As ACC rookies in 2013, the Panthers posted a 3-5 in-conference record, and went 7-6 overall before watching three key contributors depart via the draft earlier this year including journeyman starting QB Tom Savage and all-everything DT Aaron Donald. But third-year head coach Paul Chryst appears to have a somewhat favorable schedule in 2014 with eight of Pitt's 12 scheduled opponents being winners of seven or fewer contests last season - a schedule that we're sure coach Chryst welcomes as he attempts to replace several key starters including a QB and three out of four along the D-line.
Although Pitt lacks any real clear-cut NFL prospect(s) for 2015 at this point, OT T.J. Clemmings is an intriguing athlete having only recently converted to tackle from defensive end to start 13 games last year at right tackle where he demonstrated prototypical traits and a quick pick-up of the position, and former Michigan safety Ray Vinopal looks to build on a strong junior year that saw him post 83 tackles and lead the team in interceptions.
Pittsburgh's top NFL Draft-eligible prospects to watch in 2014:
OT T.J. Clemmings (6'5 | 305 | 5.14 | #68)
A converted defensive end who didn't make the switch to OT until during Bowl prep week in 2012, but started all 13 games for Pitt in 2013 at right tackle, Clemmings demonstrates fluidity, quickness and athleticism that are ideal for a next-level tackle, though he looks more the part of a left tackle prospect than a right tackle considering his finesse style and leaner frame. He utilizes long arms and a rapid, fluid kick-slide to stall and mirror opponents on the edge, and considering his lack of experience on the O-line, is surprisingly consistent with his technique - particularly his footwork. He shows good natural flexibility in his lower half to bend on contact, and as a run blocker can fire through to the second level where he has the ability to square up and target effectively in space. He needs to improve hand placement as a pass-blocker, and will drop his shoulder and head on contact at times, but the athleticism and ability to pick things up quickly are both apparent. Could be a guy who rises rapidly leading up to the draft, with a strong senior season.
Other Pittsburgh prospects to watch in 2014:
FS Ray Vinopal (5'10 | 200 | 4.6 | #9)
Former Michigan transfer who started all 13 games for the Panthers last year while earning All-ACC Honorable Mention status, and was the team's second leading tackler with 83 stops while tallying three TFLs and a sack. He was also the team's leader with three interceptions and added six pass breakups. Vinopal's instincts, awareness and overall fundamentals are solid, and he demonstrates good timing and anticipation to make plays on the ball, but his lack of size and speed could hurt his draft prospects. A continued demonstration of versatility and consistency could earn him a chance though.
OLB Todd Thomas (6'2 | 230 | 4.68 | #8)
Athletic linebacker with 23 career starts at the "Will" spot, who tallied 72 tackles, six TFLs and two QB hurries as a junior. Has had some health issues in the past, and has been inconsistent in coverage, but has the natural talent to compete for an NFL roster spot.
RB Isaac Bennett (5'11 | 205 | 4.74 | #34)
Started 13 games for Pitt at tailback in 2013, posting 797 rushing yards on 71 carries (4.7 ypc), and also snagged 10 passes for 58 yards and a TD. Demonstrates quick feet, toughness and good hands out of the backfield, but exhibits only marginal burst and lacks top-end speed to pull away.