As the ACC‘s spring practices get under way, we’ll be previewing the big storylines for each of the league’s 14 (15, in this case) teams. Check back on weekdays for what to look out for during your school’s spring practices and spring game.
Team: Pittsburgh Panthers
Spring Practice Start Date: March 5
Spring Game Date:
The Panthers jumped into spring practices a few weeks back, as they attempt to move on without key playmakers on offense, and adjust to a brand-new defensive coordinator as well. All this change is nothing new for Pitt, however, as any fan would tell you. Over the past four years, the team’s employed three head coaches and four different defensive coordinators. Now, replacing their starting running back and quarterback too, it’s the personnel the coaches that must adjust to the new personnel. Will it be an easy process, or another frustrating, long offseason?
As mentioned, the keys for Pitt’s offense are figuring out the quarterback and running back situations. While experienced passer Tom Savage (Rutgers transfer, by way of Arizona) appears to be the front-runner to succeed departed senior Tino Sunseri, it’s not necessarily a lock. In two years starting part-time for the Scarlet Knights, Savage struggled with accuracy (only completed about 52 percent of his passes) and regularly had his confidence shaken by poor performance. Behind him, Chad Voytik and Trey Anderson are also waiting in the wings, though both are largely unknown commodities. In particular, Anderson’s shown some fleeting promise in limited reps these past two seasons, but tough to make any over-arching generalizations after just 35 passes. At running back, on the other hand, Ray Graham‘s replacement is entirely proven. Rushel Shell was impressive in splitting carries with Graham last season, and he’s slated to do even more this season as the feature back (while also spelled by Isaac Bennett). Pitt has the potential to be among the nation’s best rushing teams this season (as they could’ve been last season as well), but a lot of that will ultimately come down to the offensive line push, which is undergoing its own transitions as well.
Under new defensive coordinator (and former secondary coach) Matt House, the Panthers’ D returns a veteran-heavy group that’s anxious to improve upon last year’s strong finish (allowed just 71 points over the final four weeks). While the line has and will be a strength again — especially behind senior tackle Aaron Donald — House’s secondary experience looks to also shift some of that burden to his part of the field. Pitt finished 20th overall in passing defense last year, and allowed just 6.1 yards per attempt. For 2013, they’re loaded with secondary talent again, meaning we may even see improvement from those spots. In particular, be on the lookout for K’Waun Williams and Lafayette Pitts, both of whom appear ready to anchor the group and take advantage of more opportunities within what may be a newly aggressive coverage scheme. At linebacker, however, things are much more unsettled. Youth and inexperience are both overriding themes, and it’s anyone’s guess who will eventually hold down those starting spots. The position battle is still very much undecided a few weeks into spring, and now could even spill into the fall.
Though Pitt does appear to be in some sort of transition (at all times), this is still a veteran group that has a shot to contend for the Coastal division title in its first season in the ACC. The key, from my vantage point, will be quarterback play and how well Savage (or one of his cohorts) plays with the team’s veteran receivers. Yes, running the ball will still be the core of the offensive attack, but without a viable passing game, that strength is almost nullified. If the quarterback situation is settled here in spring, expect some daring new wrinkles added to the passing attack before fall. Otherwise, the Panthers could end up in another slow start once the 2013 season rolls around following an extended position battle.