ACC: Isaac Bennett
Previewing the 2014 season for the Pittsburgh Panthers:
Key returners: QB Chad Voytik, RB James Conner, RB Isaac Bennett, WR Tyler Boyd, TE J.P. Holtz, LT Adam Bisnowaty, C Artie Rowell, RG Matt Rotheram, RT T.J. Clemmings, DE David Durham, LB Anthony Gonzalez, LB Todd Thomas, CB Lafayette Pitts, S Ray Vinopal
Key losses: QB Tom Savage, WR Devin Street, DT Aaron Donald, LB Shane Gordon, CB K'Waun Williams, S Jason Hendricks
Projected win percentage (from Stats & Info): 63.5 percent.
Over/under Vegas odds: 7.5 wins.
Instant impact newcomers: Avonte Maddox and Phillipie Motley are a pair of freshman cornerbacks who will likely be counted on heavily to provide some needed depth at the position, as Titus Howard's season-long suspension leaves Pitt with just two returners with any experience at the position (Pitts and Trenton Coles). Both Maddox (5-foot-10, 170 pounds) and Motley (5-foot-9, 165 pounds) arrived this summer as ESPN three-star prospects, and the learning curve will likely be accelerated as the Panthers search for more bodies in coverage.
High point from 2013: A 28-21 win over Notre Dame on Nov. 9 buried the Fighting Irish's remaining BCS bowl hopes and, at least partially, erased some of the sting from Pitt's consecutive three-point losses to them in 2011 and 2012. It's more useful, however, to look back at the 30-27 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl win over MAC champion Bowling Green, as youngsters Voytik, Conner and Boyd all stepped up in a big way, something each hopes is a sign of things to come for 2014.
Low point from 2013: A 24-21 loss at Navy on Oct. 26 marked the first of a two-game slide (Pitt lost at Georgia Tech a week later), threatening to keep the Panthers out of postseason play before they pulled off the upset the following month over the Irish. Still, Pitt dropped three contests in a four-game stretch surrounding the loss to the Midshipmen, with its only win during that stretch coming against Old Dominion.
Best-case scenario for 2014: Voytik builds off his late-game experience from the Pizza Bowl and gives Pitt a dynamic threat under center, the experienced-but-shaky offensive line jells, Boyd continues his ascent and the defense makes big strides. Pitt takes advantage of a rather friendly schedule, makes a run at 10 wins and emerges as the champion of a Coastal division that is simply begging someone to step up.
Worst-case scenario for 2014: The offensive line continues to struggle, leaving Voytik vulnerable and the offense out of flux. The front seven fails to make up for the loss of Donald, allowing opponents time to test a green secondary. The Panthers win four games, taking a step back after consecutive bowl seasons in Paul Chryst's first two years. The youth on this team, however, is probably still enough to keep the future promising.
They said it: "I feel fortunate to be at Pittsburgh. You talk about a school with unbelievable football tradition and a city that absolutely -- it's a great sports town but a heck of a football city. High school football is big on Fridays. Obviously the Steelers are big on Sunday. We want to be a team that reflects the city and reflects the university and the tradition of a great university. I want the ex-players to be proud of Pitt and Pitt football, and I know they certainly are proud of it. But that's where we want to go, and that's what I mean, we're not where we want to be. But I sure appreciate and enjoy going through and facing that challenge with this group of guys, and for every challenge there's an opportunity." -- Chryst, on how he defines Pitt football
Fisher talked at length about how he studies a player to determine a his physical ceiling and what kind of bone structure and body type recruits possess. Fisher said it is not the deciding factor when he recruits a prospect, but it is without a doubt a factor. He likened it to basketball, where coaches often are more in love with a player's wingspan or vertical jump than his ability to shoot the basketball from 15 to 18 feet.
A protege of Nick Saban, Fisher likes physically stout players along the defensive line. Some of his defensive ends tip the scales at 300 pounds but still move as if they were 25 pounds lighter. He and Saban had them at LSU a decade ago, and Fisher has one at Florida State in Mario Edwards Jr., who was able to chase down Auburn's Nick Marshall on an option play.
Brendan Sonnone of the Orlando Sentinel took a look at how Fisher has recruited during his tenure and the size of the players he has brought in.The class that signed in February averages 6-foot-3.5 and weighs 249 pounds. To put that into perspective, Bobby Bowden's final class at Florida State was two inches shorter and 26 pounds lighter.
While this 2014 class could be a bit of an outlier due to the sheer numbers of linemen Fisher signed, the statistics still offer an insight into how Fisher recruits. Defensive coordinator Charles Kelly also said Sunday that he knows Fisher is looking for a certain body type depending on the position, so Kelly needs to take that into account when he's visiting high schools.
Here's a few more links to get your Tuesday started.
- Clemson's staff has some tough decisions to make before it can carve out a starting defense.
- Pittsburgh running back Isaac Bennett is still protecting his surgically repaired shoulder as the Panthers enter their second week of practice.
- Sad news for Duke linebacker Kelby Brown, who went down with a knee injury Tuesday. He's already rehabbed two torn ACLs in his career.
- Syracuse has three freshman cornerbacks looking to break into the starting lineup this season.
- Wake Forest is going with freshman John Wolford as its starting quarterback.
- North Carolina needs a player to step up on the defensive line. NC State needs players to emerge at several positions.
- Louisville held a practice closed to the media, but Lorenzo Mauldin offered up details as to what went down.
- Kendall Fuller is looking to uphold the tradition of the Fuller last name in Blacksburg.
- A preview of Boston College's game this season against Virginia.
- Al Golden insists the quarterback race at Miami is tighter than ever.
Why Pittsburgh will win the Coastal
1. Tyler Boyd is among the conference’s best receivers. And he might be the best by season’s end. As a freshman, Boyd compiled nearly 1,200 receiving yards and brought a playmaking element to the Pitt offense it has not had in a few seasons. With Aaron Donald, Tom Savage and Devin Street all pursuing NFL careers, this is now Boyd’s team. An elite playmaker, Boyd’s impact on his teammates as a locker room leader will be equally important. Boyd lost just one game in his high school career, and he is bringing that winning mentality to Pittsburgh. Boyd does not deal well with losing.
3. The schedule is favorable. Pitt was thrown into the ACC fire last season with an opening game against Florida State and Jameis Winston, whom we learned that night was going to be a special player. The Seminoles rotate off the schedule this season, and Pitt also avoids Clemson and Louisville, which means the Panthers will not play any of the teams projected to finish in the top three of the Atlantic Division. They play Boston College, Miami, North Carolina and Virginia on the road, all manageable games away from Heinz Field. The Panthers’ three toughest games might all come in a row, in but they will all be at home. The Panthers host Virginia Tech on a Thursday night before Georgia Tech and Duke travel to the Steel City.
Why Pitt won’t win the Coastal
1. The offensive line was porous last season. Savage was beaten and bloodied in 2013 behind an offensive line that failed to protect him many times. The Panthers return most of their offensive line, which could be a good or bad thing. The line should be more experienced, but that does not necessarily mean it will be better. Few programs return as many starters from a season ago as the Panthers do on the line. The left side of the offensive line could be the key to the Panthers’ offensive success. Left tackle Adam Bisnowaty is talented, but he battled back injuries at the end of last season. Dorian Johnson was a blue-chip recruit and played extensively as a freshman, and he’ll start alongside Bisnowaty.
2. Voytik has very limited experience at quarterback. While Voytik showed a lot of promise during the Panthers’ bowl victory, the redshirt sophomore has thrown only 11 passes in his career. A four-star recruit, Voytik is clearly not short on talent, but it isn’t as simple as inserting him in the starting lineup with the expectation the offense will not miss a beat. A Sept. 5 night game at Boston College should provide an early glimpse into Voytik's potential.
3. The defense is not consistent enough. Defense is a staple in the city of Pittsburgh, and the Panthers did not show enough of it last season. In their first two conference games, the unit allowed 99 points. It was against Duke and Florida State, but there is no excuse for those kinds of defensive efforts, especially if the plan is to compete for a division title. There are still issues throughout the defense, and Donald isn't around to mask some of them.
Career numbers: As a freshman in 2013, Conner appeared in 12 games without a start, but he managed to lead Pitt in rushing (799 yards), yards per carry (5.5) and rushing TDs (eight). Conner racked up a whopping 229 yards and a TD in Pitt’s Little Caesar’s Bowl win over Bowling Green, earning MVP honors in the process. He also chipped in on defense as a pass-rushing specialist.
Projected role in 2014: Senior Isaac Bennett, who started all 13 games in 2013 at tailback, returns this season, and he, too, tallied nearly 800 yards on the ground. That likely means Conner will still be the nominal backup at tailback, but Pitt figures to feature a relatively even split, meaning both runners will get their share of carries.
Why he’ll make an impact: Conner is in an interesting position this fall. He’s obviously a talented runner, with four games topping 100 yards last season, highlighted by his bowl performance. But in the eight other games he played, Conner finished with fewer than 35 yards, including particularly ugly performances against Virginia and Georgia Tech. Whether he can find more consistency in 2014 will likely determine how much he’ll push Bennett for the starting tailback job.
But pushing his way into the offensive backfield might actually work even better for Conner as a defensive end. At 6-foot-2, 250, he has the size to play on defense, and Pitt’s coaches have obviously seen enough ability to be intrigued by the option of using him more often as a pass rusher. That has led to continued rumblings that a position switch is in store for Conner at some point.
The most likely scenario, however, is a little work on both sides of the ball, which should make Conner among the most valuable contributors on the Pitt roster, even if he’s not listed as a full-time starter.
30-27 in the Little Caesar’s Bowl.
The Panthers lost All-American defensive lineman Aaron Donald, along with two other starters on the defensive line. Only five starters are back on defense. Quarterback Tom Savage also is gone, leaving a gaping hole under center.
But coach Paul Chryst is slowly building an ACC Coastal Division contender, and the Panthers might even be a sleeper in the division this season. Pitt plays seven home games and doesn’t play Clemson, Florida State, Louisville or Notre Dame in 2014.
Two of its road games are at Florida International and Virginia, two teams that struggled mightily a year ago, and the Panthers get a bye week before playing at North Carolina on Nov. 15. They also play at Boston College and at Miami in the Nov. 29 regular-season finale.
There’s no shortage of proven playmakers on offense. Pittsburgh has a really nice one-two punch at running back with James Conner (799 yards with eight touchdowns in 2014) and Isaac Bennett (797 yards with seven touchdowns). Tyler Boyd was one of the country’s top freshman receivers last season, with 85 catches for 1,174 yards with seven scores. Pitt will have to find a No. 2 receiver to take pressure off him after losing Devin Street to the NFL draft.
Sophomore Chad Voytik, who is much more mobile than his predecessor, will probably win the starting quarterback job. Pitt brings back four starters on the offensive line, but they have to do a much better job in pass protection after ranking 118th in sacks allowed among FBS teams last season.
If Pitt can run the football better, protect the quarterback and create more turnovers on defense, I think the Panthers could be one of the bigger surprises in the ACC in 2014. Pitt’s schedule certainly gives it a chance to get off to a very good start.
With that in mind, here’s a quick look at the top returning players in the ACC this upcoming season, based on their stats from 2013. (Last year’s ACC ranking in parentheses.)
1. Jameis Winston, FSU - 4,057 (1st)
2. Anthony Boone, Duke - 2,260 (6th)
3. David Watford, Virginia - 2,202 (9th)
Of note: The turnover at the quarterback position has already gotten its share of press, but it’s almost impossible to overstate how green the QBs across the ACC will be in 2014. Of the 23 players who passed for at least 250 yards in 2013, only seven will be back in 2014. Watford, the third-leading returning QB, isn’t projected to start at Virginia, and Marquise Williams, who ranks fourth among returners, is locked in a battle for the starting job at North Carolina, too. Next up among definitive starters is Syracuse’s Terrel Hunt, who finished 14th in the league in passing last season.
1. Kevin Parks, Virginia - 1,031 (2nd)
2. Duke Johnson, Miami - 920 (5th)
3. James Conner, Pitt - 799 (8th)
4. Isaac Bennett, Pitt - 797 (9th)
5. Shad Thornton, NC State - 768 (11th)
Of note: Louisville’s Dominique Brown would actually rank third on this list after racking up 825 rushing yards last season, good for fourth in the AAC. Including Brown, the ACC returns 11 running backs this year who accounted for at least 500 yards on the ground in 2013, though Miami’s Dallas Crawford (558 yards) is currently working with the Hurricanes’ secondary. Parks returns after a 1,000-yard season. The last running backs to return following a 1,000-yard effort in the ACC were Gio Bernard and Andre Ellington in 2012. Both topped 1,000 again in their follow-up campaigns.
1. Jamison Crowder, Duke - 1,360 (2nd)
2. Tyler Boyd, Pitt - 1,174 (3rd)
3. Rashad Greene, FSU - 1,128 (5th)
4. Quinshad Davis, UNC - 730 (13th)
5. Willie Byrn, Virginia Tech - 660 (14th)
Of note: Louisville’s DeVante Parker would rank fourth on this list. He had 885 yards last season, good for seventh in the AAC. Crowder is in position to reach 1,000 receiving yards for the third straight season and is 1,153 yards shy of breaking former teammate Conner Vernon’s ACC record. The Hokies have three of the top seven returning receivers in terms of yards.
TACKLES PER GAME
1. David Helton, Duke - 9.5 (1st)
2. Jeremy Cash, Duke - 8.6 (3rd)
3. Denzel Perryman, Miami - 8.3 (5th)
4. Kelby Brown, Duke - 8.1 (7th)
5. Ryan Janvion, Wake Forest - 7.9 (8th)
1. Ant Harris, Virginia - 8 (1st)
2. Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech - 6 (2nd)
3. Brandon Facyson, Virginia Tech - 5 (3rd)
Of note: Eleven ACC players had at least four interceptions last season, and a whopping nine of them return in 2014, including sophomores Facyson and Fuller at Virginia Tech. Add to that list two more returners from Louisville in Charles Gaines (5 picks) and Terell Floyd (4 picks), and the young QBs in the ACC in 2014 are going to have a lot to worry about.
1. Vic Beasley, Clemson - 13 (1st)
2. Eli Harold, Virginia - 8.5 (9th)
2. Norkeithus Otis, UNC - 8.5 (9th)
4. Luther Maddy, Virginia Tech - 6.5 (12th)
5. Adam Gostis, Georgia Tech - 5.5 (16th)
Of note: Louisville’s Lorenzo Mauldin (9.5 sacks) would be second on this list. And here’s a number that should have a lot of Clemson fans excited: Of the 32 players who finished with at least 10 tackles for loss last season, just 13 will be back in the ACC in 2014. Of those 13 returners, five play for the Tigers.
We wrote about the big-name receivers headed for the NFL draft, but the ACC also has three wideouts returning who accounted for 1,000 receiving yards in 2013, too.
But how about the tailbacks? How many 1,000-yard rushers from 2013 will be back again this season?
Believe it or not, the lone representative on that list is Virginia’s Kevin Parks, who racked up 1,031 yards on the ground for a team that didn’t win a single conference game.
The depth chart among returning running backs in the conference doesn’t get much better beyond Parks, either. Duke Johnson is probably the ACC’s best returning running back. He racked up 920 yards in eight games before getting hurt. Beyond that, only Louisville’s Dominique Brown, who played in the AAC last year, returns with at least 800 yards on the ground from 2013.
So, if there aren’t a ton of top tailbacks returning for 2014, which teams are poised for the most success on the ground this year?
I think the issue is, if we collectively agree that we're going to schedule up, we don't have to come up with a hard rule we have to go to nine games or everybody has to schedule one game against an SEC school. It's just a matter of getting everybody to agree to that.” -- FSU athletic director Stan Wilcox
If we break down the numbers by tailbacks only, Pittsburgh is the clear front runner. No ACC team’s returning running backs accounted for a higher percentage of its 2013 carries (76 percent) than Pitt’s, and thanks to the negative rushing totals courtesy of sacks, James Conner (799 yards), Isaac Bennett (776 yards) and Co. actually accounted for 106 percent of the Panthers’ rushing yards from 2013. (A neat trick that comes courtesy of Tom Savage's 76 carries for minus-208 yards.)
With Parks back for 2014 along with highly touted sophomore Taquan Mizzell, UVA’s returning backs account for 74 percent of last season's rushes, along with 91 percent of its yards. Of course, without star lineman Morgan Moses, those yards might be a bit tougher to come by this season.
Virginia Tech, NC State and Louisville all return running backs responsible for at least 50 percent of last season's ground gains, too (with Miami falling just short after swapping Dallas Crawford to the secondary).
The bottom of the list might be even more intriguing. Wake Forest’s stable of running backs is a mess, but that’s been well documented. The rest of the bottom six, however, include BC (which lost a Heisman finalist) and the top four offenses in the league from 2013 (Florida State, Clemson, Duke and Georgia Tech).
In other words, the best offenses lost big-time runners, and the shakiest (aside from Wake) have talent returning. So, does that mean there’s reason for some serious shakeups in the ACC’s offensive standings?
Yes, the ground game is essential for most teams to succeed. Of the 10 teams that played in BCS bowl games last season, seven returned a tailback who rushed for at least 500 yards in 2012.
But the ground game isn’t defined entirely by the men toting the rock. FSU returns four starters on a veteran offensive line, along with a Heisman-winning quarterback. That should provide some room for its relatively green stable of running backs to roam.
And, of course, just because there’s talent departing doesn’t mean there isn’t more waiting in the wings. Florida State’s returning running backs (Karlos Williams and Ryan Green) averaged 7 yards per carry in reserve roles last season. Georgia Tech’s averaged 5.9, and Duke’s averaged 5.8 (QB Brandon Connette’s departure is the biggest blow to the Blue Devils’ ground attack). Even Clemson has cause to be excited about its rushing game in 2014 with the development of C.J. Davidson and Zac Brooks and the debut of uber-talented redshirt freshman Wayne Gallman.
The veteran presence in the backfield for Pitt, Virginia and NC State should offer some hope to teams in need of some offensive optimism, but it’s also a likely scenario that FSU, Clemson, and others will supply a few names to the ACC’s rushing leaderboard in 2014, too.
We’ve talked a lot about your quarterback this spring, Chad Voytik, how has the rest of the offense looked?
How much better has the pass protection looked?
JR: I think a lot better. There are some guys who have truly settled in the position. T.J. Clemmings stands out the most as really settling into a position and taking ownership of it. I really see a maturing in him, which is nice. He’s over there next to Matt Rotheram, and that brings some great stability. I see Artie [Rowell] getting more confident, not only making the calls and those types of things, but in his technique at center. I think at times you get into it, you do a lot of great things all through practice and the minute you get into a game you get a hair hesitant. When you do that, you’re not playing fast. You’re not playing at your best. This group is ready to do that and have that little bit more confidence you need to let it go. They’re getting there. The left side is young. Adam Bisnowaty has been limited, hasn’t been able to do a lot of team stuff, we’ve got Jaryd Jones-Smith and Dorian Johnson have been battling over there. There are some things that show their heads from an understanding at times, but we also see some things ability-wise where you say, ‘Wow.’ So we’re plugging at it.
I would think you have to be encouraged by the depth and experience that’s returning this year at running back:
JR: Yeah, the kids just work. Last year they worked their tails off. We asked them to jump into it, trust us and play with confidence. Isaac [Bennett] was the one guy who had experience, and I thought he did a great job for us, just steadying the whole group and being the bell cow when we needed him to and understanding protections. James [Conner] had his moments when he really stepped into the spotlight. His confidence level has increased and we’re still hammering him on getting that complete understanding. They’ve been a blast. Rachid [Ibrahim] did some wonderful things for us last year and really saved us in a lot of areas and helped us because we were confident in his knowledge of protections and the run game and for a young guy to really have a grasp of all of it, you don’t see that too often. He’s doing a really good job this spring again and we’ve got a nice group coming in, so we’re excited.
What’s the next step for Tyler Boyd?
JR: I think Tyler, the fun thing about Tyler is he loves to compete and he loves to be coached. He wants to know how he can get better. When you’ve got that approach, boy you love it. I’m sure there’s a lot of details, whether it’s finding the right blocks and the right fits in the run game to being consistent on all of his routes and route adjustments, and recognition of coverages, so I think there’s a lot of room for growth, but in that, the ability to keep playing fast and making plays as you have.
- Cole Stoudt was the quarterback winner during the Clemson spring game.
- Duke offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery is a man of many influences.
- Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston has a lot on his plate this spring.
- Former Georgia Tech linebacker Brandon Watts has seen his draft stock rise since pro day.
- Louisville quarterback Will Gardner had himself a day.
- Miami's quarterbacks need some polishing after their spring game performances. Offensive lineman Hunter Knighton is a miracle man.
- North Carolina ended spring practice without a clear leader at quarterback.
- Plenty of stars showed up for the NC State spring game.
- Pitt running back Isaac Bennett needs shoulder surgery.
- The hottest name in the NFL draft is ... former Pitt quarterback Tom Savage?
- Syracuse's defense has been banged up this spring.
- Greyson Lambert made a convincing case as Virginia's quarterback.
- The Virginia Tech offense clicked during its weekend scrimmage, even without quarterback Mark Leal.
- Wake Forest's offense looked ragged in its first scrimmage.
The Tigers entered their spring game down one quarterback after Deshaun Watson injured his collarbone five days earlier, and fellow signal caller Chad Kelly might have simplified the QB battle for the coaching staff down the stretch -- just not in a good way. Kelly got himself benched for the second half after questioning a punting decision on fourth down in the second quarter. Cole Stoudt took advantage of the opening, completing 15 of 23 passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns on a day that certainly did not hurt his chances at emerging atop the three-man race come August. Kelly, meanwhile, went 10-for-18 for 118 yards with two interceptions. The defense was credited with 14 sacks, though the quarterbacks weren't live. The White team beat the Orange team, 23-5, in front of a record 33,000.
It's often too easy to draw general conclusions and overreact to what we all see during a team's main public display at the end of each spring. That is probably the case when looking at the Cardinals' Friday night fireworks. Redshirt sophomore Will Gardner threw for 542 yards and four touchdowns, leading the offense to 951 total yards and 11 touchdowns. Most of it came against the second-team defense, which underscored the feeling exiting 2013: The secondary is in need of some depth, especially after losing Hakeem Smith and Calvin Pryor. Is Bobby Petrino's first offense that good? Is his secondary that bad? Probably somewhere in between, though roughly 27,500 were entertained.
The defense was the main storyline ever since the end of the 2013 season, though Ryan Williams' ACL tear last week brought a new concern to the forefront. Still, the Hurricanes had to be pleased with how Mark D'Onofrio's unit performed on Saturday, with safeties Jamal Carter and Dallas Crawford leading the way with five tackles apiece. The defense won the game, 61-60, thanks to an unconventional scoring system. And, more importantly, it held Miami's new quarterbacks in check, with Kevin Olsen going just 7-of-21 for 65 yards and a pick and Gray Crow going 9-of-20 for 63 yards and a pick. Juwon Young and Tracy Howard came up with the interceptions.
Quarterbacks took center stage in Chapel Hill as well, with neither incumbent Marquise Williams nor challenger Mitch Trubisky offering much in way of clarity. Williams completed 22 of 32 passes for 135 yards and an interception. Trubisky went 20-for-32 for 183 yards and an interception. Larry Fedora liked the decision-making from both of his signal callers on Saturday and knows he has two capable signal-callers, but he isn't offering any public hints about who his guy will likely be come this fall. The Blue team, by the way, beat the White team, 38-17.
The defense (Blue) dominated the injury-depleted offense (White), coming up with four interceptions and nine total sacks (albeit two-hand touch sacks). Greyson Lambert looked like the best of the Cavaliers' quarterbacks, completing 18 of 31 passes for 220 yards with two touchdowns and two picks. Incumbent David Watford went just 4-of-14 for 31 yards with two picks, while Matt Johns completed 6 of his 19 throws for 43 yards. Lambert and the Virginia coaching staff attributed the redshirt sophomore's improved play to a clear head, as he has taken pressure off himself this time around and looks like the front-runner, as he was voted one of four captains by teammates, along with Anthony Harris, Henry Coley and Kevin Parks. He was also one of 13 players -- and the only quarterback -- named to the leadership council.
The Panthers drew plenty of attention early for announcing that they would not hold a traditional spring game. Still, their "Field Pass" event on Sunday at its South Side headquarters drew more than 3,000 who came and listened to presentations from defensive coordinator Matt House, offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph, strength and conditioning coach Ross Kolodziej and recruiting coordinator Dann Kabala. A big theme around Pitt this spring has been the program's youth, but that storyline moved closer and closer toward its depth, which has been tested lately with injuries to running backs James Conner (sprained left knee) and Isaac Bennett (sprained left shoulder), who will have surgery but is expected to return in time for fall camp. Pitt held its 14th spring practice before Sunday's fan event and will conclude its spring season Tuesday.
What has the past year been like for you?
Did you surprise yourself with what you did last year?
JC: Somewhat. I knew I wanted to get on the field, but what happened in the bowl game, that meant a lot to me. I guess you could say I surprised myself.
How do you top what you did last year? What’s next for you?
JC: Stay humble and proceed to work hard. Stay with our strength coaches; they both played in the NFL so they know what it takes. Stay confident, stay hungry, and never be satisfied and be coachable. I believe with that experience and just keep a level head, you’ll do pretty good in the seasons to come.
What’s your take on the offensive line this spring? I know that has been a troublesome area for Pitt in recent years, but you were still able to get your job done.
JC: They’re looking real good this spring. We’ve got Artie [Rowell], T.J. [Clemmings] and Matt Rotheram coming back, so they have experience now and they’re getting a lot better. Coach thinks the offense is doing a great job of bringing guys in. We have a couple guys who committed this year and it can only go up from here. Coach Chryst definitely knows what he’s doing. I think it will be good and the O-line will be a lot better.
I was told you changed your number. Tell me about the decision behind that.
JC: As of right now I have 24, but that’s for spring ball to see how it looks. One of my favorite running backs is Marshawn Lynch, but we’ll see. I just want to see how the number looks for now. I did it because I like the number 24 to show I have speed instead of being a power back, but also like Marshawn Lynch for the Seahakws. I could go back to 40; I just wanted to see how it looks.
Well, how do you think it looks?
JC: I think it looks pretty good so far.
What are your own personal goals for this fall?
JC: I want to try to find my way into the record books another way. This year I want to go for 1,000 yards. Personal goals? I don’t have too many personal goals. I just want to have a 10-win season and go to a really good bowl game. Not too many personal goals, but if I had to pick one, I’d probably say go for 1,000 yards.
What’s Chad Voytik been like to play and practice with and just as a friend and a teammate?
JC: He’s a very good friend and teammate. He’s a good guy on and off the field. You can talk about anything with him. He remains calm, and he stepped up big time in the games where Tom [Savage] went down. He’s definitely going to be ready. He’s just a great guy on and off the field. He’s a lot of fun.
Do you feel any responsibility to help take some pressure off him?
JC: Definitely. I want him to be able to trust me, if it’s a second-and-short, third-and-short, I want everybody on the team to trust me to get the first down so we can have a fresh set of downs. I definitely want to be trustworthy.
What was once one of the biggest question marks on Pitt’s roster, however, has now become one of its greatest reasons for optimism.
“It’s a lot stronger,” Conner said of his position group. “I love the position running back and all of us -- Rachid got playing time, I did, Isaac did -- everybody is a lot more comfortable now. I think we can really make some noise this year with me and Rachid having a year under our belt, and Isaac being a senior; he wants to go out with a bang. And we’ve got two rookies coming in, so we’re going to have a lot of depth at running back. It’s going to be a great year.”
They already have a solid foundation to build on.
Bennett and Conner combined for 1,596 yards and 15 touchdowns last year. There has been no animosity between them, only a mutual respect for their collective success and a good-natured competition that continues to make them both better. Conner capped his season with a 229-yard performance in the bowl win, setting a school record and surpassing former Pitt legend Tony Dorsett’s 202 rushing yards against Georgia in the 1977 Sugar Bowl. Conner averaged 5.5 yards per carry, and had four 100-yard rushing performances. Bennett had 797 rushing yards and seven touchdowns last year, while Ibrahim was used as a change-of-pace back and in third-down situations.
As to how the carries will be divided this fall, and what each of their roles will be, Chryst said he probably won’t know until summer camp. The biggest difference is the meaningful experience Chryst has to choose from.
“There’s a lot more known, and I’m excited because you’ve got two of the three that this is their first spring,” Chryst said. “There’s a lot of growth that can still be made and improvements. We juggled our staff a little bit, and I’m excited for them to be coached by John Settle, whom I worked with at Wisconsin. … I’m excited for them. I thought Isaac has settled in, and has matured as a player and a person. I certainly feel better there, and I’m excited about the two freshmen coming in.”
Those two freshmen - Chris James from Chicago Notre Dame College Prep and Qadree Ollison from New York Canisius were two of the top players in their respective states, and will only add to the depth and competition.
Settle, who spent the past three seasons coaching running backs in the NFL, has already had an impact on his players. He spent five seasons as running backs coach at Wisconsin (2006-10), where Chryst was the Badgers’ offensive coordinator.
“Everybody has the mindset of going out and getting better every day with Coach Settle,” Bennett said. “His experience and his resume, with him coaching us, you can tell that he knows the position and he’s pushing us to get better every day. That’s what it’s all about every day, just progression in some area. We really listen to him and take in everything he says. We’re just trying to come in here and get better every day.”
They’re already starting light years ahead of where they were last spring.
AA has a two-game lead on HD, with an overall record of 55-10. There won't be any separation this week. Read on to find out more.
Wake Forest (4-3, 2-2) at No. 7 Miami (6-0, 2-0), noon, ESPNU. #WAKEvsMIA. Miami is not only on distraction alert thanks to the NCAA, it also is on lookahead alert with a potential top-10 showdown against in-state rival Florida State next weekend. Miami simply cannot afford to overlook Wake Forest, which has won two straight. Though Miami leads the series 7-3, all three Wake Forest wins have come in South Florida. One of the bigger matchups to watch features Michael Campanaro against a banged-up Miami secondary. Campanaro has been his usual productive self and also threw a touchdown pass against Maryland last week. Miami gets Duke Johnson back, good news for a team that will be without Phillip Dorsett.
AA picks: Miami 35, Wake Forest 17
HD’s pick: Miami 35, Wake Forest 21
Georgia Tech (4-3, 3-2) at Virginia (2-5, 0-3), 12:30 p.m., ESPN3. #GTvsUVA. The Jackets looked unstoppable last week in a shutout win over Syracuse, while Virginia stopped itself from picking up its first ACC win, blowing a 22-point lead on Duke. The Jackets played nearly flawlessly, with zero penalties and just one turnover and might have turned a corner on offense. They have won three of the past four in the series. Given how low morale must be in Charlottesville, Georgia Tech has the edge.
AA picks: Georgia Tech 30, Virginia 17
HD’s pick: Georgia Tech 38, Virginia 17
Pitt (4-2) at Navy (3-3), 1 p.m., CBS Sports Network. Pitt beat Duke, which beat Navy pretty handily, so therefore Pitt should win this game. Right? Do not be surprised if the Midshipmen put a scare into the Panthers, who had to survive a closer game than anticipated last week against Old Dominion. Isaac Bennett had a career game with 240 yards rushing but all eyes will be on the Pitt defense and how it handles the Navy option. Pitt gets a similar test next week against Georgia Tech.
AA picks: Pitt 30, Navy 23
HD’s pick: Pitt 31, Navy 21
NC State (3-3, 0-3) at No. 2 Florida State (6-0, 4-0), 3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2. #NCSTvsFSU. Given past history, there are those who believe the Noles are on upset alert. Not so fast. The Wolfpack and Noles are vastly different teams today than they were a year ago. First and foremost, Florida State has a game-changer at quarterback who, quite frankly, seems too good to be true. NC State did a nice job getting pressure on Tajh Boyd in their matchup earlier this year, but Jameis Winston does a better job than any quarterback in the country at handling guys in his face. NC State does get Brandon Mitchell back, but the Wolfpack simply do not have the type of offense to stay in this game, averaging 12.3 points in three ACC games.
AA picks: Florida State 45, NC State 13
HD’s pick: Florida State 48, NC State 10
No. 9 Clemson (6-1, 4-1) at Maryland (5-2, 1-2), 3:30 p.m., ESPN. #CLEMvsMD. The Tigers have to be careful not to let the Florida State loss beat them twice. Players seem to realize they are still in good position to get an at-large BCS berth if they can win out. Maryland might have provided tougher competition last month, but right now, the Terps are reeling thanks to their familiar foe -- injuries. Not only are Stefon Diggs and Deon Long out for the season, but quarterback C.J. Brown's status remains up in the air because of an undisclosed injury. The defense also has been hurt because of injuries too, leaving this team too depleted to pull the upset.
AA picks: Clemson 40, Maryland 17
HD’s pick: Clemson 38, Maryland 17
Boston College (3-3, 1-2) at North Carolina (1-5, 0-3), 3:30 p.m., ESPN3. #BCvsUNC. The Eagles have done a terrific job running the ball, so you know the game plan going in will be to beat the Tar Heels with the power run game. North Carolina ranks No. 102 in the nation in rushing defense, and lost to Miami in part because it could not stop Dallas Crawford in the fourth quarter. You have to wonder how North Carolina picks itself up after such a devastating home defeat to Miami. The Tar Heels had some great moments, especially tight end Eric Ebron, but they have found ways to lose games all season.
AA picks: Boston College 27, North Carolina 24
HD’s pick: Boston College 21, UNC 17
Duke (5-2, 1-2) at No. 14 Virginia Tech (6-1, 3-0), 3:30 p.m., ESPNU. #DUKEvsVT. Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer had high praise for the way Duke coach David Cutcliffe has turned around the Blue Devils program, but Duke is still a long way from being in the upper echelon of the ACC. Last season, against a down Virginia Tech team, Duke could not hang on to a 20-0 first-quarter lead and lost. This Virginia Tech team is much better. The best matchup to watch in this one features Duke receiver Jamison Crowder against the supremely talented Virginia Tech secondary. Antone Exum is expected to make his long-awaited return. He faces a big test against Crowder.
AA picks: Virginia Tech 27, Duke 14
HD’s pick: Virginia Tech 34, Duke 21
The bad: No, this was not "pulling a Clemson." The Tigers simply got beat, badly, by a better team. And you can very well make the argument that they could and would beat every other ACC team outside of Florida State. But this was their moment, complete with a second visit from "College GameDay" and another prime-time showcase for a program with national title aspirations. Instead, this game was over shortly after it started, with Tajh Boyd not performing up to expectations and the highly touted, improved defense proving to be no match for the Seminoles' skill players. This has to be, in some ways, disheartening, considering this was Clemson's shot at home with a senior quarterback against a Seminoles team that had lost 11 NFL draft picks and will only get better moving forward. Clemson, currently ranked ninth, can still have a very strong season, so long as it doesn't reel from Saturday's rude awakening.
The ugly: Syracuse went into Atlanta with a bit of momentum after registering its first ACC win, at NC State. Instead a Georgia Tech team that had lost three in a row smacked the Orange from start to finish, winning 56-0 for its second shutout of the season, marking the first time the Yellow Jackets had shut out two opponents in a season since defensive coordinator Ted Roof was a team captain in 1985. Terrel Hunt struggled in his third conference game, failing again to reach the 100-yard passing mark and this time getting pulled for Drew Allen. Defensive tackle John Raymon was lost for the season as well with a right knee injury. The Orange could use the bye to regroup before hosting Wake Forest on Nov. 2.
The walking wounded: It was bad enough that Maryland struggled throughout a 34-10 loss to Wake Forest. But the Terrapins also lost two of their top offensive weapons, with receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long suffering season-ending leg injuries. Diggs broke his fibula and Long broke his fibula and tibia. Maryland had started 4-0 before losing 63-0 at Florida State, barely beating Virginia and then getting routed by the Demon Deacons. It had already suffered a handful of defensive injuries before Saturday, and things won't get any easier this coming Saturday as it hosts No. 9 Clemson, which is coming off its first loss.
The second-half charge: Duke finds itself on the cusp of bowl eligibility for the second straight year after overcoming a 22-point deficit at Virginia and pulling out a 35-22 win to improve to 5-2. The Blue Devils got a boost from both quarterbacks as Anthony Boone threw two touchdown passes and Brandon Connette ran one in for a score. Duke converted four fourth-down second-half plays as it scored the game's final 35 points and delivered the reeling Cavaliers another blow as they fell to 2-5 overall and 0-3 in conference play. Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage publicly backed coach Mike London last week, but questions will continue to mount if the Cavaliers continues to struggle.
The anomaly: Miami is No. 7 in the BCS standings after eking out a victory Thursday at one-win North Carolina. Stephen Morris struggled, throwing four interceptions, which marked the third straight game the Hurricanes had turned the ball over four times (Miami somehow won all three games). The Canes are 6-0 and host Wake Forest this weekend before traveling to Florida State on Nov. 2, but they lost Duke Johnson (head) and Phillip Dorsett (knee) to injuries in Chapel Hill. Johnson is expected to be fine, but Dorsett will miss four to six weeks with an MCL tear.
The ground boost: Pitt finally got the lift it needed from its rushing game, as Isaac Bennett carried the ball 30 times for 240 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-24 win over Old Dominion. The Panthers improved from 105th to 91st nationally in rushing yards per game (141.67). For a program that had tallied just 8 and 23 yards rushing in its previous two games, the timing could not have been better.