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August 5, 2013

Notebook: Freshmen, position battles and more

No decision has been made on the future of freshman quarterback Tra'Von Chapman, Pitt head coach Paul Chryst said Monday.

Chapman has been suspended indefinitely since he was arrested in April on charges of assault and unlawful restraint. He pled guilty to a reduced charge of attempted assault last Monday and served three days of a 90-day sentence last week.

Chapman will not be involved with the team when training camp starts Tuesday, but his status with the program will be resolved by the time fall classes begin on August 26. In addition to his jail sentence, he also performed community service, which fulfilled the terms of his plea agreement.


More suspensions

Chryst also announced that junior receiver Ronald Jones and junior defensive lineman Khaynin Mosley-Smith are suspended for the 2013 season. Jones was suspended for a violation of team policy, while Mosley-Smith's suspension is an extension of discipline he incurred over the summer following drug charges.

Jones has 24 career receptions for 209 yards; last season he caught seven passes for 66 yards. Mosley-Smith has played in all 26 games of his Pitt career and made one start. He has recorded a total of 15 tackles over that span.

The suspension of Jones weakens an already-thin receiver corps, while Mosley-Smith's suspension all but guarantees that freshman Tyrique Jarrett will see the field as the top backup to nose tackle Tyrone Ezell.


Offensive questions

There are question marks all over the offense, but for Chryst, the biggest questions on that side of the ball are isolated in two positions: running back and wide receiver.

"Obviously we've got to answer that," he said when asked about running back. "That and receiver are your two big question marks on offense."

At running back, the coaches will choose from Isaac Bennett, Malcolm Crockett, Desmond Brown and freshmen James Conner and Rachid Ibrahim. Bennett will enter camp as the starter, but he is largely unproven (even though he has the most experience, he still has only recorded 87 career carries).

"I think Isaac certainly can handle all three downs and the protections and all of that, but we'll see where he's at," Chryst said.

In fact, Chryst hasn't ruled out the possibility of a running-back-by-committee approach.

"We might have to," he said. "I think you have to have the flexibility, like in years past, where you can play three starters, or you can get two to be one. Absolutely I think this year you have to be open to that."

At receiver, the Panthers have an established presence in Devin Street and then a lot of question marks after that. Ed Tinker is the pre-camp starter opposite Street and Kevin Weatherspoon is the other upperclassman, but Tinker and Weatherspoon combined have five career catches (all Tinker's and all last season).

Brandon Ifill is intriguing but he's coming off an ACL injury. Chris Wuestner impressed the coaches as a walk-on freshman last August before suffering an injury. And then there are freshmen like Tyler Boyd, who will play, and Zach Challingsworth, who could play.

"That is probably the most open of the spots on offense, probably on the team."

Chryst said that the coaches could mix and match the receivers in an effort to maximize each player's strengths.


Some inside help

The receivers will get a bit of an assist from redshirt junior Manasseh Garner, a transfer from Wisconsin who is listed as a tight end but will line up all over the field in an effort to generate mismatches for the passing game.

Garner was one of the standouts in spring camp, and Chryst expects him to fill an important role in the offense this season.

"I think we need him to (contribute). I think we need him to keep being who he was and get better."

Chryst was also asked if Garner can help fill the void of production opposite Street.

"I think if we're going to be any good, he's got to."


Feeling good

Like running back and receiver, the offensive line has plenty of questions marks. But Chryst has a unique approach to a position unit that is, in a certain sense, breaking in five new starters.

"I like the position a lot better than I did last year at this time, but there are probably more questions than there were last year at this time," he said.

That statement isn't quite the contradiction it seems to be. Pitt returns three starters on the line from the 2012 unit, but two of those - Matt Rotheram and Cory King - are moving from tackle to guard, and the third - Ryan Schlieper - enters camp as a backup. So the question marks are clear, but at the same time, the 2013 group appears to have more overall talent than its predecessor.

Even if Pitt is breaking in a group of new starters, the talent base presents a higher upside and a higher ceiling. Plus, Chryst likes the results a competition can generate. He cited the potential battles with Schlieper, Rotheram and King, and also stated that redshirt sophomore Artie Rowell is pushing redshirt freshman Gabe Roberts at center.

And then there is right tackle, where redshirt junior T.J. Clemmings worked on the first team in spring camp after moving to tackle from defensive end last December. Clemmings was named the most improved offensive player of the spring, but he will face competition from freshman Dorian Johnson, who is coming to Pitt with a lot of hype. And redshirt senior Juantez Hollins could be in the mix as well after sitting out 2012 with a suspension.

"T.J. hasn't played for a whole year, so how does he develop? Dorian Johnson, we think a lot of him, we think he'll be really good, (but he's) still a freshman and has yet to take a snap. And Juantez, where is he at with all this?"

"I think, truly, (there are) three different unknowns. We like what T.J. did; he showed some glimpses that he could be pretty good, that that's his best spot. Dorian, we think that he can handle it, but won't get too big on him. We'll see.

"Truly, we have to find our best five and then find spots for them all."


Playing freshmen

Lining up with a true freshman starting at right tackle is a dicey proposition and one that most coaches wouldn't embrace, but Chryst may not have a choice this season.

"None of us feel comfortable (with having a freshman on the line)," he said. "(Former Wisconsin lineman and first-round draft pick) Joe Thomas didn't start his freshman year. On all true freshmen, you have to make sure that they're ready, that it won't hurt them and hurt their development."

That applies to any freshman, whether it's Johnson, Boyd, Conner, Ibrahim or a defensive newcomer.

"[Sophomore tight end JP Holtz] probably would have benefited from a redshirt year, but it didn't stunt his growth. It didn't turn him into a shell-shocked guy. You can never play a guy before they're ready. As you get going, ideally it's hard for a freshman to play, not because of their abilities but the abilities of those ahead of them.

"We have to make sure they're ready. And then, if they're the first, second, third, fourth depending on position, then have at it."


The big question

Of course, for all the questions about running back and receiver and the offensive line, the biggest unknown on offense is at the most important position on the field:

Quarterback.

Over the next three weeks, Tom Savage and Chad Voytik will battle for the starting job, and while Savage is the presumptive favorite, Chryst isn't naming a starter any time soon.

"I think there's enough that needs to be done, that noting would be gained right now, from inside the building (by naming a starter)," he said. "Tommy knows what he needs to do, Chad knows it; let's go."

As to what each player needs to do…

"[Savage has] got to go out and be him. And then do it consistently. It's the same way with Chad.
The biggest thing that we've talked most about is that we've got to make sure both are ready to go. That's really all we're concerned about."

And that's the most Chryst will probably divulge until the time comes when he is prepared to name a starter.


An interesting position

It's entirely possible that linebacker could be as interesting as any position on the team in camp this summer. The pre-camp two-deep lists Shane Gordon, Todd Thomas and Anthony Gonzalez as the first-team players, but some of those spots - as well as the backups - could be in motion.

In Pitt's 4-3 defense, the strong-side linebacker plays to the field side and is almost something of a hybrid linebacker-safety, which is why Gonzalez and redshirt freshman Bam Bradley fit well there: both are converted safeties playing linebacker.

Meanwhile, the weak-side and middle spots are the "inside" positions, with the weak-side linebacker playing to the boundary side of the field, and there could be some position-swapping there. Redshirt freshman Mike Caprara is one candidate for such a move: he worked at middle linebacker in spring camp while Gordon was out with an injury and he'll enter training camp as Gordon's backup.

But Chryst said Monday that if freshman Matt Galambos impresses in training camp, pieces could start moving.

"We think Mike's got a chance to be pretty good; if Matt has a chance to be pretty good, you might not want to stack them. So you bump him out."

The "bumping out" could mean Caprara moving to the weak side to push Thomas. Chryst also said Bradley could "rise up" and "put some heat in the competition" on the strong side, in which case Gonzalez could shift to one of the inside positions and increase the competition there.

Meanwhile, Thomas remains one of the most explosive athletes on the team, a player with the true ability to change a game. Chryst likes what he has seen from the redshirt junior, but he wants to see more.

"I think he can give us some stuff, but I think he can play at a higher level than what he's been," Chryst said. "We need him to."

As with the offensive line (and receivers), the coaches are once again looking for a way to field the best possible unit.

"I think we have to find a way to get our three best on the field," Chryst said. "There are still a lot of questions, but not all of them are negative, like, 'Boy we have to get that answered.' That can be kind of exciting, too."

Chryst added that he is excited about redshirt sophomore Ejuan Price, and the coaches will look for ways to mix him into the defense. During spring camp, that meant using him as a stand-up pass-rusher in the nickel package, and Chryst said to expect more of the same from the former Woodland Hills standout.


Leadership

Pitt's group of seniors on the 2013 roster isn't big, but Chryst spoke positively of things he has seen from the seniors thus far.

"I like them. I think they're capable of giving some good leadership. There's enough diversity in personalities that they can give you some of that. I value their input because they should have the most awareness and knowledge of what's happening. And we need them; if you're going to be any good, your senior class has to play their best football.

"I think we're fortunate. Clearly one of our better players is clearly one of our better workers in Aaron (Donald). And I think there are a couple other guys like that. K'Waun (Williams has) been a worker, and he's clearly one of our better players on defense. If they're leading that way, it's on and off the field."





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