If Paul Chryst’s team were a puzzle, there’d definitely be some vital pieces absent from the finished product. And trying to find those pieces will be very difficult for Chryst and his staff.
From last season, Pitt is missing three of its top six producers on defense in Jason Hendricks, Aaron Donald and Shane Gordon. Those three players combined for an even 200 tackles a season ago, roughly 24 percent of the team’s total tackles.
“We had an eraser (Aaron Donald). Your game plan was how do you free him up,” Paul Chryst said when asked about his former defensive lineman. “Right now we aren’t thinking that way. It goes back more to team defense, even though all defense is team defense. Guys were playing off of the weakness that Aaron exposed. So you go back to the basic principles of team defense.”
The Panthers will line up with three new defensive linemen, only leaving David Durham. A new middle linebacker will step in after Shane Gordon’s departure, and two new defensive backs will also take on starting roles. The Panthers do return Ray Vinopal, Anthony Gonzalez and Todd Thomas, the team’s second-, third- and fourth-leading tacklers, respectively. If these players can quickly step into veteran leader roles, the Panther defense could be tough.
The offense isn’t at full strength, either. Coming into last season, Devin Street was the expected go-to guy at the receiver position. Even though freshman sensation Tyler Boyd came in and broke multiple receiving records, Street was still the second- leading receiver on the team with 51 catches for 854 yards and seven touchdown receptions, so his departure will be felt by new quarterback Chad Voytik.
Manasseh Garner, a transfer from Wisconsin who saw the field last year, steps in as the next receiver up after getting increased repetitions at wide receiver last season. This 6-2 target will be a nice replacement for Devin Street and a good player to take some of the attention off of Boyd.
Perhaps the biggest departure from this offense was quarterback Tom Savage. Savage capitalized on his final season as a Panther, completing 61.2 percent of his passes, throwing for 2,958 yards, 21 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. His productivity gave Chryst no reason to insert backup Chad Voytik during important situations.
This year, Voytik will take over the starting spot under center.
“Chad is growing, but there’s a lot of growing still to be had, which is good. It’s where he should be,” Chryst said about his starting quarterback.
But with the departure of star athletes, Chryst will need to find players who can rise to the occassion. Pitt joining the ACC opens up potential for stronger recruiting classes because of the conference’s presence in the south, where greater talent is available.
“There’s an opportunity (to recruit in the south) that wasn’t there because of the conference affiliation,” Chryst said. This opens a door that was locked for the time that Pitt was in the Big East.
Pittsburgh has a lot of question marks this year that need to become exclamation points quickly. If this team can find cohesion, it will have the weapons to do a lot of damage this season.