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August 6, 2013

No fear of the unknown for Chryst

It might seem like hyperbole - or perhaps the dramatic flourish of a lazy writer - to make a grandiose statement like "the Pitt football team has more questions than answers heading into training camp 2013," but here goes:

The Pitt football team has more questions than answers heading into training camp 2013.

Hyperbole? Overly-dramatic? Perhaps. False? Inaccurate? Not quite.

In fact, head coach Paul Chryst more or less acknowledged as much on Monday while previewing training camp, which opens Tuesday. More often than not, as Chryst went through the team position-by-position, his answers drifted between "We'll see" and simply "I don't know."

That's not to say Chryst and the coaching staff haven't given some thought to the makeup of the team prior to training camp; rather, it's to say that the nature of the roster is such that there are a lot of questions that can only be resolved through the repetition of practice.

Take the offensive line, for example. Pitt returns three players who started on the line last season in Matt Rotheram, Cory King and Ryan Schlieper. But Rotheram and King are moving inside from tackle to guard, and Schlieper spent spring camp as a backup. So, despite returning three players with starting experience - four, if you count Juantez Hollins, who was a starter in 2011 before sitting out 2012 due to suspension - the coaches are really looking at five new starters.

Or wide receiver, where the group features Devin Street and a half-dozen question marks, either in the form of unproven upperclassmen or new-to-campus freshmen. Or running back, where both leading rushers from 2012 are gone, leaving open a bevy of carries for a quintet of up-and-comers. Or quarterback, where three-year starter Tino Sunseri has graduated and the job will go to a fifth-year senior who hasn't played in a game since 2010 or a redshirt freshman.

And that's just on offense. The coaches have to find a combination of players to generate production at defensive end, they have a variety of linebackers to arrange and they need to develop depth in the secondary.

But if Chryst is worried about the unknowns on his 2013 team, he isn't showing. Instead, the second-year head coach is looking forward to seeing which players emerge from the competition of camp as the top performers on the team. The competition, from Chryst's view, will produce the best combination of players.

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

The element of the unknown isn't limited to filling out the two-deep. In some cases - a lot of positions, actually - the coaches have a number of players to put in order, and the variety of skill sets and abilities might lead to some creative personnel packages and play designs.

At running back, for instance, junior Isaac Bennett figures to be the starter, but he is far from a sure thing, and if he can't carry the load, the coaches may go to a committee approach in the backfield.

"Absolutely, this year I think you have to be open to that," Chryst said.

The same goes for the receivers, as a mix of players might be used situationally to complement Street. Linebacker is similar, where a variety of packages and personnel groupings could be deployed in order to capitalize on the range of talents.

Chryst would probably prefer to have a set group of 11 on each side of the ball, but he's not totally apprehensive about the potential for a committee approach that almost applies on a team-wide basis.

"If all you are is a nickel D.B. but you're a good nickel and you can trust that they're going to be that same guy, then you can do it. If you're just a third-down back but you're good enough and consistent so you could know what you're going to get from it, then I think you'll be alright. At receiver, you can find a niche.

"That's the exciting thing: there might be more spots open. You might be able to get more ownership because more guys have a vested role. That's what you hope for when you don't have that 11 and that's it, or 12 or 13. Maybe it's with 18 on defense or 18 on offense. I don't know."

So the coaches have spent the summer - and will spend the next three weeks - working to find roles for the players, trying to see how the best group of linemen or the best group of linebackers or the best running backs can fit together this season.

"Our job with the players is to find a role, a niche and then play to it or design to it and see if that can keep evolving with the players."

As with the makeup of the two-deep, those efforts carry an element of the unknown, but that may very well be the defining characteristic of the 2013 Pitt football team heading into training camp.




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