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Panthers football searching for identity in ACC

AP - Sports

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Tyler Boyd is used to the attention that comes with being among the best players on the football field.

Still, the Pittsburgh sophomore wide receiver's stellar 2013 season - when he set school freshman marks in receptions (85), yards receiving (1,174) and touchdowns (seven) - wasn't enough for him to generate much buzz. Boyd didn't make the preseason All-ACC team.

But neither did any other Panther. And Boyd and his teammates noticed after they were picked to finish near the bottom of the ACC's crowded Coastal Division.

''We know that people aren't talking about us,'' Boyd said. ''But it's up to us. We walk around and we tell each other, 'We're not the seventh best team in the ACC, we're one of the top two or three.' But we can't just say it. We've got to go out there and do it.''

The Panthers had an uneven debut in their new conference home after splitting from the Big East. The same team that beat eventual Coastal Division champion Duke and stunned Notre Dame also stumbled against Navy and North Carolina. A victory over Bowling Green in the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl left them at 7-6 for the second straight year.

While coach Paul Chryst enters his third season with his program stable - no coaching changes, no conference switches and no glaring offseason issues - Pitt still has yet to gain much traction. It might be a good time to start.

''I've been telling a couple other people, as proud as we are to be members of the ACC, our goal and objective is to make an impact on it,'' Chryst said. ''We're certainly not there right now.''

The schedule is hardly intimidating. No Florida State. No Louisville. There will be plenty of chances for the Panthers to prove the prognosticators wrong and prove something to themselves.

''We're not where we want to be,'' Chryst said. ''But I sure appreciate and enjoy going through and facing that challenge with this group of guys and for every challenge there's an opportunity.''

LET BOYD BE BOYD: Boyd quickly delivered on his considerable promise last fall, providing the Panthers with the kind of explosive playmaking at wide receiver they hadn't seen since Larry Fitzgerald was hauling in catches a decade ago.

Yet the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Boyd is no longer one of the ACC's best kept secrets. He will be the focal point of opposing defenses, leaving it up to Chryst to find ways to keep Boyd involved. The way Chryst looks at it, there are worse problems.

''If we're going to be good, if you look back at the end of the year and we've had some success, Tyler, my guess, is going to be a big part of that,'' Chryst said.

DOUBLE DUTY: The Panthers lost the most dominant defensive player in the nation when tackle Aaron Boyd took his Outland, Nagurski and Lombardi Awards to the NFL. Replacing Boyd with one player will be nearly impossible. Consider running back James Conner, however, part of the process. Conner spent time at defensive end against Bowling Green and expects to see his role expanded this fall even as he carries the load as the team's top running back.

VOYTIK'S VOYAGE: Chryst is reluctant to name a starting quarterback too early in camp, but barring injury the job will go to sophomore Chad Voytik.

He showed he can produce under pressure in the bowl game, playing the entire second half and leading the Panthers to the winning drive in the final minutes. Generously listed at 6-foot-1, Voytik isn't the first undersized quarterback Chryst has put to work. Russell Wilson thrived under Chryst's watch at Wisconsin in 2011 and while Voytik allows he's nowhere near Wilson in terms of accomplishments, he knows he simply needs to be efficient for the Panthers to be competitive.

LEAKY LINE: Giving Voytik a little time to work would certainly help. Pitt's offensive line allowed 43 sacks in 2013. Voytik's mobility should help cut down those numbers. So should a year of experience for the four returning starters.

TODD'S TIME: Senior linebacker Todd Thomas replaces Donald as the Panthers' best defensive weapon. It's a role he's ready for after recording 72 tackles in 2013, including a team-high 12 against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.

''I want to lead by example for the young guys, so they can learn a little bit,'' Thomas said. ''There are a lot of young guys that are ready to step in the spotlight and go to work.''

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