July 27, 2014

Reading over the last two posts Chas wrote about the 2014 PITT football team I’ve been having a great time with the over 200 comments you guys left on them.  They show just how very ready we all are for PITT training camp to open next week and for the season to start soon afterward.  I’m just as anxious to get the ‘real life’ stuff happening and to jump in with both feet as anyone.

I’ve waited on writing another piece until the 2014 PITT Football Media Guide came out so that I at least can provide some truthful info to go with my opinions that I’ll lay out in this post, and please  remember they are my opinions unless I preface an item with “This is a no bullshit…”.  I’ll try to mix and match both though.

As to the comments on those two last articles; there are pretty detailed reasons we fans have for why we’ll probably either suck or be great – but no one seems to explain why we’ll probably be 7-6 again, or maybe 8-5 with a good bounce or two.   That’s pretty much where I am at this point of the offseason without having had my ‘boots on the ground’ as I will soon at a couple of the camp practices coming up.  Now, that projection can change either way once I see how the kids are doing during practices so nothing here is etched in stone.

Here are some of my thoughts on the offensive side of the ball going into the season.

I’m not as high on the expectation for quarterback Chad Voytik as some of us are. Yes, he did well in the bowl game and that showed me that at least he isn’t a deer in the headlights.  But beyond that I’m not convinced that he’ll match the level of play our last two QBs gave us in 2012 & 2013.  That’s right, I’m including Sunseri’s productive season of 2012 – what are you going to do about it?  That said I’m also not as panicky as some are in case Voytik gets hurt out there.

Personally I don’t think there is a very big gap in talent between Voytik and Anderson.  However, there is no doubt who the starter will be regardless of what the staff may say and regardless of the fact that the QBs are the only offensive position listed as “or” in the current depth chart.  The fact that Voytik has three years of ball to play at PITT whereas Anderson doesn’t probably tips the scales a bit in Voytik’s favor also.

I am high on the running game for two reasons: first because I love Conner as an RB, especially if he can stay healthy.  A move to defensive end will be a huge mistake.  I don’t even like the idea of his getting only a little playing time there.  When Conner isn’t banged up his presence and play changes the offense and makes the defense adjust accordingly, which is to try to get at him before he gets a head of steam up.  There is huge value in having a guy carrying the ball who the opponent’s linebackers and defensive backs are afraid of.  Conner is big and strong, faster than you may think and very, very aggressive.

That aggressiveness will bring about the second reason I like the run, and that is because we now have the talent and more experience up front to start really owning other team’s defensive lines.  Our OL played inconsistently last year with more poor showings than good ones, especially in pass protection.  I think that will change.  A large part of the line is returning intact with a good Center in Rowell; Clemmings who has surprised me with his play at Right Tackle; veteran Rotheram at Right Guard and young Adam Bisnowaty finally healthy and starting again at Left Tackle.

There’s four guys right there with some seasons under their belts.  Throw in Dorian Johnson who, burdened with too high expectations of the fans and media, wasn’t ready last year to start at all, now has a year of weight training, college coaching and getting some playing time behind him. He just might be ready to shine this season.  But what I think is positive about our OL this season is that we finally have some actual college-level talent as backups.

Some of our redshirt FR OL, Reese, Officer and Jones-Smith should see some playing time also. They are all Chryst’s kids and I do believe the offensive line is his recruiting strong suit. Combine all that with the OL blocking in front of a running back who wants to kick ass as much as the linemen do and it becomes infectious.  Really, who else on the team do you want in a 3rd and short yardage situation? Conner can set the hard ass tone of the offense that way if he stays health and only if he stays at RB.

To chase the running game’s tail back around, it won’t just be Conner rushing the ball.  I know everyone is high on Chris James with that impressive 4* HS career but I’m not expecting too much from him as a true freshman.  Converted Safety to RB Rachid Ibrahim is my sleeper rusher this season and I think he’ll supplant Bennett as the second back on the offense, fullback excluded. He may be on the verge of stardom either this year or next.  He was a true HS prep star here in Maryland and I think he’ll reproduce that at PITT before too long.  Big prediction but I think it’ll happen.

Now let’s go back to the passing game again.  Even though I don’t see Voytik, or Anderson, being the singular strength of the offense, as Savage was last season, I do think that we’ll have a serviceable air attack especially with Tyler Boyd at WR (enjoy the video!).  Boyd is the returning offensive star; all his accolades were and are well deserved and I’ve no doubt that he’ll be as productive, if not more, in 2014.  Hopefully he’ll have more TDs this season; seven isn’t that great a number really.  Along with Gardner as the heir apparent to Devin Street and who will get an equal share of passes thrown to him I think we’ll be set at that position.  Add Ronald Jones returning from suspension with his speed and quickness to the equation and that is a plus also.

Where we will see a marked improvement is in our TE corps involvement in the skilled side of the offense. This is where Chad Voytik’s abilities will have the good and safe outlet for his passing game.   Depending on how well the OL does let’s hope we can allow our good TEs, J.P. Holtz and Scott Orndoff, to drop their pass protection responsibilities and get out behind the LBs for those quick yards.  Voytik isn’t going to be airing out the ball as Savage did, he just doesn’t have the strength or talent to do that on a regular basis, so a shorter passing game will be his bread and butter.  Both those TEs can bull rush downfield after the catch so we’ll get yardage there also.

I anticipate a deep pass try in about each half of the games to get Boyd completions downfield and to keep the Safeties afraid of what Boyd can accomplish with quick strike plays.  I’m not saying Voytik can’t go long if necessary, we saw a nice 62 yard pass to Boyd in the bowl game.  If you remember he threw that pass like a center fielder trying to get a runner out at home plate.  That won’t cut it over and over; we’ll see a much shorter game out of our QB this season.

That said Boyd will have way more YAC this year as he won’t be the target of all those Savage bomb passes through the air. I see Boyd getting way more intermediate crossing patterns where he can use his excellent running skills after a reception, which given his talent might even result in more TDs.  I also think Jaymar Parrish will open our eyes even more as a FB/H-Back player, he had seven receptions last season but that will jump up this year. He’s a good player and his blocking is as good as we have had since Hynoski’s days on the field.

So, now back to the most visible position on the field with the QB. My main concern with Voytik isn’t necessarily his arm strength or his accuracy; it is his habit of closing the pass play down too early when he abandons the called play and tucks the ball in and runs. While this will be a strength if he does it only when appropriate his game now is to rely on his feet as much, if not more, as his arm. Good pocket presence comes with experience so let’s hope that Voytik’s second year of taking the QB2 snaps in practice has helped with this, but it is a true concern.

You’ll notice that now when he gets pressure his first reaction isn’t to keep his eyes downfield and try to keep the pass alive, it has been to turn his head and look for a ground outlet.  He’ll have some plays specifically designed for him to run and he’ll be good, maybe even great, at that.  It’s his too-early scrambles that might hurt us if he doesn’t get out of that habit.

HC Paul Chryst and our OC Joe Rudolph have a tricky task on their hands in teaching him to stay in the pocket longer without hurting his ability to run if necessary. They don’t want to take that joyful play away especially if he’s productive at it but have to ensure it is a option and not a first reaction.  I think we’ll see some mistakes along these lines early on then when he gets some games and pressure experience under his belt he’ll make better decisions.  If that happens and he accepts and understands his mandated role in the passing game then we may see an offense that is balanced and effective.

Chris Blewitt was fine for us last season as a true FR.  At least he didn’t live up to his last name, which will be the punch line of announcer’s jokes for the next three years.  Blewitt was 14 of 18 for a 78% success rate and that’s fine.  I think he’ll both get more FG shots this year and will have a bit of a better percentage.  We’ll need those extra points this season and he’ll provide them.

Notice I haven’t mentioned any true freshman is this post.  That is because not one of us has any idea how well they will adapt to college and the higher level of competition.  Some can do it right away like Boyd, but most do need to get acclimated to the size and speed of the other players – to say nothing of the much more intense training camps and academics.  We’ll know more about their skills after actually seeing them in camp action and I’ll write about them then.

Oh what the hell!  Keep an eye on Adonis Jennings, an across the recruiting board 4* recruit who is big, strong and fast.  We have seen that WR (along with RB) is a position where true rookies can excel and Jennings might just have the skills and talent to be hard to keep off the field.  We can hope anyway.

Emel – when I was stationed on Guam there was a high school football team with the exact same uniform as the Steelers – down to the diamonds on the helmets.

I kind of hated that because, as you can imagine, football in Guam is a huge joke.

Comment by Reed 07.28.14 @ 4:47 pm

Guam eh.

So it doesn’t produce any football players like Somoa.

But they are both part of Steeler Universe(formally Nation), well we know Guam is.

I’ve been reading the whole sports section of that October 26th, 1987 Pgh Press you linked. Kind of fun, reading about days gone by in the world of sports circa the fall of 1987. The NFL games were the first ones that week after the 3 week NFL players strike that year.

And according to the Press’s old $1,000 Weekly Football contest, Pitt was hosting Syracuse the next weekend, while the Pedo’s were hosting the Hillbillies.

More than likely I probably sent a few entries in ! Didn’t win though 🙁

Comment by Emel 07.28.14 @ 5:11 pm

“And according to the Press’s old $1,000 Weekly Football contest, Pitt was hosting Syracuse the next weekend”

Pitt +4. Give the points, Emel.

Comment by steve1 07.28.14 @ 5:57 pm

Reed, you’re reading way too much into the praises given Chris James. He won’t be a starter this year unless we’re decimated by injuries. He’ll be lucky to make the two deep regularly unless he is a freshman phenom, but he will play however. And when he plays, his personal mindset will keep the stage from being too big for him.
He will play because he will have put in the time at camp, prepared himself well and earned the right to see the field. Exactly the same route Tyler Boyd took to prove to Coach that he was ready.

James will do the same, that’s why he is here. Chryst promised him the opportunity to contribute if he was willing to prove that he was ready and would put in the time. This kid is all about that and he’ll prove this season, just wait and see.

Comment by Dr. Tom 07.28.14 @ 7:02 pm

Our running backs will be JC and CJ. Any way you spell it they’re gonna be good!

Comment by Panther Fan in Hoopieland 07.28.14 @ 8:26 pm

Speaking of freshmen.. I want to see Avonte Maddox return punts/kickoffs/interceptions/whatever.

Comment by Mailman 07.28.14 @ 8:49 pm

Right steve1 ha

Cusey was pretty good that year, heck they were undefeated, only blemish was a tie against Auburn in the Sugar Bowl.

Comment by Emel 07.28.14 @ 8:50 pm

Interesting note…Myles Caragein was added to my hometown high school coaching staff in Clearfield as a defensive assistant. Glad to have a Pitt guy on the staff. I would even go so far as to say NEAT!

Comment by Outlaw 07.28.14 @ 9:22 pm

Caragein was a Dormont kid, played for Keystone Oaks in before going to Pitt

Comment by pittman4ever 07.28.14 @ 9:33 pm

….”played for Keystone Oaks in High school”….

Comment by pittman4ever 07.28.14 @ 9:38 pm

Getting solid Pitt Football graduates into high school football coaching bodes well for the future of Pitt recruiting.

James Conner starting and running down hill will cause smaller LB’s and DB’s to run away from tackling the carrier late in games. I see CJ doing really well in the 4th quarter. Pitt will need to be able to pass the ball successfully or face 8 in the box to jam up the runners before they get started.

Comment by dhuffdaddy 07.28.14 @ 10:32 pm

Dr Tom – you just described every 4* recruit PITT has ever had, and many of just regular recruits.

Unless a true FR in his first camp is a deadbeat then they all are going to put the “blood, sweat and tears” into training camp in order to get some playing time right away. I’d also go so far as to say that Chryst probably promises every good recruit at skill positions that they will have the “opportunity to contribute if he was willing to prove that he was ready and would put in the hard effort…” “Opportunity” being the key word.

That is what good coaches do to motivate young players. Now, he may not do that for lineman or QBs who pretty much know they are going to redshirt to get that growth year under their belts but I’d think he’d be remiss if he’s telling the skilled position recruits that they won’t HAVE A SHOT at playing time in their rookie year.

Also, not sure what you mean by “reading way too much”… We’ve read that James will start and be a star on this blog numerous times and the same thought is repeated regularly on the PITT message boards. My point is the same as yours when you say he won’t play unless there are injuries… which is what I inferred in the article and my comment above.

Here’s a point also – both McCoy and Lewis came in as freshman without real solidified starting RBs to compete against for a starting slot. Granted in ’07 McCoy had a returning Stevens-Howling but LSH wasn’t cut in the mold to be a 12 game starting RB getting 25+ carries a game (in ’06 even without any real talent at RB to compete against LSH only carried the ball an average of 14.8 times a game) I loved LSH and he was productive but McCoy pretty much had a clear shot to the starting job after a few games.

Lewis had no returning RB talent to speak of when he was in summer training camp as a true FR, just Hynoski at FB and Chris Burns who never did much at PITT. Lewis did have Graham as a FR also but we are talking about moving aside established starters to start as a FR. I will say this – after McCoy declared PITT fans were freaking out and I wrote that he was replaceable, specifically because of the way DW ran his offense, that being a ‘plug and play’ RB situation. I don’t think Chryst is there yet with his OL guys but we may see that at PITT very soon.

Now – you and I may have to eat crow if James pulls a McCoy or a Lewis on us – but we’ll be happy campers also. He could do it with his talent and I have nothing against James or the way he play football. I’m glad and proud that he chose PITT but I’m also a ‘show me’ type fan and I temper my ‘grand’ expectations of true FR until they actually play.

Comment by Reed 07.29.14 @ 7:02 am

James will be up to that task, Reed. I would like the taste of crow in this situation. James will see the field and when he does, he’ll show us all that he is ready and worthy of that opportunity as a true Freshman.

Comment by Dr. Tom 07.29.14 @ 12:49 pm

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