Three keys to Pitt's 2014 football season



1. Young offensive talent must step forward

Pitt enters the 2014 season with a wealth of young talent on offense. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Chad Voytik, sophomore receiver Tyler Boyd and sophomore running back James Conner were the stars of the a 30-27 win against Bowling Green in the 2013 Little Caesar Pizza Bowl and will need to build on that performance for the offense to succeed in 2014.

Voytik will take over for Tom Savage as the starting quarterback and should add some diversity as a mobile quarterback. His deep-ball accuracy is a concern, so his repertoire likely will include a lot of short passes to running backs and tight ends.

Of course, his main job will be to get the ball to Boyd, Pitt's best player. There could be some concern over how Boyd will handle the extra attention he's likely to get without Devin Street and with defenses having had a whole offseason to study him. With Street out in the final two games on the 2013, though, Boyd had 17 catches and 271 yards.

While Conner's 229-yard, one-touchdown game in the bowl win is encouraging, he had struggled in earlier games. Before the bowl game, he only gained more than 100 yards three times in 11 games. He will need to be more consistent this year and do so while balancing some responsibilities as a defensive end, as well.

2014 Pitt football schedule
 
Saturday -- Delaware, noon -- First meeting between Panthers and Blue Hens as third-year Pitt coach Paul Chryst tries to win his first opener.

Sept. 5 -- at Boston College, 7 p.m. -- First meeting between the schools as ACC members. Pitt won the most recent contest, 20-17 in overtime, in 2004.

Sept. 13 -- at FIU, noon -- Return game from FIU's visit to Pittsburgh in 2010, a 44-17 Pitt win powered by 277 rushing yards from Ray Graham.

Sept. 20 -- Iowa, TBA -- Pitt blew a fourth-quarter lead in Iowa in 2011, falling to the Hawkeyes, 31-27.

Sept. 27 -- Akron, TBA -- The Panthers have outscored the Zips in two previous meetings by a combined score of 52-0.

Oct. 4 -- at Virginia, TBA -- Cavaliers head coach Mike London enters the 2014 season on the hot seat after his team was winless in ACC play a year ago.

Oct. 16 (Thursday) -- Virginia Tech, 7:30 p.m. -- The Hokies' 19-9 win in Blacksburg, Va., in 2013 snapped a four-game Pitt winning streak in the series.

Oct. 25 -- Georgia Tech, TBA -- Georgia Tech will be making its first trip to Pittsburgh since 1920, a 10-3 Pitt win.

Nov. 1 -- Duke, TBA -- Duke will be defending its ACC Coastal Division title in this rematch of last year's wild 58-55 Pitt win in Durham, N.C.

Nov. 15 -- at North Carolina, TBA -- Pitt came back from a 24-3 halftime deficit to tie the score against the Tar Heels in 2013, but lost on Ryan Switzer's second punt return touchdown of the game.

Nov. 22 -- Syracuse, TBA -- The longest continuous opponent on Pitt's schedule, the teams have met every year since 1955.

Nov. 29 -- at Miami, TBA -- Pitt hasn't beaten Miami since a 21-17 home win in 1997, an eight-game losing streak.

2. Offensive line must improve

The offensive line struggled in pass protection last year. The Panthers gave up 43 sacks on the season, fifth worst among Division I-A teams.

Giving up eight sacks against a stout Virginia Tech defense is one thing, but allowing seven against a mediocre Virginia front just isn't good enough for a team with aspirations of winning more than six or seven games.

Virtually every key player from the 2013 line is returning, though it's still to be determined if that's a good thing. Coaches have raved in the spring and summer about redshirt senior right tackle T.J. Clemmings, who was playing his first season on offense last year after switching from defensive end. Clemmings was voted a team captain last week.

Adam Bisnowaty returns at left tackle after his season was cut short last year by a back injury. He missed spring practice but has stayed healthy throughout fall camp. Offensive line coach Jim Hueber would prefer if the same five guys could play every snap, which was not the case last year, but if a player does go down, there is more depth along the line than at any point in Chryst's tenure, with redshirt freshman Jaryd Jones-Smith as the "sixth man" on the offensive line.

3. Defense does its best to replace Donald

The defense won't replace Aaron Donald. There just isn't any way to replicate the mind-boggling numbers Donald put up last year. They will have to try to at least come close, though.

Junior Darryl Render will be the man occupying Donald's old position at defensive tackle and has drawn praise from coaches over the past two years. In the only true scrimmage of training camp, the defense did look stout against the run.

The strength of the defense might be the linebacker position, which returns two starters in Todd Thomas and Anthony Gonzalez, as well as sophomore Matt Galambos, who started two games at middle linebacker last season. Galambos should be ready to take a step forward as the main signal-caller on defense in his second year, and Gonzalez might be the most important player on defense. He almost never comes off the field, and will be one of the linebackers when Pitt lines up in nickel and dime formations against spread offenses.

The defensive backfield is a concern. Since last season ended, the Panthers are down three cornerbacks who could have played key roles on this team. Jahmahl Pardner and Trenton Coles transferred, and sophomore Titus Howard was suspended for the season for violating team rules. Wisconsin transfer Reggie Mitchell will start opposite Lafayette Pitts at safety and freshman Avonte Maddox will see plenty of action, too. The question will be whether or not the depth issues force the coaching staff to burn a redshirt or two on one of the other freshman defensive backs.


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