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July 13, 2012

Five To Ponder: Pittsburgh

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HokieHaven.com will be catching up with the beat writers from each of Virginia Tech's opposing teams' Rivals.com network sites. For teams without a Rivals site, we'll be speaking with the team's daily newspaper. Third in our series, we look at the Hokies' first road game, Sept. 15 at Pittsburgh, with Panther-Lair.com publisher Chris Peak.

1. Which loss, player or coach, from last season will be the toughest for Pittsburgh to replace?

Peak: I look at two, Myles Caragein and Chas Alecxih, the defensive tackles last year. With them graduating Pitt doesn't have a whole lot of depth at D-tackle. I think they only have a couple of guys.

They're gonna be pretty thin and it's gonna be hard to replace them just because they don't have the bodies. Those are the two biggest ones.

They were two good, reliable players who had been around for a while.

2. Which newcomers should make the biggest impact?

Peak: It's gonna be interesting because Rushel Shell is a true freshman running back, big time, one of the biggest recruits in a long time. He's really productive, one of the all-time leading rushers in the state pf Pennsylvania.

Pitt has running backs, but they're gonna have to look at him to contribute and play. They're gonna rely on him because he's gonna be a good back for them.

At some of the other positions, their two young defensive linemen, Terrell Jackson, the defensive tackle and Darryl Render, the defensive end will probably be able to see the field because they're thin on the defensive line.

As far as newcomers, they have a couple of transfers who are eligible this year for the first time. I'd look at those three guys, Brendon Felder, a wide receiver, Cullen Christian at cornerback and Ray Vinopal, a safety. The three of them are gonna see the field. Christian and/or Vinopal could start and Felder has a lot of speed that they don't have at receiver on this team. All three of those guys are gonna have a big impact, maybe more than any freshmen.

3. What, if anything, will change in playcalling, schemes, etc. this season?

Peak: It's gonna look completely different from last year. Last year, Pitt had that one-year hiccup with Todd Graham as the head coach. They ran a spread, hurry-up offense and it all pretty much went to hell. None of it worked very well.

They're going back to a pro-style offense, something that all except one class on this team were committed to play in. It's more of what Dave Wannestedt did, it's more what these players are comfortable in and it's more of what this city likes to see. It's more of what this city wants.

People want a pro-style offense, run the ball to set up play-action and play good defense. That's what Paul Chryst is gonna bring. They won't be a hurry-up offense, not a spread, they're gonna be a pro-style offense that tries to establish the running game, uses play-action pass and tries to make best use of their playmakers, but understands it's good to run the ball and eat the clock.

4. Were there any surprises this spring and do you anticipate any more?

Peak: One thing that really stood out was was Isaac Bennett, the sophomore running back. He saw the field last year as a true freshman. After Pitt lost their top two running backs to injury late in the season, he stepped in and did a pretty good job in the final two games as the starter.

They have Ray Graham coming back for his senior season. He tore his ACL last season, but at that point his was one of the top three rushers in the nation in terms of average yards per game, total yards. He was as good as anyone, then tore his ACL, but he'll be back.

Then you mention Shell, the big recruit coming in. This spring was important for Bennett to stake his claim because Graham wasn't available and still hurt and Shell arrived this summer.

This was Bennett's big opportunity and he really took advantage of it. He did a good job and really stepped up. He opened some eyes and said, 'Don't forget about me.'

The biggest benefit is it should allow them to take their time with Graham. They can be slow and let him fully recover before they rush him back in.

5. What are realistic expectations for Pittsburgh this season?

Peak: They should be in the thick of the Big East again. Their schedule is not a daunting schedule.

They have two I-AA teams due to some scheduling snafoos, the Big East is the Big East. Syracuse and Connecticut shouldn't be teams that scare you. Temple shouldn't scare you and then Cincinnati lost their quarterback. South Florida, who knows about that team. Louisville should be good but they have a true freshman turning into a sophomore at quarterback and who knows if he takes a step forward. It's the same thing at Rutgers.

The Big East should be wide open and Pitt should compete, should win eight or nine games int he regular season just because of their strength of schedule. Despite all the instability, the chaos here over the last two years and it's been chaotic.

Given their schedule, everything about what they face this year and the talent they return, they should win eight or nine games and be in the mix for the Big East title.

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