Thursday, August 28, 2014

Pitt Football Preseason Coaching Grade, Season Prediction, and State of the Program

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.


  1. Great analysis of the program.

    I'll count Miami as "winnable" when they actually win one against the Canes.

  2. This a fantastic and level-headed analysis of Chryst and Co and the program. I couldn't agree with you more on the QB recruiting. It is truly baffling. It does sound like they are making some real pushes for national targets in 2016, they've offered and have apparently been in contact with some good kids, finally. But why on earth have they waited so long? Waiting until year 4 to land a star QB recruit when you only have a 5 year contract?

    I am not optimistic about House, and whether it's fair or not I hope he's gone next year solely on the basis of his defensive recruiting record.

    I like the coaching changes this off season though and I am actually pretty happy with the class so far, but we do have to close out with some elite defensive talent. We've not landed one defensive difference making in Chryst's tenure to this point.

  3. Definitely agree with alot of that write up. Put me in the skeptical clan in regards to House. I need to see some better recruiting from him to be a believer. I hope he has learned something over the past year from the likes of Douglass and Palermo. Save for DE depth the defense should be at least OK. But if he continues to grow I'll be satisfied. I hope I dont repeatedly see things like being in a base D with a LB trying to cover speedy slot WR and the CB playing 8 yards off on 3rd and 5

  4. Pitt should win 9. The schedule is super easy. There is only a couple teams that have equal or better talent.

    Worrisome is that Voytik scrambles a decent amount and prob will take a couple of good shots, Pitt just has to hope he gets up.


  5. Nice to see you're being FAIR to Chryst. Seems like you starting to "buy in" to his ability to identify TWO STAR kids with FOUR STAR upsides.

    Glad also to see you coming around on Breckterfield. The Guy knows how to play the position... and coach it... given the year Aaron Donald had last year.

    However, just a few points of disagreement.

    - Comparing where this team is at in terms of performance... and where it was with Graham... ABSOLUTELY no comparison. Similar only in numbers. With Blewitt, Chryst would be 2 and 0 against Notre Dame.

    - Hoping is one thing... ASSUMING that Voytik is going to be just fine as in GOOD... is another.. Granted he's off to a Good Start with the SPARK he brought to the team after Savage went out at the Bowl Game. But this year, teams are going to be Game Planning against him. Makes a WHOLE LOT of difference. Assuming... no. HOPING... yes.

    - As for Bertke... looking at his size... his proven leadership and record in High School... and his LIGHTENING QUICK release... Chryst may really have an ELITE Quarterback.

    - And then there's Iowa. Not all fans see this as a possible/probably WIN. Probably Pitt's toughest opponent of the year. And that includes the AWAY GAME at Miami.


    1. I've always been consistent with both Chryst and Breckterfield. My stance on them has never changed.

    2. I have to agree that you sound more positive about both Chryst and Breckterfield. You can dispute this all you want, but you have been even more skeptical about Chryst than you are now and virtually dismissive of Breckterfield.

      Re Breckterfield, I still don't think he is getting the credit he deserves from anyone in the media for his role in the development of Aaron Donald. Prior to Breckterfield, Donald was just another d-tackle. It was only during the two years under Inoke that Donald became all world.

    3. Yeah I'm sure it has nothing to do with him being a junior and senior. And you need to read better. I'm saying the exact same things I've always said about both coaches.

    4. I'm sure it has nothing to do with him being coached by Breckterfield either.

    5. Anony 8:29 & 7:24
      I suggest you go watch Breckerfield video during spring ball his first season. He raved about Donald. Wanted all his Dline to be line Donald. Breckerfield didn't have to do anything because Donald was a self-starter and doing things on his own (S&C, film, etc)
      If Breckerfield were so good, what about the rest of the line. He had very little to do with Donald development.
      If Breckerfield is so good, then lets see what the Dline does this year.

    6. You're right, Anon 8:29. It doesn't. Seriously. Not at all. Not one bit.

    7. Breckterfield is a solid coach. I never said anything bad about coaching. I said from when he was hired that it made sense to find a coach with ties to Pitt's recruiting area.

    8. While Breckterfield may helped Donald, the idea of Donald being 'another' D lineman is laughable.

      The very first time I saw him play was televised game when Penn Hills played Fox Chapel, and Donald often lined up against 4-star Mile Dieffenbach ... and Donald was clearly the dominat player, showing that quick burst off the line of scrimmage that he is now well known for.

      And BTW, how has Brecterfield done with Durham so far?


    9. Well, bill, for one thing I think it was pretty clear that I was not referring to Donald's high school career but rather to his first two years at Pitt. For another thing, why don't you ask how Palermo has done with Durham so far since he is the d-ends coach?

    10. Chris:

      I just read today's Pitt Blather and in its review of the various Pitt blogs it complimented the very thorough report by Panthers Prey, and it went on to say that Dokish was a little less negative than he usually is. So I guess that is one of your colleagues agreeing with what a couple of us have observed about you here, but which I know you will continue to disagree with vigorously.

    11. The Pitt football program was an embarrassment for a few years. That's not being negative. That's being realistic.

    12. Chris has been more than fair. Pitt football has sucked/mediocre since wanny left and there is no other way to spin it as a positive.

      Take the love goggles off if you think otherwise.

    13. Wanny said Donald was going to be drafted when he was in high school and recruited him. Breckterfield is a decent coach but to say he is the reason donald was so good is a joke.

    14. The point is not that you are negative - or realistic - the point is that in the post above you are less negative. I guess it's hard to be perceived as even slightly positive.

    15. But to say Breckterfield played no role whatsoever is equally hard to believe.

    16. For all of you naysayers who said Breckterfield had no role in Donald's development, I just read something that says otherwise as follows: "Pitt's Aaron Donald, the nation's most decorated defensive player in 2013, readily credited his individual film-study sessions with 'Coach Nokes' in helping to elevate his game." So you will have to argue with Donald from now on as to whether Breckterfield helped in his development.

  6. nice write up! if kids prefer ped state or wvucc then so be it.
    i like the type of kids Chryst has recruited, for the most part, leaders!
    at least they aint the stillers, smokin dope 90 min b4 boarding the plane!

  7. The last sentence is Igood----it may be time we know one way or the other if he's a mad genius or just plain mad. Chryst does kind of just walk along without much emotion more like monotone. Seems like a good quality person who cares about the kids, and if u hear people that know him, they say what a great guy he is and football mind. When he recruits does anyone get the impression that he will bad mouth another school, say what he needs to get the kid, give a song and dance when visiting parents--No it just seems he tells them --hear is why u should come to Pitt. I will say this, I personally think the D is going to be horrible, but if Voytek stays healthy we need to score and score alot. i also think we have enough talent on offense to score alot, but with a d that will stop no one I think at the end of year we might start asking if we are doing things right, but maybe not--maybe Chryst is a super star and Pitt fell upon a gem. After all Jamie Dixon was a mad scientist when he first was coach subbing players for no apparent reason and he turned out pretty good.

    1. I agree actually, if Chryst fails it will be because he didn't surround himself with experienced defensive assistant coaches. Thats the biggest question mark now. And it's a big one.

  8. Chris,

    Excellent overall analysis of the offense, defense, coaching etc. I believe your analysis is very fair and objective, which makes it easy to read. I enjoy writing that gives all sides, both positive and negative, and you do that consistently.

    This is a very important year for Chryst and the program. It's his third season, and we should be seeing results of whether he was the right hire or not. I wasn't a big fan of his hiring, but I hope he succeeds because I want Pitt to succeed. I'd be more than happy to say I was wrong.

    I'm not one for predictions, but I think an 8 win regular season is a realistic expectation. Barring major injuries, or Voytik and/or the OL imploding, I think 8-4 is achievable.


  9. Chris... you are slowly turning slightly positive about Chryst. That is a good thing. Especially considering that Chryst is about ready to start winning some games.