College football is a four-month exercise in hard work, patience and seeking answers to tough questions.
Players and coaches have it tough, too.
OK, that was a sportswriter’s unfunny joke.
The Pitt football team opened summer practice Monday at its South Side complex, and if the first day proved anything, it’s that the team has a whole lot of work to do and not a whole lot of time to do it.
Do you realize that three weeks from today (it is very early Tuesday morning), Pitt will be five days from the opener against Youngstown State? Which is only five days from the Big East opener at Cincinnati?
Of course, that may be a good thing: Less time for the starting offensive linemen to get hurt before the start of the season.
Pitt coach Paul Chryst penciled five starters onto his first-team offensive line Monday. The best thing those guys have going for them is assistant coach Jim Hueber, who has spent most of the past 36 years coaching offensive linemen at six universities and the Minnesota Vikings from 2006-2010. Hueber knows what it takes to play the line and the type of sacrifices linemen must make to succeed.
Seniors Chris Jacobson and Ryan Turnley are the leaders of the unit, and their work ethic and willingness to play in pain will set a good example for the three other younger starters, Cory King, Ryan Schlieper and Matt Rotheram. All five players started multiple games last season.
My only issue is that so many players are gone from the line. Three players exhausted their eligibility after last season — Greg Gaskins, Jordan Gibbs and Lucas Nix. Then, Juantez Hollins was suspended for the season after violating team policy. Monday, the depth was further compromised by what appears to be a shoulder injury to backup offensive tackle Tom Ricketts, who transferred last year from Penn State and was finally getting a chance to contribute.
Ricketts’ injury may be minor – Chryst wasn’t sure immediately after practice – but in any case, depth will be a problem. None of the backups have taken many meaningful snaps outside of their high schools, and Pitt fans should worry if any of the starters are forced to miss any time.
Chryst may not immediately turn to freshmen Adam Bisnowaty, Gabe Roberts and John Guy to solve his depth problem on the offensive line. The transition from high school to college is tougher on the line – physically and mentally – than at any other position.
But freshmen quarterback Chad Voytik and running back Rushel Shell will get meaningful snaps this month in practice.
Voytik is one of only three eligible quarterbacks on the roster, and he will get plenty of opportunities. He even admitted that he doesn’t expect to redshirt this season, although he said he is willing to do whatever is asked of him.
Chryst said the loss of Mark Myers, who left the team this summer, doesn’t change much, other than to give backups Trey Anderson and Voytik more reps every day. That’s something that will pay off in the future, if not this season.
When asked what the departure of Myers means to the team, Chryst said, “We just keep going and wish him well, obviously.”
Speaking practically, he said: “It’s easier to rep three than it is to rep four.”
Voytik said he is more comfortable in the shotgun — after all, he was recruited initially by Todd Graham — so he will need to adjust to Chryst’s pro-style system.
“But under-center is growing on me, for sure,” he said.
Voytik started to plunge into the thick playbook Sunday.
“I’m just mentally getting it all down so I can have that picture and physically execute it,” he said.
One final comment on the quarterbacks — no one looks the part any better than Tom Savage, the 6-5, 230-pounder from Rutgers by way of Arizona.
Savage must sit out this season after transferring, but he will be serious competition for Anderson and Voytik next spring.
Shell is part of a huge stable of running backs who will get lots of carries during the three-hour daily practices. He looked good Monday, with an impressive upper body, quick feet and elusiveness.
Chryst will be careful with Ray Graham, who is recovering from knee surgery, so running backs Isaac Bennett, Shell, Malcolm Crockett and Corey Davis will be kept busy.
Graham still isn’t ready to put a percentage on his readiness, but he is eager for Friday’s practice when the team puts on pads for the first time.
Still, he will be careful, with an eye toward the opener Sept. 1.
“I’ll be smart about it,” he said. “I am not going to be selfish and make a mistake and later on regret it.”
On the other side of the ball, there are questions at linebacker where Eric Williams and Nicholas Grigsby on the outside and the explosive Shane Gordon started with the first team.
Grigby may be the fastest linebacker on the team, but he is only a redshirt freshman and has to learn to play more physically.
Todd Thomas and Ejuan Price, who were hurt in the spring, were with the second team at practice, but they played extensively last season and are very athletic. If they are healed, they will quickly move to the top of the depth chart.
Dan Mason was not on the first or second team and still has a long way to go to full recovery from his knee injury that is coming up on its second anniversary.