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Another New Era at Pitt

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Pitt football’s forgettable Paul Chryst era ended at 19-20 when the Madison native returned to Wisconsin to coach the Badgers, leaving the program in the same state of mediocrity in which he found it.

Former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is up next to try to do what Chryst couldn’t – make Pitt football matter nationally.   

Any resurgence will start and stop with All-American standouts James Conner and Tyler Boyd, whose June traffic stop resulted in probation for DUI.

Narduzzi, who suspended Boyd from all team activity for a month before allowing him back in July, will also make the All-ACC receiever sit-out Pitt's season-opener against Youngstown State.

The team’s current lack of past production and experience behind Boyd leaves major questions about passing game. Pitt’s three returning wideouts caught just just 13 passes for 137 yards and one touchdown combined in 2014.

New offensive coordinator Jim Chaney oversaw an Arkansas offense that had two 1,000-yard rushers last season. Chaney has also had success passing the ball as a coordinator, as he called the shots at Purdue when Drew Brees re-wrote the school’s record books. With Conner in the backfield, however, Pitt fans should expect a run-oriented attack.

The question with Conner is no longer “how good” but “how much.” Chryst fed the 250 pound-back nearly 300 times last season, tops in the ACC.

Conner was recently featured on the Raycom Sports series "Havoline Football Saturdays." The feature traced Conner's roots back to Erie, Pa., where he was a star player at McDowell High School. The show gives a glimpse of the family members and friends who inspire Conner off the field. Click here to watch the feature.

“He (Conner) will have a target on his back, as will our offense, really, with the way they rushed the football last year,” Narduzzi said.

Second-year starting quarterback Chad Voytik will again be handed the keys to an offense that finished 2014 as 19th best nationally and third in the ACC, according to Football Outsiders. In addition to the best skill position duo in the country, Voytik will stand behind an offensive line that returns four players with starting experience. The Panthers will have to replace right tackle Jaryd-Jones Smith, however, who suffered a season-ending knee injury during the offseason.

Though the team’s strength appears to be its offense, the first place Narduzzi will look to make his mark is on defense, where he coached Michigan State to four top-ten national marks in each of the last four seasons. Alabama was the only other defense to finish top 10 in each of the past four seasons.

More impressively, Narduzzi was able to forge one of college football’s best units with few touted recruits or future pros, coaching only one player drafted in the top 50 during that time (Alabama produced 10).

He will likewise have to maximize the talent he’s afforded with a defense that finished 67th in Division I.

"Everyone always talks about the offense. Our offense is great,” linebacker Nick Grigsby said. “We have to make a statement on defense that we're just as good.”

The Panthers’ experience lies in the secondary, which returns six of its top seven contributors from last season, including senior cornerback Lafayette Pitts and versatile junior safety Reggie Mitchell.

Sophomore middle linebacker Matt Galambos, who led all returning players in tackles, will be expected to take on a larger responsibility following the graduations of Todd Thomas and Anthony Gonzalez.

Up front, Narduzzi will look to revamp a unit that ranked 102nd in sacks last season. Senior end Ejuan Price and Darryl Render, who led the 2014 defense in tackles for loss (6), will steer the younger group.  

Breakout Star: Sophomore defensive end Rori Blair (6’4, 230) isn’t your average breakout candidate. After suffering a nearly fatal stroke in April 2012 as a junior at Upper Saint Clair, Blair fought back to earn a Division I scholarship and lead the Panthers in sacks (5) as a true freshman last season. He ran into Pitt Chad Voytiktrouble with the law during the spring, however, and may still face punishment.

On the Hot Seat: Close examination of Voytik’s 2014 game log provides reasons to expect steps forward this season. After throwing an interception in six consecutive weeks, the redshirt junior threw only one in his final six games, while completing 65 percent of his passes. Any significant regression, however, could open the door for Tennessee transfer Nate Peterman.

Newcomer to Watch: Redshirt freshman guard Alex Bookser, Pennsylvania’s second-ranked recruit in 2014, ended the spring as a starter at right guard. Noted for his athleticism, polish and versatility, Bookser is set to begin his career as a likely cog for years to come.

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