Pitt's Ray Vinopal answers a question at a news conference at the Atlantic Coast Conference Football kickoff in Greensboro, N.C.
Chuck Burton/Associated Press
Pitt's Tyler Boyd at the Atlantic Coast Conference Football kickoff in Greensboro, N.C.
By Sam Werner / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- In many ways, Pitt's two player representatives at the first day of the ACC Football Kickoff Sunday epitomized the crossroads at which the program currently stands.
Tyler Boyd, an electric sophomore and one of the most exciting young players in the conference, is poised to be the face of the Panthers for at least the next two seasons.
But Ray Vinopal, a redshirt senior, has only one season remaining. His college football future only extends as far as the end of the 2014 season.
"If you talk to Tyler or [sophomore running back] James Conner, they're not going to say, 'Yeah I'm ready in two years,'" Vinopal said. "I know those guys are trying to win this year. That's all I need to know."
Vinopal didn't shy away from concrete goals, either, saying that he wants to end his college career with at least a 10-win season in 2014.
"I think it's a very realistic goal," he said. "Pending that we execute like I said and don't lose focus."
Working in the Panthers' favor is the fact that they play in the ACC's Coastal division, which very nearly finished with a five-way tie for first in 2013 and has no clear favorite heading into this season.
Vinopal said the team has taken some encouragement from Duke's run to the ACC championship game last year, coupled with Pitt's 58-55 win against the Blue Devils earlier in the season.
"Duke doing what they did shows us we're definitely capable," Vinopal said. "A confident team is dangerous and it feels like the locker room's pretty confident."
Vinopal, like many Pitt players this offseason, was also highly complimentary of the new strength and conditioning program put in place by strength coach Ross Kolodziej, who was hired to replace Todd Rice in January.
"[The old program] wasn't necessarily focused on pushing our players to the point where you feel like you're in the fourth quarter of a game, or it's tough and how are you going to perform when you feel that way, feel fatigued?" Vinopal said.
"Now, people [are] pushed past the point they thought they could go."
Boyd, too, said that he's ready to take on more responsibility within this Pitt team, even as a sophomore. The lessons he learned from former Panther Devin Street allowed him to step into a leadership role when Street went down with an injury at the end of last season.
"As a child, playing on little league teams, all I've been doing is leading the teams," Boyd said. "A lot of people looked at me as that guy that can change the game around at any point in time. I feel like if I can get guys on board here [at Pitt] and follow the same things I'm trying to do, then I feel like it's going to be the same as it once was.
"I'm trying to get everybody on board to win an ACC championship."
Boyd didn't lay out any individual goals for himself, though it may be hard to top his 85 catches, 1,174 yards and 7 touchdowns from last year. Instead, he only noted that he hoped stats come along with wins.
He noted that he expects to move around on the field more this year than he did last year, and could work on both sides as well as in the slot.
"I know a lot of teams respect me for what I did last year," he said. "[Opponents] are probably going to try to double me, but we're doing a good job of trying to move me to a lot of places."
Boyd was also optimistic that with eight returning starters on offense, the unit shouldn't take much time to get into gear this season.
And, like Vinopal, he agreed that Pitt has the talent to make waves in the ACC. Not two or three years down the road, but right now.
"I feel like we've got the guys to compete with whoever we're going against to win," Boyd said. "If we play as a unit, we're going to be even stronger than we were.
"I'm tired of being an average team. I want to be greater than that."
Sam Werner: email@example.com and Twitter @SWernerPG
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