PITTSBURGH – There’s a formula Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst likes to use when building a team: start with the inside and go from there.
Given a year to figure out what he’s got on his hands with the Panthers, Chryst hit the recruiting trail this winter with one goal in mind.
“We felt like we wanted to get bigger and the only way to get bigger is to recruit bigger,” Chryst said.
In both size and numbers.
Pitt signed 27 players to letters of intent Wednesday, including 10 offensive and defensive linemen that Chryst hopes lays the foundation for the program as it moves from the Big East to the ACC next summer.
The five offensive linemen – Dorian Johnson, Carson Baker, Jaryd-Jones Smith, Alex Officer and Aaron Reese – are all at least 6-foot-4 and weigh 280 pounds or more. The five defensive linemen – Tyrique Jarrett, Luke Maclean, Justin Moody, Shakir Soto and Jeremiah Taleni – are all at least 6-2 with Taleni and Jarrett both listed at 300 pounds or above.
“To a certain extent there is a formula but I don’t think it’s unique to what we did at Wisconsin,” said Chryst, a former offensive coordinator with the Badgers before coming to Pitt 14 months ago. “Any great team has strength in the offensive line and defensive line. We’re not reinventing the wheel there.”
Maybe, but the Panthers are certainly rebranding under Chryst, who went 6-7 in his first season on the job last fall. He’s hoping to do the same at Pitt, which needs to replace two starters along the offensive line and create a more competitive environment at a position that was battered by injuries in 2012.
The linchpin is Johnson, a 6-5, 290-pound star from Belle Vernon High School considered one of the top line prospects in the country. Chryst called the high school film on Johnson “as good as you’ll see from an o-lineman” and believes he can make an immediate impact.
“He’s going to get an opportunity, absolutely,” Chryst said. “He’s a special player.”
The Panthers believe they’ve landed more than one in what felt to Chryst like his first real recruiting class. He had the job at Pitt only a handful of weeks last February, the result a 16-player class that included standout freshman running back Rushel Shell but did little to address depth issues.
“We ended up dressing out 53 guys at the bowl game,” he said. “That’s not what you want.”
Pitt had enough leeway this time around to sign both a kicker (Chris Blewitt) and a punter (Ryan Winslow). The core of the skill position players, however, came from the trio of Clairton stars Tyler Boyd, Titus Howard and Terrish Webb.
Boyd, Howard and Webb all starred for a program that is redefining what a high school powerhouse means. The Bears went 48-0 during their final three seasons and won a state title each of their four years in the program. The 6-2, 185-pound Boyd played quarterback, running back and wide receiver in high school but is expected to get his first crack at wide receiver when camp opens in August.
While Howard and Webb were firm commitments all the way through, there appeared to be some last-minute anxiety from Boyd, who was also considering Tennessee and West Virginia among others. Boyd didn’t sign until midmorning Wednesday, though Chryst says he was never really worried.
“We don’t get caught up in a lot of the buzz around it and he’s earned the right to have that buzz around him,” Chryst said. “We always felt good about him and what we were saying to him and what he was telling us. We’re certainly really excited to have him because he’s a special person.”
One that could give Pitt’s offense a needed dash of explosiveness alongside senior-to-be Devin Street. Boyd scored 117 touchdowns during his high school career and ran for more than 5,755 yards but showed flashes of what he can do on the outside too, catching 13 passes for 295 yards.
While Boyd talked about working out of the Wildcat formation, Chryst wasn’t quite ready to go that far.
“I think our job is for any player to find ways to get them involved in the offense,” Chryst said. “We will exhaust every way we can for our players to get involved in the offense. I think he’s one, what he’s shown on tape, him talking and his understanding of football, we can put a lot on his plate.”
Getting Boyd, Webb and Howard as a package deal could help the Panthers develop a pipeline to one of the most talent-rich high school programs in the state.
“I know they’re also the type of guys that will keep branching out and it’s not just going to be those three,” Chryst said. “That’s pretty unique.”
Soto, Jarrett, quarterback Tra’Von Chapman and tight end Scott Orndoff, a Waynesburg native, have already enrolled and will be available when spring practice begins next month. The rest of the class will have to wait until August, at which point the Panthers will officially be members of the ACC.
Chryst said the conference switch came up on the recruiting trail but he didn’t lean on it as a pitch. He doesn’t think he had to.
“Our focus was on this university and the people here and what we’re trying to do,” he said.