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Pittsburgh 2013 season preview

After having 17 players drafted from 2007-11, Pitt has gone two drafts with zero selections. Not so coincidentally, the Panthers have gone 20-19 in the past three seasons, including a 12-14 mark the past two years.

The Panthers should have at least three players taken next May, but they again could struggle on the field. They are taking a step up in competition by moving to the ACC from the old Big East. And while the defense should hold its own, thanks to star defensive tackle Aaron Donald and what should be a solid secondary, the offense has issues. Second-year coach Paul Chryst needs a new quarterback. He needs a new featured back. He will have a rebuilt line that likely will feature at least two redshirt freshmen (that line does have promise, though). And other than senior Devin Street, the wide receiver corps is a wasteland. There's also a new kicker.

(AP Photo Tom DiPace)
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Pitt has been to five consecutive bowls, the second-longest postseason streak in school history. Getting to a sixth bowl in a row appears too much to ask.

Top senior prospects


DT Aaron Donald: He is one of the best interior linemen in the nation and has been extremely productive for the Panthers. Donald will be a three-year starter and has 122 tackles, 37.5 tackles for loss, 18.5 sacks and 27 quarterback hurries in his career. The problem? He's just 6-foot tall. But he's extremely quick off the ball -- he played a lot at end in 2011, when he had 11 sacks -- and seems to find a way to squeeze through cracks. Donald, a 280-pounder, has a high football IQ and plays with great intensity.

NT Tyrone Ezell: He didn't do all that much in his first two seasons but blossomed somewhat last season as the starting nose tackle. Ezell (6-4, 305) had 39 tackles, seven tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks, and teams with Donald to give the Panthers a formidable duo in the middle. Consistency and intensity are issues, but Ezell has surprising quickness for his size and looks to have a good upside.

FS Jason Hendricks: He is heading into his third season as a full-time starter. Hendricks (6-0, 190) never redshirted and has started at both free and strong safety. He led Pitt in tackles (90) and interceptions (six) last season, and added four pass breakups. He was a high school linebacker who is solid in run support, and his best position at the next level likely would be strong safety because of his lack of elite speed. He missed six games in 2011 with a shoulder injury and missed most of spring practice this year with a toe injury.

OG Cory King: After being a part-time starter at guard in 2011, King was the full-time starting left tackle last season. He moved back inside to his natural position during the spring, and the move is expected to help solidify the offensive line. King (6-6, 325) is a physical run blocker who struggles in space.

WR Devin Street: He will be a three-year starter, and he led the Panthers in receptions last season with 73 (good for 975 yards and five touchdowns). Street (6-4, 195) isn't a blazer, but he is savvy and generally does a nice job getting off press coverage. He has good hands, runs disciplined routes and does a nice job of using his size to seal off opposing cornerbacks. His numbers might suffer this season: Pitt has a new quarterback and there is an alarming lack of complementary receivers (no other returning wide receiver caught more than seven passes).

Top underclassmen


OT Adam Bisnowaty: He redshirted as a true freshman last season and is expected to start at left tackle this fall after a strong spring. Bisnowaty (6-6, 300) was considered one of the top 20 high school tackles in the nation in the 2012 signing class and has added about 25 pounds since signing with the hometown Panthers over Florida. He's considered a good run blocker with quickness, but his pass protection -- as it is with most young tackles -- bears watching.

TE J.P. Holtz: He made an immediate impact last season as a true freshman, starting 10 games and finishing with 13 receptions for 173 yards and three touchdowns. Holtz (6-4, 245) is a promising blocker who should see his role in the passing game increase this fall.

CB Lafayette Pitts: He redshirted as a true freshman in 2011, then started all 13 games at corner last fall. Pitts (5-11, 195) has good speed and a high level of athleticism, and had an interception and nine pass breakups last season. He also was an effective kick returner. As he becomes a more polished corner, look for Pitts to challenge for all-league honors.

C Gabe Roberts: He redshirted last season as a true freshman and headed into summer camp as the projected starter after a strong spring. Roberts (6-5, 305) is a physical guy with nimble feet. He was a lightly recruited high school offensive tackle in Wisconsin who planned to walk on with the Badgers. But when Chryst left Wisconsin to become Pitt's coach, Roberts became interested in the Panthers.

OG Matt Rotheram: He started at right tackle last season but will move inside this season. Rotheram (6-6, 340), a junior, is a road grader who needs work on his pass protection. He looks like a better fit on the interior. Rotheram missed the final five games in 2011 with a fractured ankle.

2004 NFL Draft, first round, Arizona Cardinals -- Fitzgerald has played nine seasons for the Arizona Cardinals (2004-12). He is a six-time Pro Bowl selection and was a vital part of helping the Cardinals advance to Super Bowl XLIII. (AP Photo/Greg Trott)
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Three must-see games of 2013


Sept. 2 vs. Florida State: Pitt's first-ever ACC game is on national TV on Labor Day. FSU is the most talented team in the league, so the game will serve as a litmus test for the Panthers. Donald and Ezell will go against an experienced offensive line, but FSU QB Jameis Winston will be making his first college start, so he could get flustered. Hendricks and Pitts will try to make things difficult for Winston. Pitt's offensive linemen go against the ACC's best defensive line right off the bat.

Nov. 9 vs. Notre Dame: Pitt's offensive linemen will be challenged by a good Notre Dame front, with Roberts going against potential All-American NT Louis Nix III. Street will face a Notre Dame secondary that has veteran corners.

Nov. 29 vs. Miami (Fla.): Pitt opens and closes the season against the ACC's Florida-based schools. Miami's passing attack will challenge Hendricks and Pitts. Can Donald get to Miami QB Stephen Morris? Street could win the day against UM's questionable corners.

Follow Mike Huguenin on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.

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