Pitt hopes to finish its 2014 recruiting class strong with local prospects.
PITTSBURGH – The game matters.
Yeah, it’s osnly the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl on a weekday evening in Detroit. The day after Christmas, in fact.
Few will watch on television, the ratings dependent on those curious to see MAC champion Bowling Green and Pitt’s Bronko Nagurski Trophy-winning defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
Fewer still around the country will care to even look up the final score in the next day’s newspaper.
For Pitt, however, victory in a bowl game (any bowl game) is the difference between a third consecutive 6-7 season and a winning record for the first time since all that coaching turmoil erupted about this time three years ago.
Yet, as important as a Pitt victory would be, it’s nothing compared to what comes next: Salvaging the 2014 recruiting class.
Currently, the class can best be described as underwhelming, with 19 verbal commitments, but only two are four-stars, according to Rivals.com rankings – Bethel Park offensive lineman Mike Grimm and Niles, Ill., running back Chris James.
Pitt is hoping for about five or six more promises that turn into signings in February, and the hope is that most of them will be four-stars.
Four local four-star targets stood out:
• Aliquippa defensive back Dravon Henry;
• Washington running back Shai McKenzie;
• Gateway defensive back Montae Nicholson;
• Mt. Lebanon offensive lineman Alex Bookser.
All four played their high school football in Western Pennsylvania.
Pitt needs to snare the best local players, similar to what it did the past two seasons by luring offensive linemen Adam Bisnowaty and Dorian Johnson and wide receiver Tyler Boyd.
If Pitt can’t recruit well near its home base, how can it compete with the stiffer competition up and down the Atlantic coast?
The Panthers missed on one on Dec. 9, when Henry spurned Pitt for West Virginia.
Another announcement is planned Dec. 20 by McKenzie, who missed all but three games this season with a torn ACL in his right knee. McKenzie, who plans to enroll early, would help Pitt rebuild its lean running back stable after losing Ray Graham to the NFL and Rushel Shell to West Virginia.
McKenzie has immense talent – he led the WPIAL in rushing as a junior and had collected 650 yards in three games before the injury – but he is also seriously considering three of Pitt’s ACC rivals: Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Florida State.
Bookser, 6-6, 295, fits the mold of how Pitt coach Paul Chryst likes his linemen – tall, hefty and mean. Pitt linebackers coach Chris Haering was Bookser’s high school coach at Mt. Lebanon for his sophomore year. Bookser also is considering Tennessee, Penn State and Ohio State.
Nicholson has been to several Pitt games this season, but he – like Bookser – has no timetable for a decision before signing day. Florida State, Michigan State, Oregon and Virginia Tech also are on his radar.
Backfield, O-LIne Questions Loom For 2014
While those players make up their minds, Pitt will drag a 6-6 record into the postseason, with more questions than answers about the future of its program.
With disappointing losses (North Carolina and Miami) coming immediately after big victories (Notre Dame and Syracuse), Pitt is a puzzle for its fans.
No one knows for sure if Chryst will be successful in trying to rebuild the program. Beating Bowling Green will be a start, but Pitt is supposed to defeat MAC teams.
Bill Fralic, a former Pitt star lineman who was critical of the program before Chryst arrived, said last week, “I think a lot of Paul Chryst, and I wish him well. He’s a quality man, but he has a lot of work to do.”
The season started 4-2 before turning upside down with a 2-4 closing stretch. In the end, Pitt did nothing more than tease its fans.
Many of Pitt’s problems can be traced to an inconsistent running game that is tied to a poor offensive line. Chryst has pointed out repeatedly Pitt can’t be the team he wants it to be until it can generate a ground attack.
Junior Isaac Bennett and freshman James Conner ran with great effort this season, but they totaled only 1,365 yards – down from the 1,683 amassed by Graham and Shell last season.
Bennett and Conner will benefit if those massive offensive line recruits – four were redshirted as first-year players this season – work out as planned. Also, four of the five starters, plus Johnson, return next season, including guard Matt Rotheram, an honorable mention selection on the All-ACC team. If they improve even slightly, Pitt’s run game can start taking some forward strides.
If, though, is a big word.
The other problem is what to do at quarterback at the end of senior and two-time transfer Tom Savage’s one-and-done season.
Redshirt freshman Chad Voytik did not challenge Savage for the starting job – Chryst announced his choice weeks before the first game – but he is next in line. The other quarterback on the roster is Trey Anderson, who will be a senior next year and is not in Pitt’s plans. That’s it, for now.
Incoming freshman quarterbacks Wade Freebeck and Adam Bertke are still in high school and aren’t expected on campus until next summer.
Another big loss is Donald, an All-ACC first-teamer and an All-American candidate, who led the nation with an average of 2.2 tackles for a loss per game. Pitt will miss Donald’s splash plays and the heft and quickness he provided in the middle of the line, with fellow senior tackle Ty Ezell. One bright spot: Sophomore tackle Darryl Render, 6-2, 285, played nearly as much as Ezell and will be counted upon to anchor the line.
Also, keep these names in mind:
• Junior safety Ray Vinopal. Criticism of Vinopal was so intense early in the season that he shut down his Twitter account. But his two interceptions against Notre Dame are the reason Pitt is planning a 13th game.
• Most coaches avoid playing too many freshmen. But Chryst had no choice. In the cases of Boyd, Conner and kicker Chris Blewitt, they are better than most — if not all — of the older players at their positions. A total of 12 freshmen played key roles.
• Also, junior tight end Manasseh Garner, a transfer from Wisconsin, became a go-to target for Savage.
Who knows how all of these players will develop? With them, though, the future is less cloudy.