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April 12, 2013

What to watch for in Pitt's spring game

Pitt will hold its annual spring game Friday night at Bethel Park High School. Doors open at 5:30 pm, but here's an early look at what to watch for when the Panthers take the field.


Quarterback
All eyes will be on the quarterback - they always are - and there are certain things to watch for from each of Pitt's top two signal-callers. Tom Savage will run the first-team offense; his arm strength is his most notable attribute, but the key to watch will be his accuracy and comfort in the offense.

Behind Savage is redshirt freshman Chad Voytik. The first thing that will jump out about Voytik is his mobility and knack for making plays on the run. If the play breaks down and the pocket collapses, Voytik can keep things alive.


Running back
The running backs are down a man after Rushel Shell opted to transfer from Pitt, so there is plenty to watch. Isaac Bennett and Malcolm Crockett will get the bulk of the carries; Bennett will enter the summer as the first-team back and will fill that role on Friday night.

With Bennett, Crockett, Desmond Brown and Demitrious Davis, the key to watch for is what they do when they don't have the ball in their hands. Blitz pick-up has been an inconsistent skill for the running backs this spring, and the defense likes to bring pressure.


Wide receiver
Pitt's receiving corps has a sure thing in redshirt senior Devin Street, but after him, there are a lot of unknowns. Ed Tinker, Kevin Weatherspoon, and Ronald Jones all had shining moments in spring camp, but they all need to take big steps forward to become effective complements to Street.

The focus on the receivers Friday night will be all-encompassing. If Street continues what he did throughout spring camp, he will put in an impressive showing. The rest need to show more consistency; they are capable of making some plays, but it's anyone's guess as to whether that will happen.


Tight end
The tight ends are an intriguing group. From the most simplistic perspective, Pitt has two "traditional" tight ends in J.P. Holtz and Scott Orndoff and two "hybrid" tight ends in Drew Carswell and Manasseh Garner.

While it can be entertaining to watch all four tight ends do their work - particularly Garner, who made some of the spring's best plays - the interesting thing to keep an eye on is the deployment. The coaches mixed and matched the tight ends quite a bit this spring, with some combination of the four seemingly always on the field and usually in motion from the slot to the line of scrimmage to the backfield. Look for Garner and Carswell to get time working from the slot as well.


Offensive line
The biggest work in progress on the team, the offensive line nonetheless remains arguably the key to Pitt's success in 2013. This spring, the group featured two redshirt freshmen (Adam Bisnowaty at left tackle, Gabe Roberts at center), two returning starters playing different positions (Cory King moving from left tackle to left guard, Matt Rotheram moving from right tackle to right guard), and a fifth position - right tackle - that still seems to be up in the to the extent that incoming freshman Dorian Johnson will get a chance to compete for the job.

Since it's tough to really observe five linemen at once, keep an eye on Bisnowaty and Roberts. The former has been arguably the best linemen in spring camp, and the latter is playing center for the first time in his career. King and Rotheram are solid at the guard spots, so it's not a stretch to say that BIsnowaty and Roberts could be the key to the line's success this season.


Defensive line
Aaron Donald was arguably the best player on the team last season, and he hasn't taken any steps back this spring. Donald is still dominant, and now he's got a partner at defensive tackle - redshirt senior Tyrone Ezell - who looks like he is ready to be a complementary piece. And behind Donald and Ezell, sophomore Darryl Render and junior Khaynin Mosley-Smith have emerged as viable backups, giving Pitt some real depth at defensive tackle.

The questions are on the outside. Bryan Murphy is a returning starter, and his bookend is David Durham, a converted fullback who transferred from Ohio State. The defensive ends weren't very productive in 2012; if that changes this season, the line could be a real force. So the defensive ends are worth focusing on during the spring game, but then again, just watch Donald. That's one of the more enjoyable things to do while watching Pitt practice.


Linebackers
Pitt's linebacker corps isn't long on experience - the group that was available to practice this spring has a combined 20 starts, and seven of those belong to current backups - but there is a lot of potential. Mike Caprara (playing the middle in place of Shane Gordon, who is injured), Todd Thomas (weak-side), and Anthony Gonzalez (strong-side) worked all spring on the first team and look like a group that can be sound and make plays. And those three are backed up by a number of intriguing athletes.

When watching the linebackers, look for the way Gonzalez has taken to the position, how explosive Thomas is, and the tenacity with which Caprara plays. Also look for Ejuan Price, who works at backup weak-side linebacker but will find his way onto the field in Pitt's defensive sub-packages.


Cornerback
Pound-for-pound, cornerback might be Pitt's most talented position, at least on the first team, as K'Waun Williams and Lafayette Pitts make the best tandem to play that position for Pitt since Darrelle Revis and Josh Lay. The question marks are behind them, where Trenton Coles, EJ Banks, and Chris Davis have been working on the second team.
If Williams and Pitts can stay healthy, Pitt will have a very good pair of ACC-level corners. On Friday night, watch for the way Williams closes on a receiver from behind and watch for the way Savage rarely throws to Pitts' side of the field.


Safety
Safety has been an interesting position to watch this spring. Returning All-Big East first team snub Jason Hendricks has sat out spring camp with a foot injury and the coaches moved redshirt senior Eric Williams from linebacker, where he started 13 games last season, to free safety. Williams has started next to Ray Vinopal, who started one game in 2012.

Williams is interesting to watch because he has a potent mix of athleticism and size. Also watch the way the safeties are used; they aren't the primary source of pressure, but blitzes have come from that position this spring.


Injury report - Out for the spring game

CB Cullen Christian
(hamstring)
CB Brendon Felder (foot)
CB Pat Fisher (knee)
LB Shane Gordon (neck)
OL John Guy (knee)
S Jason Hendricks (foot)
WR Brandon Ifill (knee)
CB Jahmahl Pardner (knee)






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