Exclusive interview: Paul Chryst

DEJAN KOVACEVIC, DK ON PITTSBURGH SPORTS

Paul Chryst will enter his third year as head coach of Pitt football when his players open training camp Monday on the South Side. Chryst, 48, has overseen seasons of 6-7 and 7-6, qualifying for bowl appearances in each.

Expectations are low for 2014, at least in some circles, with the ACC’s preseason media poll placing Pitt sixth in the seven-team Coastal Division, and that no doubt has plenty to do with the graduation loss of all-universe nose tackle Aaron Donald, a first-round draft pick of the Rams, and quarterback Tom Savage (drafted by Texans) and wide receiver Devin Street (Cowboys).

On the sunnier side, wide receiver Tyler Boyd was named to the Biletnikoff Award watch list, and running back James Conner was named a Doak Walker Award preseason candidate. Those two, plus mobile QB Chad Voytik, offer hope for an offense that could be both tough and dynamic.

On Tuesday afternoon, I interviewed Chryst on an array of topics:

DK: How can I not start by asking about the defense, especially without Aaron and Jason Hendricks? Even with those guys, this was a group that gave up too much.

Chryst: Well, yeah, I guess you had to, and we understand that’s going to be the area of focus. I can’t explain it any better than to say this is one of those years where everybody’s got to come up big. We’ll need players to get better as the season goes on, to improve above and beyond.

DK: Kind of like Ray Vinopal did last season.

Chryst: Exactly. Everybody was beating up on Ray early on, but he ended up becoming a real performer for us.

DK: And nobody, of course, replaces Aaron.

Chryst: No, of course not. But you know what’s interesting? In our meetings after the season, I heard from some of our players who told me they felt like they weren’t always as aggressive as they could have been because they knew Aaron would make the play. Which he did. And I think as a result of that, they feel like maybe they can do a little more this season because they’ll have to. And more than that, they’ll have to make the big play. That’s what Aaron would give us. Game after game, he was the one who made the big play. Now, we’re going to need a lot of guys doing that.

DK: Maybe the rest of us didn’t really appreciate how much Savage meant to your offense until all the NFL scouts started raving about him, but that’s a loss, too, obviously. And with a very different QB taking his place.

Chryst: No question, Tommy’s more the pro-style, and Chad is … I’m not trying to say he’s Russell Wilson, but his ability to make plays on the run, to scramble, he has components to his game that will allow him to play that style. (Before Wilson led the Seahawks to the Super Bowl, Chryst was his offensive coordinator at Wisconsin.) And because of that, we’ll have to adjust to Chad’s strengths. It’ll definitely be different.

DK: And the first thing I think when I envision that is whether or not Tyler will have to get the ball a different way.

Chryst: Well, that’s part of it. Tyler’s going to have to make that adjustment, work with Chad. And that won’t be his only challenge. He benefited a lot from having Devin on the other side. Teams had to cover Devin. Now, people are going to know about Tyler. They’re going to be on him. That’s why I’ll keep stressing that it’s up to the rest of our guys to step up. Who will take the pressure off Tyler? Someone’s going to have to take that heat off him. Maybe the running game. Maybe another receiver.

DK: Why not Manasseh Garner? I see Garner as a guy who, at times, has looked like he’s got a good bit more in him.

Chryst: I’m excited about Manasseh. I am. He’s been with us as a tight end, but he also had to help at wide receiver when Devin was hurt last season. I’d be lying right here if I didn’t say we’re counting on him. And we feel he’s capable and ready to be that guy.

hi-res-185145933-james-conner-of-the-pittsburgh-panthers-during-their_crop_exactDK: And then there’s Conner, who might be that guy for you on both sides of the ball if I’m reading this correctly. Or has that been a lot of noise?

Chryst: Ha! Well said! That’s probably what a lot of it’s been, noise. How we used James in that bowl game, where he got in as kind of a pass-rushing specialist, I think he maybe got eight snaps on defense. And that’s the way we’re looking at it. Vinopal plays on defense and on special teams. Other players do that. This would be James playing on offense and special teams in a way. He won’t be gassed at the end of the game. He’ll be a running back who spends a little time on defense.

DK: But you’re excited about it?

Chryst: No question. The kid can do a lot of things.

DK: It’s your third year coming up. The program hasn’t had 10 wins since 2009. How important is it for this Pitt to demonstrate meaningful progress?

Chryst: There’s no question we have to make significant steps forward. That’s the bottom line. And we have to do that together, as a team. Aaron was so dominant he could get recognition even on a .500 team. This team will earn that recognition collectively. And we’ll have to work hard and stay tough to do that.

I don’t want to put that pressure on the kids. That’s on all of us. We all have to keep it together. It’s funny, but coaches will tell their team before a game, ‘Get off to a great start, and don’t turn the ball over.’ Well, it sounds great, but what if it doesn’t happen? What do you do then? We’ve got to be prepared to work our way through everything. We’ve got to make those strides.

DK: Last thing I’ve got, and I’d be crazy if I didn’t ask this but … James Franklin caused a bit of a stir at his introductory press conference at Penn State by stating bluntly that he and his staff will dominate Pennsylvania recruiting. I was up there that day and asked if that was a gauntlet thrown down at Pitt, the only other major Division I school in Pennsylvania, and he didn’t exactly deny it.

What’s your view? Has Pitt been impacted by Franklin and his staff? Has their recruiting hurt?

Chryst: We’re always impacted by all the schools around us, and even some far away, when it comes to recruiting inside the state or Western Pennsylvania. We’ll see Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State … everyone will come through, not just Penn State. That didn’t just change. Bill O’Brien and his staff were recruiting here also. It’s perceived now that things are a whole lot different, but Bill worked hard just like James and his staff are working hard just like our staff is working hard. In the end, I’m really confident in the classes we’ve put together and our methods. But that other stuff, no, nothing’s changed.