Entering his third year at Pitt, Paul Chryst seems to have finally established a sense of stability the program sorely lacked when he was hired in 2011. Now, the question is if he can get the Panthers to the next level of consistent winning records and bowl destinations beyond Birmingham, Ala., and Detroit. * Pitt showed some promise last year in wins against Duke and Notre Dame, but also featured some maddening inconsistencies in losses to Georgia Tech, North Carolina and, perhaps worst of all, Navy. * The Panthers have plenty to replace from that 2013 squad, including starters at quarterback and receiver, as well as one of the most dominant defensive players in recent memory in Aaron Donald. How Pitt can weather these changes will go a long way in determining if the Panthers are heading for another six-win regular season under Chryst or if there are brighter skies ahead.
1. How will Pitt replace Aaron Donald?
The short answer is that they won't, and Chryst has even admitted as such. After all, how can you replace a player who racked up 28.5 tackles for loss, including 11 sacks, and won four major individual awards despite the team finishing 6-6? Chryst has said many times that replacing Donald's production will be a team effort, and it will take multiple players at various positions taking their game to new levels to make up for the loss of Donald. The man who will occupy Donald's position on the field is junior defensive tackle Darryl Render, a Cleveland product the staff has been high on over the past few years. The Panthers will likely also need more pass-rush production from their defensive ends, a unit that appears to be paper-thin heading into 2013. Sophomore Shakir Soto is one name who could potentially be an impact player.
2. What are reasonable expectations for Chad Voytik?
Much like last season, Pitt heads into training camp with a quarterback competition that isn't really a competition. Chryst has yet to publicly name Voytik, a redshirt sophomore, the starter, but it would be a complete shock to see anyone else under center when Pitt opens against Delaware Aug. 30. Voytik was up and down in spring practices, but said he was focusing more on mechanical issues rather than the overall result. He spent the summer working on developing a rapport with his receivers, and training camp will be the time to show it off. Like most first-year starters, Voytik will likely face some growing pains as he develops on the job, but he should be ready to step in after two full seasons in Chryst's system, which is more than his two predecessors had.
3. Will the young talent continue to grow?
Perhaps the best thing about Pitt's bowl performance last year -- other than that it wasn't in Birmingham again -- was that the main contributions came from players in the freshman class. Running back James Conner ran for 229 yards and a touchdown, and receiver Tyler Boyd, pictured above, added 173 yards receiving, plus a punt return for a touchdown. This year, both will have to adjust to shouldering larger loads for the team. Conner will likely be the lead running back, though he'll receive plenty of help from senior Isaac Bennett and freshman Chris James. He could also play a role in shoring up Pitt's depth issues at defensive end. He played a handful of snaps there in the bowl game in pass-rushing situations, and Conner's volume of defensive snaps will be one thing to watch in training camp. Boyd, meanwhile, will adjust to being the top receiver with the loss of Devin Street. Boyd excelled at the end of last year when Street went down with an injury, but now opposing defenses have had a whole offseason to prepare for him. He has said this offseason that one of the focuses for Pitt was moving him around in the offense to make him harder to cover.
4. What freshmen will make an immediate impact?
Pitt played 12 freshmen last year, an unusually high number that demonstrated just how thin the Panthers were at certain positions. This year, there are a number of positions -- offensive line and linebacker, specifically -- where Pitt has enough depth that it shouldn't have to rely on freshmen, but there are some other spots where newcomers could play right away. The most obvious candidates are receiver Adonis Jennings and running back Chris James. Both play skill positions that are usually easier to transition to in college, and both positions also will have plenty of snaps to go around. Chryst's offense traditionally runs enough to make carries available for multiple running backs, and the Panthers' No. 2 receiver spot is somewhat unsettled. First-team snaps in fall camp could indicate which players are in line for significant playing time.
5. Will the offensive line get better?
The biggest factor here will be if the unit can stay healthy throughout the entirety of training camp. Sophomore left tackle Adam Bisnowaty missed the end of last season and the entirety of spring with back issues, but said over the summer he's back to full strength and ready to go for the fall.Four starters return, and they'll be joined by former five-star recruit Dorian Johnson in the starting lineup. Chryst has praised the improvement of right tackle T.J. Clemmings in the offseason, and was optimistic that the unit -- which gave up 43 sacks last year -- will improve. One other thing in the offensive line's favor is that, for the first time, Pitt should be able to roll 15-deep at all five spots combined. That's three full units for practice drills, which means more rest for the starters and fewer players switching positions between the first and second teams. If the line can develop some routine and consistency, on-field improvement should follow.
Sam Werner: email@example.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.