The 2012 season officially ended with Pitt's bowl loss to Mississippi and while the Panthers didn't look good in defeat, there are still things to look forward to for next season. The offensive side of the ball is where Pitt is going to take the biggest hits, but with the way Paul Chryst can coach offense, I have no doubt that the Panthers can return to a bowl game in 2013 - and this time it won't be the Compass Bowl.
Whether you liked him or not, Tino Sunseri, minus the bowl game, was a good quarterback for the Panthers in 2012. Throwing 19 TDs to just two interceptions is statistically a solid season for any QB, and a season that I'm sure many programs across the country would take. But there were many things that irked Pitt fans when it came to Sunseri. For starters, the inability for the team to do much else in the passing game outside of bubble screens and the intermediate throws. Sunseri was all over the place on deep passes throughout his career, whether he overthrew or underthrew his targets.
I'm not sure if Pitt's fortunes in this department will change much in 2013, but I do know that from the few practices I've been to before the season began, I am a huge fan of Tom Savage. His mechanics are good, his throws are accurate, and he has experience (albeit not since 2010). This isn't to say that fan favorite Chad Voytik won't win the job next season. Towards the end of fall camp, Voytik really began to get a grasp of the offense and, with a full year of practicing and developing, the decision over who starts could come down to the final weeks of fall camp.
Where Pitt may suffer the most could be at running back. You just don't replace Ray Graham's leadership and talent overnight, or in this case in one offseason. Even with Rushel Shell, who will likely take over as the starter next season, I think Pitt will struggle (at least early in the season) in the ground game. While Shell is more of a power runner, Graham has more speed and you could see it when Shell was handed the ball. If he was just a tad bit faster, he would gain another 5-10 yards on many attempts. You can bulldoze through defenders all you want but when you get to the next level of the defense, you need speed to get by the secondary. And you can't always get faster with more training.
However, I still think a healthy Shell will be a 1000-yard rusher for Pitt next season. There doesn't seem to be another Panther on this roster who figures to take several snaps away from him and that could help him reach that total. Malcolm Crockett is a player who got some snaps in the bowl game, and I think he should slide into the backup role on the depth chart. Isaac Bennett was a player we raved about in the preseason, but didn't see as many snaps as I anticipated. We shall see if Chryst works him into the offense more next season.
At receiver, I think Pitt won't suffer as much of a drop off as some may think. The pickup of Tyler Boyd over the weekend is huge and almost makes up for the loss of Robert Foster. While Pitt does lose the reliable Mike Shanahan, with Boyd on the opposite side of Devin Street, the Panthers have two streaky receivers as well as a talented tight end in JP Holtz, who had some good games in his freshman season. Pitt will need a few players to step up next season for the passing game to have success, but there are a couple names that fans should keep an eye on. Ed Tinker and Ronald Jones seem to be the two receivers that will see increased playing time and Drew Carswell will also see the field when Pitt lines up with two tight ends.
The line will once again continue to be a work in progress, but Chryst and the coaching staff have placed a big emphasis on getting talented linemen and building depth. There are a couple of young players that will likely see playing time immediately. Adam Bisnowaty and Gabe Roberts were two big pickups for Chryst from last year's recruiting class and they figure to see plenty of playing time. Dorian Johnson will also likely see plenty of action. After the younger guys, Cory King, Matt Rotheram, and Artie Rowell will likely get starting roles. If Juantez Hollins gets back on Chryst's good side after his suspension this season, he could make the starting lineup. There are rumors that Arthur Doakes, who didn't make the trip to Birmingham, could miss more than the bowl game. Doakes was listed as Pitt's starting right guard for the bowl game. Pretty much what this all boils down to is that the line will likely still be a work in progress next season. But if some of these younger players pan out the way the coaching staff thinks they will, Pitt could finally have a great offensive line in a few seasons. But for now, the line remains a concern.
The kicking game will also be a weak link as Kevin Harper ended his Pitt career on Saturday. The Panthers are bringing in one of this year's top kickers in Chris Blewitt and he figures to assume the starting role in 2013.
The offense is going to be a work in progress initially. There's too much turnover for it to run smoothly from Game 1. But this staff has developed good offenses in the past. We'll see what happens in 2013.