Retooled Panthers ready to make a splash in ACC
The superficial touches are done. Every last symbol of Pittsburgh's time playing football in the Big East has vanished, as if the program hit control/alt/delete to erase two decades of only sporadic success.
The school's fresh start in the Atlantic Coast Conference has pumped life into every corner of the athletic department. Nowhere is it more evident than in the sport that triggered the biggest conference shakeup in major college sports history.
Yet Pitt football coach Paul Chryst understands it will take more than splashing ''ACC'' over every poster, media guide and jersey for the Panthers to feel at home in their new home.
Winning will help, something the Panthers didn't do quite enough of during 21 seasons in the Big East. Chryst's first year on the job may have been a microcosm of the school's Big East stay. The Panthers fell into an early hole, made a little noise but failed when they had a chance to get over the hump from competitive to compelling while finishing 6-7.
Asked if he has any concerns about the season opener at home on national television Labor Day night against ACC big boy Florida State, and Chryst jokes, ''did you see last year's first game?''
The stunning 31-17 loss to FCS member Youngstown State could have been a setback from which the Panthers never recovered. They righted themselves with an upset of Virginia Tech then nearly handed Notre Dame its only loss of the regular season before squandering a fourth-quarter lead and falling in triple overtime.
It was a glimpse of what could have been and what the Panthers hope will still be as they switch to a swankier neighborhood.
''All we have to do is continue what we've been doing,'' wide receiver Ed Tinker said. ''We work together and we push each other to get better. We play fast.''
Here are five things to look for from Pitt this season.
1. IN A RUSH WITHOUT RUSHEL: The departure of senior running back Ray Graham appeared to swing the door wide open for the Rushel Shell Era to begin. Yet the all-time leading rusher in Pennsylvania high school history decided to transfer after just one season. He ended up at West Virginia, where he'll have to sit out a year before attempting to resurrect his career. Shell's abrupt about face leaves Pitt with more questions than answers in the backfield. Isaac Bennett and Malcolm Crockett - who combined for all of 191 yards rushing a year ago - will get the first chance to start. ''We have a great legacy at running back,'' Bennett said. ''We're going to continue to keep it going, keep the tradition going.''
2. JOURNEY'S END: Tom Savage appeared destined for stardom in 2009 after he threw for 2,211 yards and 14 touchdowns as a freshman at Rutgers in 2009. Now Savage is nearly three years removed from his last meaningful snap. He transferred to Arizona in 2011 and sat out the year only to find out he wanted to be closer to home. Savage sat out last season after coming to Pitt but barring injury will almost certainly have the starting job against Florida State. ''Tom's got a good feel for the game,'' Chryst said. ''He's got a good command out in the huddle and he loves to compete.''
3. FINDING HIS GUYS: This is the first time since 2010 the Panthers begin a season with the same coach as the year before. Chryst has spent the last 12 months weeding through his locker room trying to see who ''really likes to play football'' at Pitt. That list apparently didn't include Shell or junior linebacker Todd Thomas, who left the team early in training camp. Chryst insists he is not sending a message but listen to his players and you'll get a different story. ''He's making changes around the locker room and everyone has accepted it and no one is complaining,'' Bennett said. ''We're all happy to be here.''
4. STREET STAYS: Senior wide receiver Devin Street contemplated leaving early for the NFL but instead returns as one of the top wideouts in the ACC. He caught 58 passes for 975 yards and five touchdowns a year ago while being named to the All-Big East second team.
5. DOMINANT DONALD: Senior defensive tackle Aaron Donald comes into his senior year with 16.5 sacks over the last two years. He begins his final season as an NFL-ready talent at the heart of a defense that will be tested by the speed of the ACC. Donald is the linchpin of a defense that finished near the top of the Big East in every major category.
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