- Heather Dinich, ESPN Staff Writer
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It was halftime of the Little Caesars Bowl when Pitt running back James Conner approached backup quarterback Chad Voytik in the Panthers’ locker room and gave him a vote of confidence that continues to resonate.
With starting quarterback Tom Savage sidelined with a rib injury, and Pitt clinging to a 17-10 lead over Bowling Green, the unproven Voytik had to take over the offense in the second half, and he conceded he was “nervous as all get-out.”
“I told him, ‘Man, I trust you,’” Conner said. “Let’s go out and win this thing.”
That’s exactly what they did.
Conner had an MVP performance, rushing for an astounding 229 yards and a touchdown, and Voytik put Pitt ahead 27-20 with a five-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. He completed 5 of 9 passes for 108 yards in the 30-27 win, made plays with his legs, and more importantly, managed the offense without any turnovers. It was a snapshot of Voytik’s potential, and it earned him the trust and respect of his teammates as he prepares to take over for Savage full time this season.
“For me, the overall performance, it was just nice to get out there again and play because I hadn’t played in a serious game since high school,” he said. “You kind of forget a little bit what it feels like and that you can still do it. For me, personally, it was very reassuring and kind of boosted my confidence a little bit in myself, just knowing I could go in there and compete at this level.”
Now he just has to do it on a regular basis.
Voytik is quick to point out that he hasn’t officially been named the starter yet, but as the heir apparent, he has been preparing like one all offseason. This spring, Voytik and Trey Anderson were the only quarterbacks on the roster. It’s an extremely different role for Voytik, as he only played in four games last season behind Savage, and saw his most extensive snaps in the bowl game. All but eight of his passing yards and two of his attempts for the season were against Bowling Green. Because of his limited playing time, the reps with the first-team this spring were invaluable. One of his priorities has been tweaking his footwork.
“I’ve always prided myself in being an accurate quarterback and I want to continue to grow in that area because mechanically I’ve always had a pretty good throwing motion, but now I’m starting to find some things with my feet that have slacked a little bit over the years,” he said. “I’ve developed a few small habits I’m trying to fix. I think accuracy as a result of that will improve. That’s my project right now, that will be my project this summer. Just a few small tweaks, but I think they can help me in big ways.”
While there is still plenty for the third-year sophomore to learn, those within the program have been encouraged by what they’ve seen so far.
“I think he’s always had confidence in his athletic ability, and now I think through this spring he’s really starting to gain a lot of confidence in his knowledge base and in his understanding and comfort of the offense, which is awesome,” said offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph. “That’s what you want. He’s worked at it. He’s taken an approach where he’s been truly competitive in the film room, where he’s gone in there and tried to grind through it until it made sense to him.”
One of the biggest differences between Savage and Voytik is Voytik’s ability to run. On Pitt's game-winning field goal drive in the bowl game against Bowling Green, Voytik had a 19-yard rush, the longest run by a Pitt quarterback since 2011.
“I think teams have to have some awareness in his ability to pull the ball down and take off with it,” Rudolph said. “He definitely has that, and I think he has confidence in that. It’s a different skill set. I think he can make the throws. It’s not like you don’t have someone who can get the ball down the field by any means. He’s more than capable there. He just adds another dimension.”
Conner said Voytik’s performance in the bowl game was just a sample.
“We have a lot of confidence in him,” Conner said. “He’s continued to get coached up, and I can’t wait to see what he brings to the table this year.”
3dAndrea Adelson and Matt Fortuna