Football season officially kicks off today with the opening of training camp practices. I typically open each camp with five key questions but there's so much going on this year that I thought ten was warranted. So here are ten things I'll be watching for during this year's practices.
10. Jordan Whitehead on Offense
With closed practices for the most part, we won't be able to get too much of a feel for how Whitehead gets used on offense. But it will be interesting to hear any discussion from him on what he anticipates his role might be or from the coaches as to that as well. With him being inserted on offense last year as well as the departure of Tyler Boyd, how much will the true sophomore safety be used on offense?
9. Third Linebacker
Matt Galambos and Mike Caprara have the inside track on two of the team's starters, but the third spot looks up in the air. The preseason depth chart has Oluwaseun Idowu and Elijah Zeise as battling it out there, but with several talented sophomores and some incoming freshmen, those won't be the only guys in the mix. Pitt could also move Bam Bradley (listed as Caprara's backup) there if they wanted more experience at that spot. Neither Oluwaseun or Zeise has much real experience and Zeise just moved to defense this spring.
8. Dewayne Hendrix
There's been a lot of hype surrounding Tennessee transfer Dewayne Hendrix and many assume he'll grab the other defensive end spot opposite Ejuan Price. But until he gets in camp we won't know if that's true or not. If he is as good as advertised, Pitt's pass rush will improve.
7. 4th and 5th Offensive Linemen
Pitt's offensive line seems mostly set with Adam Bisnowaty (tackle), Dorian Johnson (guard), and Alex Officer (center) pretty secure. Brian O'Neill could be the tackle opposite Bisnowaty, though he could be pushed by Jaryd Jones-Smith, who was expected to be the starter last year until a season-ending injury. The big question looks to be at right guard. Pitt can either start former backup Alex Bookser there or they can potentially do something like move O'Neill inside to allow Jones-Smith to start at tackle. How this all gets sorted out will be something to watch.
6. Terrish Webb/Reggie Mitchell
Pitt has essentially three safety starters with only two spots. We know that Whitehead will occupy one spot, but Terrish Webb and Reggie Mitchell will be battling for the free safety spot. Both should be capable enough and have significant starting experience. The question is where Mitchell stands with a foot injury bothering him for much of last year.
5. Backup Quarterback
This looks less important in the grand scheme of things if starter Nathan Peterman can remain healthy but should he go down, this suddenly becomes the most important position on the team. Manny Stocker, a one-time quarterback at North Carolina State and Tennessee-Martin looks to have the inside track, but he hasn't played the position at D-I since 2012 as a true freshman. He was converted a wide receiver and just went back to quarterback a few months ago. This might not be so much about who wins the job than it is about Stocker's development in camp. True freshman Tom MacVittie or redshirt freshman Ben DiNucci could push him but my guess is that he will be difficult to unseat him.
4. Running Back Rotation
We could have James Conner as a separate item all by himself, but the running backs as a whole are a big question. Conner is expected to be ready to go and I expect him to be the starter in the team's opener against Villanova. But how carries are divvied up and who gets those carries is unknown right now. The preseason depth chart interestingly had last year's starter and ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year Qadree Ollison as third behind Darrin Hall. And while it's less meaningful, Ollison also had a big spring game. Does that hold up? Does true freshman Chawntez Moss play over Rachid Ibrahim, who is working his way back from last year's ACL injury? Lots of questions here.
3. True Freshmen Contributors (besides Damar Hamlin ... more on him in a second)
This is always a focal point of any camp and 2016 won't be any different. Outside of cornerback Damar Hamlin, Pitt has any number of freshmen that could find themselves playing time. Moss says coaches have already told him to be ready to play at running back. Defensive tackle Amir Watts, a four-star commit, could help shore up a defensive line. Ruben Flowers is in a deep field of receivers, but with few known commodities there, could get into the mix. Perhaps Kaezon Pugh finds time at linebacker. There are others, too, that are expected to have a real shot at playing time. We'll know more as camp progresses and coaches start talking.
2. Damar Hamlin
We know that the true freshman should earn playing time this year. The question is if he will start out of training camp immediately. Hamlin's competition is Avonte Maddox and Ryan Lewis, and both are upperclassmen. Maddox appears to be mostly cemented at one spot having started for a year and a half. It doesn't technically matter all that much if Hamlin does start the season on the bench. Whitehead did the same and still took over the starting spot at safety early in the season on his way to being named the ACC's Defensive Rookie of the Year. But Hamlin winning the job out of camp would mean he looked very sharp, and that would be a great thing.
1. Wide Receivers
We've been over this drill before. Pitt has lost star wideout Tyler Boyd to the NFL and now will look to replace him. They have plenty of options and this isn't about finding someone that will do what he did last year. That isn't possible and barring a miracle, won't happen. But what I want to know is who steps up to start alongside Dontez Ford. Pitt seemingly has any number of options. Jester Weah was named as the most improved offensive player in spring practices. Zach Challingsworth made some plays as the team's top No. 3 option in 2015. With his speed, Quadree Henderson is an intriguing option. Perhaps Tre Tipton impresses. So many potential directions here. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada talked this offseason about spreading the ball around and my guess is that's what's going to happen with so many options. Still, the battle for the No. 2 starting spot will be one to watch.