Pitt Football: UNC Preview
By: Ryan Bertonaschi
Pitt head coach Paul Chryst has had the privilege this season to coach some elite talents.
Two of his offensive players – receiver Tyler Boyd and right tackle TJ Clemmings – have appeared in the first round of NFL mock draft boards, and his sophomore running back, James Conner, owns college football’s third-highest total in rushing yards (1,342) this season.
Pitt (4-5, 2-3 ACC) travels to play North Carolina (4-5, 2-3 ACC) Saturday afternoon, and, considering his top-notch playmakers, Chryst knows that his team enters the contest having underperformed in the majority of its first nine games.
“I’m not trying to spin or sell a broken record to you guys,” Chryst said Monday. “But we’re not playing consistent at all the spots.”
Chryst and his staff have expressed a sense of urgency in recent weeks, and, with Saturday on the horizon, the urgency is merited.
North Carolina and its All-America punt returner/receiver stunned the Panthers last season in a shootout that the Tar Heels won 34-27 at Heinz Field.
The player of note, Ryan Switzer, set an ACC record for punts returned for touchdowns (5) last season, and he turned two punts into touchdowns against Pitt.
Chryst did not have a special teams coach last season. In February, he announced that outside linebackers coach Chris Haering would also coach special teams in 2014, and, since, Haering has worked to perfect Pitt’s punt coverages and kick coverages. This season, Pitt is 34th in Division I in punt coverage, yielding 68 yards on 13 punts (5.23 avg).
Still, Switzer presents a legitimate threat. Haering classified the sophomore do-it-all man as “a handful.”
“It’s going to take great direction and operation in the punt game, and we’ve all got to get out and cover,” Haering told reporters Wednesday. “I told them this week, it’s not the gunners, it’s not the slots, it’s not the guards, it’s not the tackles that are most important in coverage, it’s all 11.”
Switzer has not returned a punt for a touchdown this season, but Haering said that he watched Switzer dance into the end zone on three separate punt returns this season before the respective plays were called back because of a block in the back by a North Carolina player.
A commoner might suggest that Pitt punter Ryan Winslow use a technique called “directional punting,” or a way of placing punts out of bounds and out of the return man’s reach. Haering debunked the theory that “directional punting” is an easy thing to do.
“It’s easy to say ‘Well, I’ll just punt it here or punt it there,’ but directional punting is a challenge.” Haering said. “It’s just a harder angle for those guys.
They’ll even try it in the NFL sometimes, and it’s difficult for them to do and get a decent punt. You’ll try a directional punt but just kicking it out of bounds is very difficult. You just don’t pick that up in a week. You just don’t say, ‘OK, I’m going to kick it out of bounds this week.’ It’s just a hard skill.”
Switzer also has 44 catches for 500 receiving yards, and sophomore receiver Mack Hollins complements with 28 catches for 566 yards and seven touchdowns.
Pitt freshman cornerback Avonte Maddox, who is coming off a dreadful outing in Pitt’s last game against Duke and its star receiver Jamison Crowder, told reporters Wednesday that no one cornerback will be following Switzer or Hollins around the field, it will just be “whoever is there.”
On the other side of the ball, North Carolina is allowing opponents an average of 142 rushing yards per game.
Conner is averaging 150 yards per game alone.
Kickoff is set for 12:30, and, as always, WPTS Radio will have the live call of the game.