Coaching: Two seasons and a 13-13 overall record shows that Paul Chryst still hasn't gotten over the hump but that's not a surprise considering how messed up the program was when he arrived. His game coaching is still hit or miss, but that may be because he's still learning on the job. At least unlike past Pitt head coaches he doesn't make a lot of egregious errors.
Chryst has also gotten better at hiring a staff. He has a nice mix of veterans now in Joe Rudolph, Jim Hueber, John Palermo, John Settle, and Troy Douglas, and younger go getters like Greg Lewis and Inoke Breckterfield. There are still some questionable choices Matt House as defensive coordinator, and Chris Haering, but at least the program is trending up.
As far as recruiting, Chryst and his staff are not very aggressive with the big time players, but their evaluation of under recruited players may prove to be outstanding.
Last Season's Preseason Grade: C
Last Season's Final Grade: B-
This Season's Preseason Grade: B-
The truth is, this Pitt team has the look of a 7-5 team. They have good coaching and just enough star caliber players to be better than average. But they are also the youngest team in major college football and have little depth at most positions.
The deciding factor is that the schedule for the Panthers is very much in their favor this year. There is no Florida State or Clemson on the schedule and Virginia Tech, Duke, Georgia Tech, and Iowa are at home. The only two difficult road games all season are at North Carolina and Miami and even those games are winnable.
But while fans see probable, or at least very possible, wins against Virginia Tech, Duke, Georgia Tech, Iowa, Boston College, Virginia, and Boston College, those schools see the same against Pitt.
The two biggest factors for the Panthers this season is the health and progress of quarterback Chad Voytik, and the general health of the team, especially James Conner, Tyler Boyd, and the offensive line.
I have enough faith in Chryst's ability to assume that Voytik will just be fine, and I can't predict injuries. The offensive line should be solid for the first time, and while the defense lacks star power the Panthers defense usually plays hard enough as a unit to be at least solid. And it helps that they won't be facing a lot of excellent offenses.
With that in mind I am going to bite the bullet and predict an 8-4 regular season record for the Panthers. With the right matchup in a bowl the Panthers could have a program changing Top 25 9-4 record. However, if Voytik is hurt or fails, or if there is a rash of injuries to the star players, the Panthers will not come close to that record, and may in fact have a losing record. That's the life of a building program that doesn't have a lot of all-star caliber players yet.
State of the Program: All of a sudden it's year three for Paul Chryst and so far there is no definite proof that things are any better. Todd Graham was 6-7 in his one season and Chryst followed with a 13-13 overall record in his first two years. In the college football world Pitt is still just there- not great, not poor, just mediocre. But there is a chance that underneath the cursory glance that shows mediocrity, Chryst just may be building something more.
A lot of the future of Pitt depends on this season. After the disaster of the Dave Wannstedt firing, the Michael Haywood hiring and firing nearly simultaneously, and the Graham fiasco, Chryst had a lot of work to right the ship. My preference was to go for a sure thing. I wanted Pitt to pay a known successful head coach a lot of money and give him more money for his staff and the program as a whole. The program was reeling and had reached embarrassing levels (if you consider mediocrity embarrassing). Something drastic needed to happen or Pitt football was never going to be a national player again.
But instead the Pitt administration eschewed the big name and took the safe choice in Chryst. He wasn't dynamic, was never a head coach, and wasn't considered somebody that could recruit. My biggest worry about his hiring is that he would have to learn on the job, something I felt that Pitt had no time for. To make matters worse, Chryst hired a staff that was just as inexperienced and questionable, especially after Bob Bostad decided to flee immediately, and Dave Huxtable was replaced after one season.
Right hand man Joe Rudolph is a quality coach, and wide receiver coach Bobby Engram was a gem. Others were more questionable. But things are better with that staff now. Veterans like Douglas and Settle are nice additions. I never agreed with the hiring of Breckterfield, not because I didn't think he was good, but because I didn't see the point of hiring somebody with west coast ties when an equal coach could have been hired with east coast ties. I still don't agree with it, but he's far from a disaster. He's proven to be a solid coach and he's now starting to get some east coast ties at least.
The hiring of House as defensive coordinator is still a head scratcher. With Chryst and Rudolph being offensive minds it would make sense to have a veteran defensive coordinator. Instead House was inexperienced and nothing in his first year as coordinator showed that he was without a doubt the right choice. He may prove to be the right choice, and he can do that this year with a defense that lacks stars, but until he does it's still going to be a major question about Chryst's decision making in this case.
As far as recruiting, it is frustrating that the Panthers are not considered a major player with the most elite local recruits. While some of the players in question clearly seem like prima donnas, you can only win so many games with boy scouts. I know this is controversial and I'm not saying that Pitt should take a lot of egotistical kids who are dazzled by the flash of the James Franklins, Urban Meyers, and Dana Holgersons of the world, but the cold, hard facts are that many of the best players are like that. The great Pitt teams of the 70s and 80s were filled with such players. Of course Pitt may have decided that they would rather be a top 25 team every once in a while with all good kids, instead of being a top 10 team once in a while with some prima donnas, and if so that's their prerogative. And, by the way, it definitely does seem that is what they've decided to do.
Too many kids that Pitt has recruited have gone too long without hearing from the staff, and amazingly a few didn't even know they had Pitt offers. That is inexcusable, and more than a little surprising considering that support staff like Bob Junko and Chris LaSala are veterans who are great at their jobs. Somehow between them and this staff there has been a disconnect because this is not something that has happened in the past. This appears to be a direct result of Chryst's laid back approach, which can be both his best and worst trait.
I've also been unimpressed with Chryst's ability to land a topnotch quarterback, especially given his reputation. This is the man who made Russell Wilson a star, not to mention coached Scott Tolzien to the Johnny Unitas Award as the best quarterback in the country. Scott Tolzien!
Adam Bertke and Alex Hornibrook may both prove to be excellent and they are good developmental quarterbacks, but I'm surprised that Chryst hasn't landed that elite prospect at quarterback. Worse yet he hasn't even tried hard to land a nationally recruited quarterback. He slowly and methodically looks for his quarterback and this season he came away with Alex Malzone and Kyle Shurmur first, both very good but neither national prospects, who both went elsewhere. Third in line was Hornibrook who was not highly recruited. Let me say again that Hornibrook and Bertke may both end up to be excellent but you'd think that Chryst would try for more of a sure thing instead of a development guy that will take two or three years. Especially since there is such a need for quarterbacks. Let's remember that Voytik is not a sure thing and if he fails then Chryst will fail. The season before he again went with quarterbacks who weren't nationally recruited in Andrew Ford and Wade Freebeck. They may also prove to be excellent but you would think with his reputation and the fact that Pitt is desperate for quarterbacks, they could come up with a nationally recruited gem who could be a major factor in year or two. Look no further than Penn State to see what an elite quarterback can do for a program. Christian Hackenberg started right away and he's the sole reason that the Nittany Lions will probably have a winning record this season. It's that important as we may see if Voytik fails or gets injured.
While I'm not thrilled with the quarterback recruiting or the aggressiveness in recruiting when it comes to nationally recruited players, there is another aspect of recruiting that Pitt is proving very adept at, and that's finding underrated players that have the chance to be very good college players.
Not many schools saw James Conner as a big time player, especially at running back. Pitt did. They also saw something in little recruited players like Matt Galambos, Rachid Ibrahim, Jaymar Parrish, Shakir Soto, Pat Amara, Quintin Wirginis, Avonte Maddox, Rori Blair, and Connor Dintino, all of whom should have bright futures. Others like Jaryd Jones-Smith, Justin Moody, Scott Orndoff, Chris James, Adonis Jennings, and Elijah Zeise were considered to be very good recruits that are better than they've been rated. And the current classes doesn't have a bum in the group. Nick Bowers, Alex Paulina, Kevin Givens, Darrin Hall, Sekai Lindsey, Tony Pilato, Tre Tipton, Quadree Henderson, and Kraig Howe could all be very good players at Pitt. And I haven't even mentioned yet the local offensive line trio of national recruits Dorian Johnson, Alex Bookser, and Mike Grimm. Along with quarterback, this is the most important part of a football team so at least Chryst has been half right.
The Panthers have more underclassmen on their team than anybody in major college football making them the youngest team in the five major conferences. That's both scary and exhilarating. This season can go one of two ways. Injuries and Voytik's failure could mean the program flops again, and three straight seasons of mediocrity will finally start to put pressure on Chryst. On the other hand, if Pitt can go 8-4 or even 9-3 in the regular season, the latter possible if unlikely, then depending on the bowl Pitt can be 9-4 or 10-3 at the end of the season. To do that with the youngest team in major college football would put Pitt on the map again. Once again they will get the attention of the national media and the national prospects (though I wouldn't be surprised of the elite WPIAL kids still fall for the flash of Franklin and Holgerson).
Bottom line, this may be the year that we know if Pitt did the right thing by taking the tortoise over the hare. Chryst just chugs along, doing his thing, like he knows exactly what he's doing and without a care in the world. It may be time we know one way or the other if he's a mad genius or just plain mad.