Pitt quarterback Chad Voytik looks to throw against Bowling Green in the fourth quarter of the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in December at Ford Field in Detroit.
By Sam Werner / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Chad Voytik admits the nerves started to creep in a little bit.
It's understandable. His Pitt team led Bowling Green, 17-10, at halftime of the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, but starting quarterback Tom Savage had just taken a shot square in the ribs and looked questionable to return to the game.
Savage put his shoulder pads on at halftime and looked poised to go back in and play hurt, just like he had so many times before in 2013. Pitt's team doctors, though, had other plans.
If the Panthers were going to win their first bowl since 2010, they would do so on the arm of the redshirt freshman Voytik.
"The doctors didn't let him go in and my nerves bumped back up," Voytik said. "I was going crazy inside. A bunch of teammates came up to me and said, 'We've got you, let's just finish this out and win it.' "
The nerves were only natural, but Voytik also had confidence that he had what it takes to perform under pressure.
E.K. Slaughter, Voytik's high school coach at Cleveland High School in Tennessee, recalled Voytik's first playoff appearance as a sophomore, when he threw for 375 yards and five touchdowns.
"It was kind of neat to see," Slaughter said. "That team played every coverage you could possibly play."
As the top-rated high school quarterback in Tennessee, Voytik had plenty of options when it came to college choices, but he narrowed down his final three to Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Pitt.
The Panthers were an afterthought until his dad suggested a detour on a trip to visit family in Sharon, Pa.
"In my mind, I didn't know much about Pitt," Voytik said. "I just played with them a few times on NCAA [video games]."
When Voytik arrived on campus, he was immediately welcomed by then-coach Todd Graham. Graham offered Voytik a scholarship on the spot, and Voytik ended up committing to Pitt in July 2011.
"Right then, I'm awestruck because it wasn't even an option and all of a sudden, it became one of my leading options because of how excited he was about me," Voytik said. "That's kind of what got me to commit was just kind of how welcomed I felt when I came here."
Graham might have been the reason Voytik originally committed, but it's not the reason he's here now. Even when Graham bolted to Arizona State after the 2011 season, Voytik had already decided Pitt was the place for him. He even took upon calling other committed recruits to ensure that Pitt's 2012 recruiting class stayed mostly intact.
"He really didn't blink too much in the process," Slaughter said. "He took a couple days to think about it. He was looking for a school, he wasn't looking for a coach, which is what you should be doing because coaches come and go."
Voytik met Paul Chryst just weeks after Chryst was hired in January 2012, and any small doubts were immediately assuaged by the new man in charge.
"I remember him coming in and saying you have the opportunity to compete, but as you know, Tino [Sunseri] is going to be a senior," Voytik recalled. "He laid it out there and that was impressive to me because I didn't want someone to come in, kind of like Graham had, and tell you all these fabulous things, but you weren't sure if they were going to be followed through with."
Now he's the man
Sure enough, it did take a while for Voytik to get his chance, but when he did, he seized the moment.
As Voytik's nerves bubbled in the Ford Field locker room at halftime of the bowl game, he said words from his teammates, particularly running back James Conner, helped get him back in the right mindset.
"We're running the ball over these guys," Voytik recalled Conner telling him. "You know I'm going to keep doing that for you. You add in what you can and I'll help carry it, too."
Voytik was 0 for 2 passing on his first drive, but said just getting on the field helped him calm down and realize that, yes, he had the talent and capability to play Division I football.
Voytik ended up completing 5 of 9 passes for 108 yards, and scored a rushing touchdown in Pitt's 30-27 win.
On Sunday, Voytik went through Pitt's first spring practice as the presumptive starter for 2014. He said he's not approaching this spring as if the job is his, but it would be a major surprise if anyone else is under center when the Panthers open the season Aug. 30 against Delaware.
Voytik will be the first to admit he still has plenty to learn in Pitt's offense, but is looking forward to the plethora of practice reps that will come this spring as one of only two quarterbacks on the roster.
"I'm still young in this offense," he said. "I don't know this offense like a starter should right now. I have time to develop and all that."
Listed at 6 feet 1, Voytik isn't a prototypical tall drop-back passer, but no one around him or the Pitt program seems to think that will be an issue. After all, Chryst's most famous quarterback protege, the Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson, is only 5-11.
"Of course I wear No. 16, too," Voytik joked. "My dad, as soon as he heard [Pitt hired] coach Chryst, he knew where he came from and who he had coached. He was excited because he brought in Russell Wilson, who was an undersized quarterback, because that's always been an issue in my recruiting process if a coach wants the stereotypical 6-4 guy.
"I've definitely heard that comparison. Hey, if I can be a Super Bowl-winning quarterback one day, I'm all for it. I will say that."
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @SWernerPG.
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