ACC: Todd Thomas

Pittsburgh Panthers season preview

August, 15, 2014
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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

[+] EnlargeTyler Boyd
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsPittsburgh wide receiver Tyler Boyd looks to build on a freshman All-America season.
Most important 2014 games: Sept. 20 versus Iowa, Oct. 16 versus Virginia Tech, Nov. 1 versus Duke, Nov. 15 at North Carolina, Nov. 29 at Miami

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

ACC morning links

August, 13, 2014
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It is that time of year again, when Syracuse makes its annual pilgrimage to a military base 90 miles north of campus for part of fall practice.

The idea first began with former coach Doug Marrone three years ago and has continued on under current coach Scott Shafer, who said Tuesday the partnership between Syracuse and Fort Drum continues to strengthen. Players seem to get as much out of the stay as the soldiers on base.

During their first day together Tuesday, Syracuse strength and conditioning coach Will Hicks led a workout with Fort Drum soldiers. Players will participate in various military-themed challenges, and the coaching staff will meet with military leaders to go over team building ideas.

It is rare for college teams to take practice on the road, even rarer for teams to partner with the military for a portion of camp. But Syracuse has benefited greatly from the partnership. Not only are players outside their normal environment, they are learning from men and women who can help them keep football in perspective. Players share cramped quarters in barracks, and have no other choice but to get to know one another a little better.

Indeed, players over the last two seasons have credited these trips with growing camaraderie and team chemistry. It is hard to argue with the results. Syracuse has been to a bowl game each of the last two seasons.

But will the Orange make another? The college football crew over at CBSSports.com weighed in with their ACC predictions. We can all agree that Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston is the favorite to win offensive player of the year and Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley is the favorite to win defensive player of the year (though Luther Maddy did get some love for defensive honors). But there are a wide range of choices for newcomer of the year, coach of the year, and overrated/underrated teams. Miami showed up as both overrated and underrated, a clear indication that nobody truly knows for certain what to expect out of these Canes.

Virginia was the universal choice to finish last. But The Washington Post details the growing relationship between senior safety Anthony Harris and true freshman Quin Blanding, one of the more intriguing subplots in Charlottesville this fall. Harris has the potential to be an All-American; Blanding was one of the top-rated recruits in the country and expected to become an impact player right away. Virginia has quite a bit of talent on that defense, so if Blanding and fellow freshman Andrew Brown can contribute the way Harris has, watch out.

A few other links to get you going today:
From Florida State’s veteran line to Clemson’s fearsome defensive front, the ACC projects to have some of the country’s best position groups this fall, while a few other contenders will enter 2014 with some major question marks in key areas. With that in mind, we’re looking at the ACC’s best units, a few more that might surprise in 2014 and the top teams with holes that could keep them from an ACC title.

Previous installments of this series can be found here.

Up today: Linebackers

Best of the best: Clemson

It's easy to see why many believe the Tigers have the best front seven in the ACC. In addition to having the strongest defensive front, they also have the strongest group of linebackers returning to the team. Stephone Anthony had a breakout season a year ago, finishing with 131 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and four sacks in 802 snaps played. He should be a preseason All-ACC selection. Clemson did lose two starters in Quandon Christian and Spencer Shuey, but it returns experienced players at the position. Tony Steward and Ben Boulware will anchor the weak side. Both were ranked among the top linebackers out of high school, and if Steward can stay healthy, he is in line for a big year. At the other spot, Clemson has the option of playing a linebacker or nickelback depending on the alignment. T.J. Burrell and Dorian O'Daniel will be in the mix on the strong side.

Next up: Duke

The Blue Devils return the best linebacker duo in the ACC in David Helton and Kelby Brown, who finished as the top two tacklers in the conference last season. The two combined for 247 tackles a year ago and are back to anchor a group looking to improve both against the run and the pass. Their backups return as well, so there are not many depth concerns here. These two are as dependable as they come. Now, having said that, we would be remiss if we failed to mention Florida State. The Seminoles are losing two key players in Christian Jones and Telvin Smith and will be relying more on a five defensive back alignment, so there are some questions at the position. But this team has the talent to again be the best in the ACC once it gains some experience. As it stands now, Terrance Smith is the only linebacker with consistent playing time. Guys like Matthew Thomas and Reggie Northrup could develop into studs before the season's up.

Sleeper: Syracuse

The Orange return two of the more underrated linebackers in the ACC in Dyshawn Davis and Cam Lynch, who will be relied upon to anchor a defense with some serious questions on the defensive line. Though middle linebacker Marquis Spruill is gone, Syracuse coaches were pleased with the role Marqez Hodge played as a true freshman behind Spruill a year ago, so he spent a year in training preparing to take over the starting job. Davis and Lynch will be there to help Hodge along. Keep an eye on Louisville here as well. The Cards return hard hitter James Burgess and have moved Lorenzo Mauldin to outside linebacker/rush end. That should pay dividends.

Problem for a contender: Pitt

The Panthers have not gotten consistent linebacker play for years, so this position remains a question mark. Anthony Gonzalez and Todd Thomas return, but the Panthers have little in the way of depth to help them out. Thomas has the potential to be excellent. He had 72 tackles a year ago, but coaches are now hoping for more. Bam Bradley could also have an impact here, but only six lettermen are back from a year ago. There are also questions elsewhere in the conference. Will anybody step up to help out Denzel Perryman at Miami? And will Virginia Tech be just as good at linebacker without Jack Tyler and Tariq Edwards?

Close games highlight Pitt-ND series

November, 6, 2013
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The package was called "Desperado," a phrase both Pittsburgh and Notre Dame fans would probably rather never hear or speak of again.

It was not discovered until the day after the Fighting Irish's triple-overtime win over the Panthers last year that cornerback Bennett Jackson and receiver Chris Brown, both No. 2 for the Irish, were on the field together when Kevin Harper's potential 33-yard game-winning field sailed wide right after a bad snap.

[+] EnlargePittsburgh vs. Notre Dame in 2012
Matt Cashore/US PresswireEverett Golson's game-winning touchdown in the third overtime last season gave the Irish a heart-stopping victory over Pitt.
For the Panthers, it was an oversight that all but cost them a program-defining win for new coach Paul Chryst. For the Irish, it was a crisis averted, one of several minor miracles in a magical season.

It was another hold-your-breath moment in a series that, for one reason or another, has never lacked for drama. A primetime atmosphere awaits Saturday night at Heinz Field when the Panthers and the Irish square off. One team is fighting to clinch bowl eligibility, the other is clinging to BCS-bowl hopes and, well, here we go again.

"It happens," Pitt linebacker Todd Thomas said of the officials' error last season. "Two No. 2s on the field, it happens. Refs make mistakes, so everybody's not perfect. So it happens. So we just put the loss behind us and just carried on to the next week. But it happens. Everybody's not perfect."

Notre Dame has beaten Pitt by three points in each of the last two years, including a 15-12 tractor-pull of a contest in 2011 that both teams are best served to forget. The Irish are 6-3 against the Panthers since 2002, but eight of those games have been decided by eight points or fewer.

There have been seven total overtimes across two of those games -- a four-overtime Pitt win in 2008 and last year's three-overtime Notre Dame victory, its last close call on the way to the BCS title game.

"You know what, we're letting it go, it's old news," Pitt end Bryan Murphy said. "Whatever happened last year happened. We're not paying attention to it. We're just moving on from there. That's all last year. We were a different team, they were a different team. So we're not even concentrating on anything that happened last year."

Chryst echoed that sentiment during his Monday press conference in Pittsburgh, though tight end J.P. Holtz had a decidedly different tone when he told reporters that he did not like Notre Dame, calling their coaches "really cocky."

The comments seemingly made their way back here to Irish coach Brian Kelly, who said Tuesday: "They don't seem to like Notre Dame very much, and they want to beat Notre Dame."

Though in just his fourth year at Notre Dame, Kelly is more familiar with Pitt than any other opponent in the last seven years, having faced the Panthers in each of his three seasons at Cincinnati before playing them annually so far while with the Irish.

He has also faced the Panthers' new starting quarterback, redshirt senior Tom Savage, who appeared in Rutgers' 2009 season-opener against the Kelly-coached Bearcats.

"A big kid, strong-armed, and obviously they like to throw the football with him," Kelly said of Savage. "He's got some talented receivers. We're going to have to prepare ourselves for a kid that likes to throw the football and has some weapons."

The best of those weapons, redshirt senior Devin Street, is two weeks removed from becoming Pitt's career leader in receptions. Though winless and held to 42 or fewer yards in each of his three contests against the Irish, Street has no particular distaste for the team he will face this weekend.

"We don't go in disliking anyone, but we definitely have a respect for Notre Dame and the tradition and that type of team," Street said. "But we don't hate them or anything like that. I think they're a great team."

Both teams are coming off consecutive games against option teams -- Pitt losing to Navy and Georgia Tech, Notre Dame beating Air Force and Navy.

And both will reconvene in two years, and roughly every three years after that, as part of the Irish's five-game-per-year scheduling agreement that takes effect next year with the ACC, which Pitt is finishing out its first season in.

"Everyone knows Notre Dame; Notre Dame is one of the most historic football programs in the country, and they always will be," Murphy said. "I think it's amazing to have a team like that on your schedule. That's always a primetime game for us. I think it's huge for our team going forward to always have that game because we always play great against them. It's always just an amazing game between us two, so I think it's important that we continue that matchup."

ACC's lunchtime links

October, 22, 2013
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About time the Miami investigation ends.

ACC's lunchtime links

September, 16, 2013
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HD on links this week ...

ACC's lunchtime links

August, 15, 2013
8/15/13
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Two more weeks ...

Pitt names Tom Savage starting QB

August, 14, 2013
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Tom Savage has been named the starting quarterback at Pitt, coach Paul Chryst told reporters after practice on Wednesday.

Savage, who is in his final season of eligibility after transferring twice, beat Chad Voytik for the starting job and will start against Florida State on Labor Day in what will be the Panthers’ first game as members of the ACC.

“Tom is going to be our starting quarterback,” Chryst told reporters. “We like what he’s done to this point. It’s a reflection of where Tom’s at. I still think Chad is making really good progress, but I feel really good and confident with Tom, and certainly like the direction Chad is going.”

Savage started his career at Rutgers in 2009, but transferred to Arizona in 2011. He then transferred to Pitt after one year, and has sat out each of the past two seasons because of NCAA transfer rules. Still, he was the most experienced quarterback left on Pitt’s roster. As a true freshman at Rutgers, Savage completed 149-of-285 passes (52 percent) for 2,211 yards with 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

“Obviously I was excited, but I’d be a fool to take it anymore than that, especially with what’s happened to me in the past,” Savage said in his post-practice interview on Wednesday. “I can’t become complacent with it. It’s a privilege, but I have to keep working, and I have a lot of room to improve.”

A school spokesman also confirmed that linebacker Todd Thomas has rejoined the team and practiced on Wednesday. Last week, Thomas told Chryst he no longer wanted to be a part of the team after he was bumped to the second string on the depth chart.

ACC's lunchtime links

August, 9, 2013
8/09/13
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Enjoy the weekend!
NC State running back Shadrach Thornton has been suspended for the season opener against Louisiana Tech after he was arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault on a female in June.

Coach Dave Doeren announced the suspension following practice Wednesday night. Thornton has a scheduled court date for Aug. 22. According to the police report, Thornton grabbed his girlfriend by the arm and pushed her against the wall at an on-campus library during a fight.

"The week of the event we talked a lot,” Doeren told local reporters. “He won’t play in the first game. That was decided a long time ago, regardless of the outcome of the court date.”

Thornton led the team in rushing last season. Tony Creecy will get the bulk of the carries when the season opens Aug. 31 against the Bulldogs.

In two other ACC news items:
  • Virginia Tech running back Joel Caleb has been suspended for the season opener against Alabama for a violation of team rules. Caleb, a redshirt freshman, switched from receiver to running back this fall after Michael Holmes was dismissed from school.
  • Pitt linebacker Todd Thomas has left the program, coach Paul Chryst confirmed. Thomas, who started seven games last year, made his decision after he he was bumped to the second team as camp opened earlier this week. Coaches hoped that would motivate him. But instead, Thomas informed Chryst he wanted out.

Contender or pretender: Pitt

March, 26, 2013
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We have come to the end in our series categorizing the unranked teams in the ACC as either contenders or pretenders heading into the 2013 season. We’re leaving out Florida State and Clemson because they are the only two teams from the ACC expected to be ranked this preseason. Those rankings automatically qualify them as contenders. The incoming Pitt Panthers wrap things up.

SportsNation

What do you expect out of Pitt in 2013?

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Discuss (Total votes: 2,406)

Why they're contenders: Start with the defense, which returns nine starters from a group that ranked No. 17 in the nation in total defense. Included in that group is defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who should be one of the best interior linemen in the ACC in 2013. Linebacker Todd Thomas is finally near 100 percent, and is poised for a breakout season. Safety Jason Hendricks, who led the team in tackles a season ago, should also make his name known in a hurry in this new league. Though the Panthers do have a new defensive coordinator in Matt House, he served as an assistant on this team a year ago, so there at least will be familiarity with him in charge and no scheme change. There is plenty of talent on offense as well, with Devin Street returning at receiver -- eyeing a 1,000-yard season -- and Rushel Shell hoping to build upon a steady freshman campaign. And while the starting quarterback is unknown right now, many expect either Tom Savage or Chad Voytik to be an improvement over the departed Tino Sunseri.

Why they're pretenders: Let's stay with the offense for a second. The offensive line has not been very good the last several years, and once again, this is an area of concern going into the spring. The top two linemen from a year ago -- guard Chris Jacobson and center Ryan Turnley -- are gone. Depth is not very good, either. At receiver, there are major question marks outside of Street, who will see his fair share of double teams as the player in the spotlight in that group. Shell, meanwhile, was inconsistent last season. How will he handle 20-plus carries in a game as the starter? While there is the expectation that quarterback play will improve, Sunseri did start for three years and led this team to three bowl games. So that position remains an unknown. Defensively, Pitt needs players to step up on the line next to Donald. Putting more pressure on the passer is a must, as the Panthers only had 24 sacks last year, compared to 43 in 2011. Getting Thomas back should be huge for a linebacker group that also has been inconsistent.

Final verdict: I truly believe Pitt will be a contender in Year 1 in the ACC. The defense should be solid; the offense should be better. And these players get the luxury of having the same head coach for two straight seasons. Believe you me, that is huge for a program that has been rocked by transition up at the top.

More in this series

ACC's lunchtime links

March, 25, 2013
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Practice?! I'm talkin' bout practice ...
It's never too early to look ahead to next season, especially since there are going to be some changes to both the Big East and ACC.

With that in mind, Heather and I have taken up one very timely debate: Which incoming Big East team will do better in the ACC in Year 1 -- Pitt or Syracuse?

Depends on whom you ask.

Heather says: Syracuse.

Ok, so Syracuse needs a quarterback.

But Boston College and NC State need to start from scratch, and Wake Forest and Maryland are, well, beatable. So my argument starts with the competition in the Atlantic Division, where Syracuse already has a leg up on three of its opponents because this season will be the first in which coach Doug Marrone has a roster filled entirely with his recruits.

Can’t exactly say the same for BC’s Steve Addazio, Dave Doeren at NC State, or even Randy Edsall at Maryland.

SportsNation

Which team will have more success in its first year in the ACC?

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Discuss (Total votes: 2,663)

Not only does Syracuse enter the ACC in 2013 with an upper hand in stability over three opponents, but it also brings a legitimate running game that will take some pressure off of whomever does start at quarterback (and Texas native Zach Allen, an Elite 11 player, is a pretty good option to start with). The Cuse has a solid stable of running backs, led by 1,000-yard rusher Jerome Smith, and it will have a veteran offensive line with all five starters expected to return. (Justin Pugh has not decided yet if he’ll leave early for the NFL draft, but even with four starters returning up front that will help break in a new quarterback.)

Don’t forget tight end Beckett Wales also returns, and he was an asset in the passing game as well. Speaking of the passing game, Arkansas transfer Quinta Funderburk is eligible to play this year and should help compensate for the graduation of Marcus Sales and Alec Lemon.

Defensively, Syracuse returns nose tackle Jay Bromley to anchor the middle, and while several talented players have to be replaced up front, the Orange rotated plenty of linemen, so depth and experience shouldn’t be a problem.

Special teams will probably be the least of Syracuse’s concerns, as everyone returns, and the Orange also ended the regular season on a positive note with three straight wins to build on, including back-to-back road wins against Missouri and Temple.

Syracuse is joining a new league, and it will usher in a new quarterback, but there is plenty in place for the Orange to have a successful first season in the Atlantic Division -- more success than Pitt will find in Year 1 of what should be a much-improved Coastal Division.

Andrea says: Pitt.

Heather makes a convincing argument about Syracuse, but her initial premise is flawed. How is Syracuse going to do better than Pitt when it plays in the toughest division in the ACC? Good luck getting past Clemson and Florida State, guys.

Let us turn our eyes to the Coastal Division. Pitt was miles better than Virginia Tech this season. Miami should be better in 2013, but will still be pretty young in many spots. North Carolina loses Giovani Bernard, Jonathan Cooper, Sylvester Williams and Kevin Reddick.

Virginia, Georgia Tech and Duke? Pitt will be better.

So I am going to say it right now, before everybody else hops on the bandwagon: The Panthers not only will do better than Syracuse in Year 1 in the ACC -- they will be in contention for the ACC championship game.

Here’s why.

Pitt will be better on offense with a first-year starter at quarterback. The moment Panthers fans have been waiting on is almost here -- Tino Sunseri is about to hit the road, ending his up-and-down career as a three-year starter. Sunseri had his best season to date in 2012, and yet it still was not quite enough to lift the Panthers above mediocrity.

Waiting in the wings is veteran Tom Savage, a senior who was a freshman All-American at Rutgers before transferring first to Arizona, then Pitt. He will have a competition on his hands with four-star recruit Chad Voytik, who redshirted this season. I am fairly confident that no matter who starts, Pitt will get an upgrade at the position.

Losing Ray Graham at running back hurts. But the Panthers return Rushel Shell, who should be one of the top running backs in the ACC. We saw glimmers of his talent this year. As the starter next year, he will be better.

Now on to the defense. While it’s true the Panthers need to hire a defensive coordinator, the new coach is going to inherit what should be one of the most talented groups in the division. Nine starters return. Among them -- Aaron Donald at tackle, Lafayette Pitts at cornerback and Todd Thomas at linebacker. All three should be preseason candidates for All-ACC honors.

Pitt showed marked improvement on defense from Week 1 to Week 12 this year, holding their last two opponents to a combined nine points. I expect that improvement to continue no matter who coaches this group.

Plus, coach Paul Chryst will be in his second year. He will be more comfortable in charge, and his players will be better in his system. For all these reasons, Pitt will be just fine in Year 1 in the ACC. Check that. More than fine. Pitt will be better than Syracuse.

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