Maturing Panthers wary in opener against Delaware
PITTSBURGH – Ray Vinopal can’t quite find the words to describe the transformation in the Pitt program since Paul Chryst took over. And while that transformation hasn’t quite made it onto the field on a consistent basis, the senior safety is confident it’s on the way because of the tone set by the unassuming man with the biggest office in the building.
“The culture of the locker room is completely different than a couple years back,” Vinopal said. “Some of the guys may be young but since they’ve been here, the only environment they’ve known is that. Coach Chryst has done a good job of getting rid of that privileged attitude.”
Not without some bumps along the way. The first one is still among the most glaring: a 31-17 upset at hands of Youngstown State in Chryst’s debut two years ago, the lone loss to a Football Championship Subdivision team in 100-plus years of Pitt football.
And while Chryst insists there’s no need to mention it in the run up to Saturday’s opener against Delaware, that doesn’t mean Vinopal – who endured the surprisingly one-sided upset – hasn’t brought it up.
“It doesn’t matter what happened in the past,” Vinopal said. “But we want to make sure everyone knows this team is very capable of beating us ... we’ve got to treat it like any other game in the ACC.”
To be fair, nearly half of the Pitt starters who will run through the tunnel to face the Blue Hens weren’t even in uniform on that stormy Saturday night when the Chryst Era began with a thud. The Panthers have one of the youngest teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Include the kickers and half of the 24 players atop the depth chart are sophomores. The roster includes 53 freshmen and just 11 seniors.
Vinopal praised the kids for their maturity and even Chryst has been impressed with the workmanlike approach taken by the players that will serve as the bedrock of the program as it moves forward.
“I liked the way guys have gone about their business,” he said. “They are young, a lot of them are still young and I like the way the whole team has (approached things). We have some good veteran leadership and I think they helped it.”
If the Panthers are going to make a leap in their second year in the ACC after going 7-6 in 2013, it’s going to hinge on how quickly the youth movement grows up. Pitt already has a star in sophomore wide receiver Tyler Boyd and one of the best two-way players in the country in running back/defensive end James Conner, who will see snaps on both sides of the ball. Success this fall will depend on how much help they get from sophomore quarterback Chad Voytik – who will make his first start of any kind in three years – and a defense trying to replace the seemingly irreplaceable Aaron Donald.
The Blue Hens should provide an early test. Delaware is a perennial contender for the FCS playoffs and returns starting quarterback Trent Hurley and his 22 touchdown passes last season along with senior wide receiver Michael Johnson.
“Those guys are going to make plays,” Vinopal said. “The bottom line is you can’t stop every pass on the field ... knowing the answer to the test before we step out on the field is going to be key.”
Delaware was blown out 51-7 by Navy in its only game against an FBS opponent last season. This is the first of five straight seasons in which the Blue Hens will face an ACC school. Coach Dave Brock believes his team is more prepared for the challenge thanks to Hurley’s development.
“He did a great job for us last year, feel like he’s light years ahead of where he was,” Brock said. “He’s got quality snaps, quality performances. When the chips are down, Trent is going to deliver. He’s going to make plays to win us games.”