Pitt could be without two key starters when the Panthers host Gardner-Webb at Heinz Field on Saturday, head coach Paul Chryst announced on Thursday.
Junior defensive tackle Aaron Donald (knee) and redshirt senior tight end Hubie Graham (clavicle) are both questionable for Saturday.
"Hubie has done very little (in practice this week); I don't know. Aaron, I don't feel great about it, but not totally ruled out," Chryst said.
Donald is coming off his strongest performance so far this season. Against Virginia Tech he only recorded one tackle, but it was a tackle that pushed the Hokie offense back six yards. Donald also recorded three quarterback hurries and was generally disruptive throughout the game.
Pitt has an open week after the Gardner-Webb game, and Chryst said that he does expect Donald back in the lineup when the Panthers play at Syracuse on Oct. 5.
"Absolutely. Absolutely. You do feel encouraged that it's not anything that has a long-term effect. I think it's just one of those things right now that I don't know if he'll be able to go this Saturday, but certainly we feel really good about after that."
Chryst also said that redshirt junior defensive end Jack Lippert is doubtful for Saturday. Lippert started the Youngstown State game and played at Cincinnati but sat out Pitt's 35-17 win over Virginia Tech last weekend.
While Donald, Graham, and Lippert are unlikely to play, Chryst indicated that final decisions would be made in pre-game warm-ups at Heinz Field on Saturday.
"That's kind of how you go into it. I wasn't sure how much we would get out of [senior running back Ray Graham] last week, and then on game day he felt pretty good in warm-ups. That's where you're kind of cautious and not trying to overstate something one way or the other. So you just try to pay attention to the guys, and we need to make sure that we're smart."
Chryst also said that redshirt sophomore linebacker Todd Thomas could return to game action for the first time since the 2011 regular-season finale against Syracuse. Thomas suffered an ACL injury in Pitt's win over South Florida last season and missed spring practice, training camp, and the first three games this year.
He returned to practice last week but did not play against Virginia Tech.
"I do feel good that Todd has practiced and felt better after each day, so I think we might be able to get him some snaps," Chryst said.
Thomas has been working at the strong-side linebacker position currently being manned by redshirt sophomore Eric Williams. In his first year as a starter, Williams has recorded seven tackles, two quarterback hurries, and a fumble recovery. When Thomas is ready to play in a full game, the coaches will have to decide how to deploy the strong-side linebackers.
At this point, Chryst doesn't have definitive plans that stretch that far ahead.
"I don't think we're to the point where (we ask), 'How are we going to make this work?' It's more (about) getting the guy back and seeing where that goes, and I think we have an opportunity to maybe get him some snaps.
"I don't want to say it's like sending a pitcher down to AAA to throw, but you have to get some live work, and we're not able to do that in a scrimmage situation. So we have to see where Todd's at."
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