Offensively, the approach this fall should be pretty straightforward: get the ball to sophomore Tyler Boyd. The second-team All-ACC wideout had 85 receptions (third most in the ACC) and would likely have been the conference’s rookie of the year if not for a certain quarterback from Tallahassee. Boyd has put some muscle on his long frame this offseason and should once again see the majority of the targets (he had 119 last season). Given the other receiving choices, however, Boyd could struggle to get open. The second-best returning receiving option is senior tight end Manasseh Gardner, who had just 33 catches last fall. Pitt may have to look to four-star recruit Adonis Jennings for an immediate impact to relieve some pressure off Boyd. Fans got a small preview of this year’s starter at quarterback when red-shirt freshman Chad Voytik (6-of-11 passing, 116 yards) filled in for the injured Tom Savage in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. Savage was drafted in April (4th round to the Houston Texans), but Voytik (a four-star recruit) seems be a capable replacement with the potential to really grow into his own as a starter.
For the running back position, the biggest story is the curious case of James Conner. Conner had a solid freshman season and had a breakout season in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl when he rushed for a school bowl-record 229 yards. Things took a intriguing turn in the spring when the coaching staff asked the rising sophomore to take snaps at defensive end (the position he was originally recruited for). It takes an rare player to play Division I football on both sides of the ball (UCLA’s Myles Jack and UNC’s Jack Tabb are some exceptions), so it will be interesting to see if Conner sees serious snaps at end. As crazy as this move may seem, the coaching staff actually has sound reasoning. Pitt has a stable of potential ball carriers (senior Isaac Bennett, as well as freshmen Chris Jones and Qadree Ollison) that represent the various ways the Panthers can move the ball on the ground.
Pittsburgh had one of the best defensive players in all of college football last season in defensive tackle Aaron Donald. The interior lineman had 51 tackles (more than half of which went for a loss) and 11 sacks, which was incredibly impressive considering he was seeing constant double and triple teams. Now, a bevy of players along the front four will seek to replace Donald’s production. That’s not going to be an easy task, but sophomore Shakir Soto, junior Daryl Rende and reinstated Khaynin Mosley Smith have the ability to create pressure for opposing offensive lines. The front line should be well augmented by the return of the teams’ two leading tacklers, senior linebackers Anthony Gonzalez (66.5 tkl) and Todd Thomas (60.5 tkl). While the front seven is facing a few questions, the secondary seems primed to come into its own. Safety Ray Vinopal and cornerback Lafayette Pitts totaled 109 tackles between the two of them, and the secondary as a whole has shown to be excellent in the intermediate passing game (thanks to the pressure being applied up front). Along with Vinopal and Pitts, sophomore defensive backs Titus Howard and Trenton Coles have the tools to step up and round out and form a solid foursome. However, with the likely regression up front, they will be tested more than ever.
“The aggressiveness comes from truly feeling confident and comfortable with what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. Lafayette [Pitts] has had a lot of snaps, and he knows how to play the game. But everyone has stuff they need to continue to work on.” - Chryst on his defensive backs
Historical Outlook: In its history, UNC has only squared off against Pittsburgh eight times, posting a 5-3 record. Since 1991, UNC has won three of four games, with the only loss coming in the 2009 at the Meineke Bowl. The Tar Heels won the first matchup between these two programs as ACC foes last season in Pittsburgh as Ryan Switzer returned two punts for touchdown in 34-27 victory.
Notable Matchups: With the exception of Iowa, Pitt. has a laughably easy non-conference schedule that includes Akron, FIU, and Delaware (two of which are at home). UNC also has the misfortune of hosting the Panthers after they’ve played three straight home games and a bye week.