The loss of kicker/punter Dan Hutchins could prove costly to Pitt's special teams.
There are a number of concerns for the Pitt football team in 2011. For starters, the team has installed a new offense. Todd Graham is the team's new head coach and is still in somewhat of an adjustment period. Perhaps most importantly, the team lost several key players to the NFL this past spring. Factor in the Panthers' difficult non-conference schedule this year and it might appear that the team has a recipe for disaster.
A weak Big East slate will ensure that Pitt doesn't fall completely off the map, but there's another concern that fans should have when looking at the upcoming season: Special teams.
The unit, which has been respectable in recent years, is in for a major overhaul. Most notably, gone is All-Big East First Team punter/kicker Dan Hutchins. Hutchins had the starter for two years and will be sorely missed. He nailed more than 75 percent of his field goals in his career, and while he didn't have the strongest leg, he was accurate.
In addition, he had turned into a first-rate punter, averaging just under 45 yards per punt last season. His deep punts often put Pitt opponents in bad field position, an underrated weapon in football.
Hutchins will be replaced in part by junior kicker Kevin Harper. Harper was known for having the stronger leg, but lacking in accuracy. Barring the unexpected, he'll enter the season as the starting kicker without much controversy. The punting duties are still up for grabs among three walk-ons - Matt Yoklic, Aaron Hassett, and Drake Greer.
Pitt's kicking and punting situations could end up just fine. But heading into the season there are questions, to be sure.
The kick return game is expected to be handled by WR Cameron Saddler and CB Buddy Jackson. Jackson was given a chance to return kicks in the Spring and both could battle it out in the Fall for the starting spot. Saddler was mostly reliable last season, but had his share of miscues including a key fumble against Miami. Jackson should help shore up that position, but will still be new to it.
Pitt doesn't need its special teams to be spectacular next yea,r and avoiding miscues will go a long way towards a successful season.