Obviously the Pitt program is far from where they and the fans would want it to be, and obviously there are things that need work, but the fan base is mostly down at this time because the season didn't end well. With that in mind, here's some reasons why you shouldn't be so down.
1. Paul Chryst and his staff now has one year under their belt. It's no secret that Chryst wasn't my ideal choice to be the head coach but that's not because I didn't think he could eventually be a good coach. In fact, I said that I felt that he could eventually be at the same level as Walt Harris and Dave Wannstedt. After that, who knows? The problem I had was that the program was desperate for an experienced head coach that could give the program an instant influx of talent and buzz. Chryst was not experienced, and it showed, but at least that first year is out of the way, and you have to expect that his newfound experience will only help him to improve. The same goes with his staff, where coaches like Bobby Engram, Brooks Bollinger, and Matt House showed that they are at the same level as well regarded veterans like Joe Rudolph, Jim Hueber, and Desmond Robinson.
2. The recruiting should only get better. The staff did not start quickly in recruiting but they clearly improved as the recruiting year went on. Most importantly, the staff was able to keep elite local talent like Dorian Johnson, Tyler Boyd, and Scott Orndoff at home. There is a lot of talent in the WPIAL and the state in the 2014, and 2015 has some potential superstars, and Chryst and his staff did not have to wait until January like the past class to start making their moves. The longer they have to make a connection with recruits, the better their chances, especially for WPIAL kids who will be around Pitt a long time before it's time to make a commitment.
3. There will be a change at quarterback. I don't want to dump on Tino Sunseri, but to say he was divisive is an understatement. He also had limited physical ability and even more limited ability to win a game when called upon. Tom Savage will likely be the new starter and he has a lot more physical skills. He's a mature fifth year senior who has waited a long time for this chance. He also has been tutored under Chryst for a year so he's not going to come in totally out of the blue. Lastly, he has NFL skills from a physical standpoint so he has a possible NFL career to play for. Worst case scenario, Savage flops and Pitt doesn't win a lot of games, but at least Chad Voytik and/or Tra'von Chapman can start to learn the position for the future. But I don't think it will come to that, because...
4. Chryst knows offense. Pitt ended up 92nd in rushing, 46th in passing, and 72nd in total offense. That doesn't sound much but then again this is an offense that had Sunseri at quarterback, one receiver with any speed at all, a running back recovering from a major knee injury, an untalented offensive line, and a tight end corps that included a perpetually injured senior, a true freshman, and a guy with concentration problems. But every unit on offense has an influx of young talent and Chryst has proven that if you give him any offensive talent at all then he can put up a lot of production.
5. More speed in the passing game. Mike Shanahan had a big senior season which proves what Chryst can do with a passing game, but he wasn't the quickest player out there. Neither was Cam Saddler who lost any quickness he had after blowing his knee out the previous season. But enter Boyd, Orndoff, a recharged Ed Tinker, and possibly Demitrious Davis. They will combine with the returning Devin Street to give the program some much improved speed at the position.
6. Excellent tight end play. On a lot of teams, saying that improvement from the tight end position will make a big difference is a bit of a stretch, but not with Chryst who utilizes tight ends greatly in the passing game. True freshman J.P. Holtz showed that he was the real deal and will likely make big strides in his sophomore season. Orndoff has already enrolled at the university so he will be in spring practices. He has a tantalizing size and speed combination, and he should pair with Holtz to give the Panthers an excellent unit that Chryst will utilize a lot.
7. Rushel Shell? Okay, this one we don't know for sure yet. Ray Graham is gone and in his last three years he always had around 900 yards. That's excellent, but because of injuries he never had the huge year. Shell is determined to have a huge sophomore year and let's be honest, would anybody be surprised if he ended up with 1,500 yards rushing in the upcoming season? I'm not saying he will. He needs to work on his quickness in the offseason and he runs so hard that injuries are always a concern, but at least the realistic potential of a huge season is there. And he did he did have 641 rushing yards and a 4.5 avg. as a true freshman so clearly the college level is not going to be much of a problem for him.
8. The offensive line will be better. I mean, it has to be right? Chryst, Rudolph, and Hueber are too good at developing linemen to not show improvement in year two. Only Chris Jacobson and Ryan Turnley are gone, and both were mediocre talents. Redshirt freshman Adam Bisnowaty is a genuine talent who has been drawing raves in practice, and incoming freshman Dorian Johnson may be good enough to start immediately. At the very least I expect him to play. The suspended Juantez Hollins will presumably also return, and even though he's not great, at least he provides depth. Then there's T.J. Clemmings, who may finally find his calling at tackle. The best part of those four being in the mix is that the slow tackles from this season can move inside to guard and center.
9. The defensive line will be better. Only Shayne Hale is gone. Everybody else is a year older and Darryl Render and Devin Cook should be making more of an impact. Incoming freshmen Shakir Soto and Tyrique Jarrett are both physically ready and will be available for spring practice. I can see both being heavily in the mix. This may not be an excellent unit but the numbers are better and that means there's a better chance that one or two players break out.
10. The linebackers will all be there and be healthy? I have to ask that rather than declare it because it's never happened yet. Miracle man Dan Mason came back and for two games was playing at an all-star level. It was a fluke injury, not his surgically repaired knee, that cost him the rest of the season, so if his knee continues to hold up he could be a major addition. Todd Thomas was injured for the first third of the season but then did play at an all-star level the rest of the season. He may finally break though with an excellent season. Then there is Ejuan Price, who showed flashes of great potential as a pass rusher as a true freshman before missing all of last season with an injury. He seems to have trouble playing the linebacker position, but he is a natural pass rusher, exactly what the program needs, so they need to find a way to utilize that talent. Throw in returnees Nicholas Grigsby, Shane Gordon, and Eric Williams, plus talented redshirt freshmen Bam Bradley, Deaysean Rippy, Devon Porchia, and Mike Caprara, and you have to think that the staff can find at least five that can play well.
11. The secondary could be amongst the best in the nation. Ballhawk Jason Hendricks somehow was not named all-conference despite leading the team in tackles and the conference in interceptions. He even came up with 17 tackles and an interception in the bowl game. Cornerbacks K'Waun Williams and Lafayette Pitts didn't give up much in most games. In fact, the Panthers were No. 20 in passing yards defense and No.21 in pass efficiency defense. They gave up 15 touchdowns through the air and had 15 interceptions. And with three starters returning, there's no reason why they can't be even better.
12. The special teams should be better. Kevin Harper will be gone and that can't be a bad thing. He missed seven field goals on the season, and many of them were big misses. Redshirt freshman walk on Brad Lukasak and incoming freshman Chris Blewitt both have strong legs. The best thing about kickers is that it doesn't seem to matter much if they are a freshman. Punter Matt Yoklic is back for a third season. Lafayette Pitts started off strongly as a kick returner but then leveled off. Worse case scenario, he's returning kicks again, which he proved he can do at a high level. The other scenario is that Boyd will return kicks. I would be surprised if he doesn't return punts, taking over for the mediocre Saddler. Needless to say, that would be a huge upgrade.
Obviously not all of these best case scenarios will actually happen. That's just the law of averages. But none of these things are long shots. In fact, most are probable.
Todd Graham left the program because he knew that the roster had to be torn down before it could be built back up, and he didn't want to put in the work. Chryst proves he is willing to do it, as you can tell by the huge amount of players who are moving on. I always thought Dave Wannstedt was a good hire because I thought he had the potential to be a great recruiter. I still think Wannstedt was a good hire, but I said at the time, and it's been proven, that his recruiting was top heavy. He brought in a handful of top prospects, but there were way too many prospects with low ceilings. Too many players didn't amount to much, then they were combined with two coaching change classes that were obviously less than stellar under the circumstances.
Fans are upset that the record is the same as last season, and that both included a bowl blowout. But this is all part of building a program for Chryst. With a lot of dead weight on the roster, and the coaching changes, the program was a runaway train to mediocrity. But just like a train needs to be stopped before reversing course, so does a football program. Chryst spent this season applying the brakes. He is established recruiting areas, showed the current players how to run his system, set a tone both on and off the field, and eliminated the dead weight. Entering year two, any potential recruits have been in contact with Pitt for two years instead of one, all players on the current roster now have the system down, all players know what is expected and demanded from them on and off the field, and the dead weight is being purged. The current class will be large in numbers, which will help build the depth back up, and even the lesser rated players have potential. As an example, Wannstedt brought in Saddler to be a receiver, a 5'8" kid who doesn't have great speed. There was only so good he could be. By comparison, Chryst is bringing in Zach Challingsworth and Reggie Green, who may or may not end up being good players, but both are 6'2" and fast so at least there's potentially to develop into something more than mediocrity.
Bottom line, I have no idea if Chryst will succeed. Personally, I would prefer he was a bit more aggressive in recruiting and his game decisions need to improve, but this season proved to me that he was not a total flop. A strong offense needs coaching and talent. Chryst has proven that he has a great offensive mind as normally mediocre talents like Sunseri and Shanahan put up big numbers against all odds. You have to wonder what he can do with one of these other quarterbacks, along with Shell, Boyd, Holtz, Orndoff, Bisnowaty, Johnson, etc. Throw in another class or two and I would be very surprised if Pitt didn't have one of the better offenses in the country in the next two years.
Defense is coaching and aggressiveness. The Panthers finished No. 17 in total defense this season so coaching and aggressiveness doesn't seem to be a problem. The Panthers have hard nosed, tough players on the roster so the result isn't really a surprise. The defensive recruiting doesn't have the same highly rated players coming in, but they are smart and tough which tells me the defense has a chance to keep shining (though they will need to step it up with better physical talent eventually). A talented offense with a great offensive mind, and a defense loaded with tough kids is a recipe for success. It may take a year or two for us to know if the train has reversed direction yet, but in my opinion the train has at least stopped. That's all that can be expected for the first season and it's the first time that a Pitt coach actually applied the brakes as hard as was needed.