a chance to win some low-scoring games.

3. HOW WILL THE PANTHERS ADJUST TO THE ACC?

The answer repeated over and over again when Pitt players are asked what the biggest difference is when they watch film of future ACC opponents is "speed." The league is faster, deeper and overall more talented than the teams the Panthers faced in the Big East.

Pitt doesn't get any chance to warm up, either. The opener against Florida State will tell if the Panthers are ready to compete with the best of their new conference.

In taking national championship runner-up Notre Dame down to the wire last year, the Panthers showed they were capable of beating almost any team in the country. In losses to Youngstown State and Connecticut, though, they also showed they lacked the consistency to play that way on a week-to-week basis.

The biggest difference in jumping to the ACC won't be when Pitt plays top-level teams such as Florida State or Miami. It will be the week-to-week grind of playing good teams such as Duke, North Carolina and Georgia Tech. While Pitt could sleepwalk through games against Gardner-Webb and South Florida last year, there are no easy games on the conference schedule this year.

pittsports

Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com and Twitter @SWernerPG. First Published August 26, 2013 4:00 AM


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