Quarterback: The bad news is that whoever the Panthers start in the opener next season will have his first start as a Panther. The good news is, I'm not very worried about it. Because he's a fifth year senior and has had success in the past, the much travelled Tom Savage is the favorite to start. He's 6'5" and 230 pounds, with a cannon for an arm. He set a Big East record for a true freshman when he threw for 2,211 yards, along with 14 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. He was also named Rutgers' team MVP and a Freshman All-American. Heading into his sophomore year, he was named on the watch lists for both the Davey O'Brien Award and the Maxwell Award. But a hand injury early early in his sophomore season cost him his job.
Savage has NFL ability, even first round ability, when you look at his size and arm. This is a player who had offers from the likes of Michigan, Penn State, Miami, Florida, LSU, Georgia, and Florida State. Even when he was looking to transfer, Michigan, Miami, Florida, and Florida State were interested but they were denied by then coach Greg Schiano. Savage has one last chance to reach his high ceiling, and Paul Chryst is the man to lead him there. I think the stars are aligned for Savage to have a very successful senior year.
If Savage for whatever reason fails, there is still some very good talent in the mix. For some bizarre reason, some Pitt fans are writing off Chad Voytik because he couldn't beat out Tino Sunseri. That of course is crazy. Voytik has impressed the staff a lot in his first year on the team and a year of getting stronger and more prepared will do wonders for him in the future. Like Savage, he has a cannon arm and a lightening quick release. At only 6'1" he doesn't have Savage's height, but he's tall enough. He also has excellent mobility and great leadership skills. His future is very bright.
Lastly, there is incoming freshman Tra'von Chapman, who is very similar to Voytik. I know there is a groundswell of fans who expect Chapman to immediately come in and star, but that seems very unlikely. Let's not forget that none of the elite programs, even in the Big 10, saw him as a quarterback. There's a reason for that. He has a slight build and he needs a lot of help in his mechanics. But that doesn't mean he can't be a star down the road. In fact, Pitt fans have every right to be excited about what Chryst can do with Chapman in the future, because the kid really is somebody that many could look back on someday and wonder why they didn't try to get him.
To summarize, the ideal for the Panthers is to have Savage live up to his ability and come up with a huge senior season. Voytik can get some snaps as a backup and be ready to full-time action as a redshirt sophomore in 2014. He'll have to battle Chapman who as a redshirt freshman should be up for the battle. If Chandler Kincade signs with the Panthers then he would be an ideal redshirt candidate in 2014.
Bottom line, there are a lot of questions at a position where you don't want questions, but the combination of talent and Chryst's ability should answer any questions.
Running Back: The excellent Ray Graham is moving on so that means the main man becomes Rushel Shell. He's shown in his freshman season that he has great talent. The only thing I worry about is that he carried the ball a ton in high school, and Pitt may be better off not running him into the ground. For that reason Isaac Bennett will be called on again to contribute. He hasn't had the chance to do much this season but he will have to be in the mix more next year. After that, there's nobody who we know for sure can contribute. Malcolm Crockett? Corey Davis? Who knows, but one of them may be forced to contribute.
The loss of Corey Clement was a big loss for now. He's a big time talent who could have been the No.2 back, and a No.2 back with little or no drop off at that. Incoming freshman James Conner says the staff wants him as a running back now. Most scouts and coaches I talk to tell me that Conner is a better defensive prospect, and it looks like his move to running back is because they have a hole to fill. But that doesn't mean that Conner won't stay there, and even excel. At 6'2" and 235 pounds, he has intriguing size and he has very good speed and feet for his size. He just may be a real find, but right now his contribution as a freshman and beyond has to be a question mark, especially since he still has some academic hurdles to get over.
Of course the name that many Pitt fans talk about for the future, no doubt because I talk about him a lot myself, is Washington HS phenom Shai McKenzie. At 5'11" and 210 pounds, McKenzie is strong, quick, and fast. I can see him being a national recruit before all is said and done. He is a big Pitt fan and it would be huge to sign him. With Shell having children and already having a lot of mileage on him, it seems virtually guaranteed that he will leave after his junior season if he is successful over the next two years. That would mean that theoretically McKenzie could get carries as a true freshman than take over as the main ballcarrier in his sophomore season. But first Pitt has to get him, and that does nothing to help next season when Pitt doesn't appear to have a single game breaker coming out of the backfield.
At fullback, Mark Giubalato and Adam Lazenga are back, Ohio State transfer David Durham will be eligible, and Gateway's Jaymar Parrish will be arriving. Needless to say, the position is well stocked.
Wide Receiver: This is a position that could go two very different ways. Mike Shanahan and Cam Saddler are gone, and Devin Street may follow. Street doesn't appear to have great speed to me (though many claim he has excellent speed), but if he times well enough, his size and production will combine with his speed to make him a player who would go in rounds 2-4. Does that mean Street will leave early? Who knows? He may want to leave his college troubles behind and go for it. If he does, Pitt's receiving corps could be in big trouble. There are many names on the roster who will be back, and Wisconsin transfer Manasseh Garner will be eligible, but none have accomplished anything yet and none look like a sure thing to ever do so. That doesn't mean I am writing them all off, it's just that none have shown signs of doing anything yet and until they do we can't assume they will.
Of course like it was with Walt Harris, somebody will fill the void and put up good numbers because that's what happens in an offense with an excellent passing game mind at the helm. But putting up numbers and being a difference maker are two very different things, and Pitt hasn't shown signs of having a future difference maker at the position.
Of course that would change if they could land Central Valley superstar Robert Foster. It's a battle with Alabama right now, and nobody really knows which he will choose, but if it's Pitt he immediately becomes the biggest threat on offense. He is more than just a great athlete, as he's already advanced enough in his receiving skills to make a major impact immediately.
There's still an outside chance of getting Tyler Boyd also, though I'm definitely not predicting that. West Virginia is failing this season and are losing most of their top offensive players, so the Mountaineers may have lost some of their buzz for Boyd. Like Foster, Boyd would play immediately, both as a receiver and as a return man. Both are the difference makers Pitt needs.
Getting at least Foster is a must, and getting Boyd will be the cherry on top, even though the 2014 wide receiver class in PA also looks very good. K.J. Williams (Bethlehem Liberty), Ricky Rogers (Gateway), and Troy Apke (Mt. Lebanon) are three prospects that the staff will try hard to get, but like incoming freshman Zach Challingsworth and Reggie Green, they don't look to have the immediate impact that Foster will.
In summary, if Street and Foster are Pitt's starters next season, it will be one of the better duos in the country, and the immediate future of the unit looks exceptional. If Street leaves and Foster decides against the Panthers then the wide receiver unit will have a lot of work to do to contribute.
Tight End: This unit was a bit of a disappointment this season but the future looks very bright. J.P. Holtz has already shown as a true freshman that he has star ability. Drew Carswell has had an awful year so his snaps may be taken by incoming freshman Scott Orndoff, who has the potential to be an excellent receiving threat. Brendan Carozzoni barely played this season but he'll get another chance next year. Incoming freshmen Devon Edwards and Tony Harper will also be added to the mix next year and the staff is still recruiting tight ends for the 2014 class.
This position all comes down to two players, in my opinion, and both are local kids. Holtz could be all-star caliber as the sophomore starter next season and Orndoff has the ability to be a major receiving threat as a freshman. If they come through as expected then this unit could be excellent both next season and for years to come.
Offensive Line: It's no secret that this unit is poor but the numbers will at least improve next season. Ryan Turnley and Chris Jacobson will be gone, but neither are exactly irreplaceable. Turnley should be respected for playing hurt a lot in his career and for getting everything he could out of his ability, but he was not much more than mediocre. Jacobson was, quite frankly, a huge disappointment.
The good news is, not only is everybody else back, there will be reinforcements. First, the starters coming back are Cory King, Ryan Schlieper, and Matt Rotheram. None have been great but you have to think that by next season they will have spent so much time with Chryst, Joe Rudolph, and Jim Hueber that they should make some improvement. Giant Arthur Doakes has had to fill in for an injured Schlieper recently and has handled himself well. Shane Johnson may also be in the mix. Juantez Hollins, who was suspended for the entire season, would help if he comes back, Tom Ricketts will be back after an injury, and promising freshmen Adam Bisnowaty and Gabe Roberts may finally be able to contribute. Artie Rowell appears to be the heir apparent at center but it will be interesting to see who else is moved to the position to compete with him. Rowell is 6'2" and 300 pounds, and Chryst, Rudolph, and Hueber prefer giant 6'5" 330 pound centers. Incoming freshmen Carson Baker and Aaron Reese will likely redshirt.
Two players who could conceivably help immediately are Belle Vernon lineman Dorian Johnson and former prep school giant Tyrique Jarrett. It's rare for a true freshman lineman to play a lot, especially since the 270 pound Johnson is highly undersized, but if he shows anything at all I can see him getting some time at guard with an eventual move to tackle down the road. Many expect Jarrett to end up on defense, and he just may, but the 6'4" 330 pound monster has many scouts and coaches salivating about his potential at guard.
Bottom line, I don't see a huge upgrade on the line next season, but I suspect better line play, especially if Johnson, Jarrett, and Hollins are in the mix.