Quarterback: Of all of the positions this is the one that will probably most determine the fate of the Panthers in 2015. One obvious reason is because of the importance of the position in general. But the other reason is because the rest of the offense looks very good, and maybe even excellent, on paper. It's also scary for the program because if Chad Voytik doesn't succeed, there probably isn't a realistic alternative. Yes, there could always be a graduate transfer, but more likely if Voytik fails or gets hurt, the Panthers are in trouble. Adam Bertke and Alex Hornibrook can be good in the future, but it's unrealistic to think they'll be that good that soon since Bertke will probably be a redshirt freshman and Hornibrook will be a true freshman
Running Back: This is the first of many positions on offense where the Panthers will be loaded in 2015. It begins of course with James Conner, who will be a junior, and will theoretically be even more dominating. Combine him at least with fast Chris James and third down back Rachid Ibrahim and that's a good trio. Jaymar Parrish already showed as a true freshman that he's a talented fullback/H-Back so there's no reason to think he won't continue to contribute.
Wide Receiver: Probable All-American candidate Tyler Boyd combined with Adonis Jennings and Quadree Henderson? That's possible, but the latter two will have to beat out Zach Challingsworth and Dontez Ford. That's five really good receivers, with at least one of them being a legit star. And of course others like Jester Weah, Elijah Zeise, and Jaquaun Davidson may also get into the mix.
Tight End: JP Holtz will be a senior and Scott Orndoff will be a junior, and they will have both been lettermen since their freshmen seasons. By this time, Orndoff may have developed into a star. The two alone are enough to make this a very strong unit.
Offensive Line: This has been a trouble spot for years, but Paul Chryst's recruiting may finally come to fruition. Matt Rotheram and TJ Clemmings will be gone, but the time may finally come for former top recruits who will now be veterans. Included in that mix are Adam Bisnowaty, Dorian Johnson, and Jaryd Jones-Smith. Combine them with young potential stars like Alex Bookser and Mike Grimm, both of whom will have a year under their belt at this time, and the line may finally be on it's way to good things. And I haven't even mentioned yet Artie Rowell, Alex Officer, Aaron Reese, Gabe Roberts, or Connor Hayes, any of whom could join the rotation.
Defensive Line: On paper, everybody but David Durham will be back. At end, Shakir Soto, Devin Cook, and Ejuan Price will all be upperclassmen, and I wouldn't be surprised if Soto was all-conference caliber at this time. Youngster Luke Maclean will join that mix. One of them will have to turn into a serious pass rush threat because it's been sorely lacking.
Inside, things look even better. Darryl Render, Khaynin Mosley-Smith, Tyrique Jarrett, and Justin Moody all have better than average talent. Connor Dintino and Mike Herndon are giants who will likely redshirt this season so they will also be in the mix in 2015.
Linebackers: Todd Thomas and Anthony Gonzalez will have graduated, but things aren't as dire as it seems. Matt Galambos will likely be the returning starter in the middle, and fellow upperclassmen Bam Bradley, Nicolas Grigsby, and Mike Caprara will also return. But the younger guys are especially intriguing. Rori Blair, Jamal Davis, James Folston, Quintin Wirginis, and Kevin Givens are all talented, and at least a few will be in the mix as soon as 2015. I think we will also see a few more talented linebackers added for the '15 class, too, so the days of moving safeties and quarterbacks into this position may be over. At the very least this will be a very quick and athletic group, and some of the younger guys have the potential to be physically bigger than Pitt linebackers of recent years.
Defensive Backs: There's no unit that has gotten faster in a shorter period of time than this group. Lafayette Pitts isn't even one of the speedier players but he could be starting his fourth season. Reggie Mitchell will also be a senior, and he should help with experience. The rest of the group have serious speed, led by the Clairton trio of Trenton Coles, Terrish Webb, and Titus Howard. It's not inconceivable that all three will start. At the very least, all three will figure prominently. Speed demon cornerbacks Avonte Maddox and Phillipie Motley should figure in the mix next year as should playmaking safeties Patrick Amara and Jalen Williams. And of course if the Panthers can land a big time corner like Jordan Whitehead then that's a player that could start right away.
Kickers: Chris Blewitt proved as a true freshman that he was pretty good so theoretically as a junior he should be even better. Punter Ryan Winslow will be in his second year as the starter assuming he does well this season.
Bottom line: The first thing you need to be a top 20 caliber team is stars in positions that matter, and in Conner and Boyd the Panthers have two potential stars. If they stay healthy and live up to their potential they could both be All-American candidates, and any team that has an All-American caliber running back and wide receiver is going to win their share of games.
As for the other parts of the offense, the wide receivers, running backs, and tight ends all look to be in excellent shape on paper. And with Chryst's offensive mind you'd think the offense could be very, very good if Voytik and the offensive line comes through. Voytik is a former Elite 11 quarterback and the offensive line has more than it's share of former elite recruits, so it's not crazy to think that both will perform well. In fact, with the pedigree of both, they should perform well. It's time to turn elite recruits like Voytik, Dorian Johnson, Jones-Smith, and Grimm into the players they are expected to be.
As for defense, the Panthers could return seven starters with Ray Vinopal, David Durham, Todd Thomas, and Anthony Gonzalez the only seniors departing. Vinopal went from being a disaster to being a solid player, but his loss will not be a big deal at all since every other defensive back returns. Likewise, the defensive line returns practically everybody. At linebacker, Thomas and Gonzalez are good players, but there are a lot of quick, hungry linebackers behind them.
The defense has nobody that stands out as certain stars, but they should be quicker and deeper for the first time in many years so you'd have to think they will be good enough to keep the Panthers in games, especially if the offense is explosive.
It will be the fourth year of Chryst's reign in 2015, the acknowledged turning point for college coaches. On offense, he will have a former Elite 11 quarterback starting in his second year, two possible All-American candidates in Boyd and Conner, dynamic playmakers like Jennings and Henderson, a big, athletic pass catching threat at tight end with Orndoff, and a handful of former elite offensive line prospects, most of whom will be in the program for their third or fourth year.
On defense, a star, or two, or three, may emerge, but at the very least quickness and familiarity should help the unit be at least solid. In the best case scenario, somebody like Soto turns into a sack machine, Galambos turns into Scott McKillop, Jr., and the Clairton bunch are so good that they become a national story.
Yes, those things may happen. But they don't necessarily have to for Pitt to finally return to respectability, because on paper 2015 looks like the year that respectability may return to Oakland without having to ask for miracles.
Chryst gets good players and has a good coaching staff. That leads to a good team. I've said since he was hired that Chryst will probably max out as an 8-9 win coach, and a 9 win season will probably put him around the top 20. Can he ever get into the rarefied air of a top 10 team? I honestly have my doubts. It takes a lot of things to go right for that to happen because while there is good talent at Pitt there is not great talent. Some coaches can have great teams with just good talent but those are the truly elite coaches. Chryst has yet to prove that he's in that category. But if you have good coaches and good talent, you never know what could happen in any given season. A lot of things may go Pitt's way and you just may have yourself a magical season that will have Panthers fans happy again.