For the first time since Dave Wannstedt left town in 2010, Pitt will start spring practice today with some positive offseason momentum, thanks largely to its dramatic win against Bowling Green in the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl in December.
Perhaps the most exciting part of that bowl game, for Pitt fans, was the role that the freshmen played. Quarterback Chad Voytik, running back James Conner, wide receiver Tyler Boyd and kicker Chris Blewitt played key roles, and each has three years of eligibility left.
Here are five thing to look for as Pitt opens its third spring practice under Paul Chryst today on the South Side:
1. Will quarterback Voytik be able to build on his bowl game performance?
Voytik's stats in the bowl game weren't necessarily overwhelming (5 for 9, 108 yards, 0 TDs) but he had flashes that demonstrated why he was such a highly rated recruit two years ago. His 62-yard pass to Boyd should have alleviated concerns about arm strength, and he showed mobility on a5-yard fourth quarter touchdown run.
This spring, Voytik and Trey Anderson will be the only quarterbacks on the roster. That will mean plenty of throws for Voytik and the best chance to learn Paul Chryst's offense inside and out. Voytik has shown flashes before -- in practice and then in the bowl game -- but this spring is a chance to prove he can do it on a snap-to-snap basis.
2. How will the new coaching hires fit into the staff?
Former NFL receiver Greg Lewis is coaching the wide receivers, and fits a similar mold to his predecessor, Bobby Engram. He is a young, former player coaching a young, but talented group of wideouts. The hope is he'll be as effective as Engram, who placed two players on All-ACC teams in 2013.
Former Wisconsin coach John Settle will take over the running backs, hoping to emulate the success he had developing a bruising rushing attack with the Badgers. Chryst, meanwhile, will take over as de facto quarterbacks coach, which could be interesting to watch as he tries to develop a non-senior quarterback for the first time at Pitt.
On defense, Troy Douglas joins the staff from Iowa State with a reputation for developing ball-hawking secondaries. That would be a welcome change for a unit that was often passive in 2013.
3. Which wide receivers will step in to complement Tyler Boyd?
Boyd, who had 85 catches for 1,174 yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman, is the one sure thing coming back in the receiving corps. Voytik's other options, though, are unclear.
Kevin Weatherspoon will be a senior. He had 14 catches in 2013, including a big third-down grab to seal a win against Duke. Redshirt junior Ronald Jones also will be back after missing the 2013 season because of a team suspension, and coaches have talked about him becoming a bigger part of the offense. He had 19 catches in his first two years.
And then there are the redshirt freshmen entering the mix. Jester Weah is an intriguing blend of raw talent, and South Fayette graduate Zach Challingsworth drew good reviews for his work during bowl preparation. Both could find themselves in the mix as well.
4. What will the running back rotation look like?
Isaac Bennett was the nominal starter for all of 2013, but, it looks like sophomore James Conner might be ready to take center stage, especially after his monstrous performance in the bowl win (229 yards, 1 touchdown).
The most likely scenario for the spring will be Conner getting the lion's share of first-team snaps with Bennett and sophomore Rachid Ibrahim coming in as third-down backs as they did toward the end of 2013. Chryst (and new running backs coach Settle) aren't afraid of using multiple backs, though, so there's a good chance each will get plenty of carries.
The complicating factor will be how much Conner is used at defensive end. He played a handful of snaps there in the bowl game and Chryst hasn't ruled out having his running back moonlight on defense a bit in 2014.
5. Who will replace Aaron Donald?
Well, nobody. There's no player on Pitt's roster (or all of college football, for that matter) who can replace Donald's unparalleled ability to wreak havoc on an opposing offensive line.
The line will be Pitt's biggest area of concern on defense heading into these spring practices. Darryl Render showed promise in 2013 and likely will step into a starting role, but the other interior spot is up for grabs. It could be Tyrique Jarrett, LaQuentin Smith or Khaynin Mosley-Smith, who, like Jones, is coming off a year-long suspension.
The ends could also be an issue, especially with the loss of 2013 starter Bryan Murphy. It will help Pitt if oft-injured Ejuan Price can stay healthy for spring ball and the 2014 season.
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG.
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