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Pitt Prepares For ACC Play

Veteran QB Savage takes over

August 28, 2013
By JIM ELLIOTT , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

PITTSBURGH - It's no secret Pitt has had trouble filling Heinz Field in recent seasons. And it wasn't necessarily because of the product it put on the field.

At times, despite the program having four head coaches in three years, it was because of the opposition.

That won't happen nearly as often these days, as the Panthers finally broke free from what used to be the Big East and no longer have to invite the likes of Temple and Rutgers in town to try and fill some seats.

They're being replaced by teams like Florida State, which will introduce Pitt to the ACC at 8 p.m. on Sept. 2 at Heinz. Now they have to make sure the product they put on the field isn't what turns people away.

Generally when you're trying to do that, you start with a good, experienced quarterback. They've got one, but it's been two years since he took a snap in a game, so it's anybody's guess as to how good.

Three-year starter Tino Sunseri, who threw for 3,288 yards and 21 scores last season, graduated and was given a tryout with the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.

Redshirt senior Tom Savage, who transferred from Arizona and ran the scout team a year ago, is battling with former Tennessee high school standout Chad Voytik. Voytik was the top-rated recruit in that state in 2012. Longtime Big East fans will remember Savage, a five-star recruit, was a starter as a freshman and played as a sophomore at Rutgers before moving on to Arizona, where he didn't fit in with new coach Rich Rodriguez's style of play, and, eventually, to Pitt. For his career, Savage is 192 of 368 for 2,732 yards and 16 touchdowns.

It's uncertainty like that nearly everywhere as Pitt, which finished 6-7 overall and 3-4 in its last season in the Big East, returns only four starters on offense.

One of them is senior receiver Devin Street, who is 28 receptions shy of becoming Pitt's all-time leader. One of them is not running back Rushel Shell, who was the Panthers' second-leading rusher as a true freshman last season. Shell asked for his release and put himself back on the recruiting market. He wound up at former rival West Virginia University of all places and will sit out this season.

With that, Isaac Bennett, who had 29 rushes for 150 yards and three scores, is the leading returning rusher for a team that has a long lineage of 1,000-yard rushers. Malcolm Crocket is the only other player who rushed the ball (12 carries, 50 yards) outside of a few end-arounds by receivers.

Bennett saw more playing time his freshman season (2011), when he rushed 58 times for 237 yards and two scores, but was relegated to third team last season behind Shell and Ray Graham.

Freshman James Conner and redshirt senior Desmond Brown, the younger brother of Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, are also getting looks.

Street, who had 73 catches for 975 yards and five touchdowns a season ago and is on the Watch List for the Biletnikoff Award, is the leader of the offense.

''It's great to have him back,'' Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. ''Obviously Devin is a very good player. He did a lot of really good things, but I'm excited because I still believe he can continue to get better. He realizes what he's got in the value of Coach (Bobby) Engram coaching him day in and day out. Certainly Devin is going to be one of those guys we need to play at a high level and lead at a high level. It's a tremendous feeling having Devin here.''

Street will be joined by redshirt senior Ed Tinker, redshirt junior Kevin Weatherspoon, who 11 receptions for 175 yards, including a 65-yard TD, in the spring game, and true freshman Tyler Boyd, one of Pitt's most heralded recruits in years, with the potential of redshirt freshman Chris Wuestner and true freshman Zach Challingsworth seeing a few passes their way.

Redshirt junior Manasseh Garner, a transfer from Wisconsin, could help in the passing game from his tight end position.

Two other starters returning are on the offensive line - but they're both looking at position switches. Last year's starting tackles - Matt Rotheram and Cory King - are moving inside to guard spots. The right tackle position appears wide open, with the likes of redshirt senior Juantez Hollins, redshirt junior T.J. Clemmings and true freshman Dorian Johnson in the mix there. Hollins was suspended last season. Clemmings has moved over from defensive end.

Redshirt freshman Adam Bisnowaty will man the left tackle position.

At center, it's a battle between redshirt freshman Gabe Roberts and redshirt sophomore Artie Rowell. Roberts took the bulk of the snaps in the preseason.

The Panthers defense ranked No. 23 in the country last season, giving up 21 points per game. The leader of the group is senior defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who is coming off a season in which he was a first team All-Big East selection, compiling 64 total tackles, 18.5 for loss, 5.5 sacks and a forced fumble. He led the conference and ranked 12th nationally with 1.54 tackles for losses per game.

Donald was named to the Watch Lists for the Lombardi, Nagurski, Bednarik, Outland, and Ronnie Lott IMPACT.

Another standout is safety Jason Hendricks, who led the Panthers in tackles and interceptions in 2012. He was named to the preseason All-ACC team. A second team All-Big East pick, Hendricks totaled 90 tackles and six interceptions.

Along the defensive line, senior nose tackle Tyrone Ezell, who won a spring award for most improved defensive player, is back along with Donald's backup, sophomore Darryl Render. Junior nose tackle K.K. Mosley-Smith has been suspended for the season.

David Durham, an Ohio State transfer, may start on the edge. Junior defensive end Bryan Murphy collected 27 tackles, 4.5 for a loss and two sacks in his first season as a starter.

Tyrique Jarrett is in the mix, and freshmen Shakir Soto cracked the depth chart. Others are senior Jack Lippert, and sophomore Devin Cook, and junior LaQuentin Smith.

The linebackers are an interesting group, beginning with Todd Thomas, a starter last season who decided to quit the team after being demoted to second team, then came back a day or two later. Other linebackers are Shane Gordon, who returns for his second season as a starter. Mike Caprara, who had a scrimmage-best 12 tackles in the spring game, may be the beneficiary of Thomas' indecision. Nicholas Grigsby made two stops and totaled 27 tackles last season filling in for Thomas. Junior Anthony Gonzalez also started a game.

The secondary includes Lafayette Pitts and K'Waun Williams, who had four interceptions in 2012. Both are returning as starters.

Ray Vinopal, who got plenty of snaps last season, is vying for a starting spot. Trenton Coles, Jahmahl Pardner, Cullen Christian, and junior Brendon Felder provide depth.

Chris Blewitt, a true freshman was was rated one of the nation's top six placekickers by Scout following his senior year of high school, impressed with his leg in camp.

Senior Matt Yoklic enters his third season as Pitt's starting punter.

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