We return to the 2012 opponent previews today with the second part of the Pittsburgh posts. If you missed the first part, it’s right here.
To the questions …
AB: The Panthers have had more head coaching turnover in the last year and a half than most teams have in a decade, going from Dave Wannstedt to Mike Haywood to Todd Graham to Paul Chryst. How much of an impact has that had on the program and does Pitt feel like it has the right man for the job now?
PZ: “The university does believe it finally got this right with the hiring of Paul Chryst. He is an old school, sort of meat and potatoes type of blue collar guy who the people in Pittsburgh certainly can identify with. He is the anti-Todd Graham in so many ways – he’s humble, he’s honest and he doesn’t act as if he is smarter than everybody else in the room. This has already endeared him to a city that had enough of ‘high octane’ football and Graham’s continued self promotion. Chryst will take the Panthers back to the pro-style offense, which is a good thing because most of the team was recruited to play that way by Dave Wannstedt.
“But make no mistake, there is a lot of work to be done as the damage to the program has been significant. They’ve essentially lost two recruiting classes, there is a lot of mistrust of the administration and Graham and his staff did a lot to alienate the Pitt program from area high school coaches, members of the football community and the Steelers, who, up until last year had a great working relationship with Pitt and that’s important as the two teams share facilities and a stadium. Chryst has begun to restore that credibility within the community but the roster has some serious holes so again, there is a lot of work to be done.”
AB: Two-year starting quarterback Tino Sunseri (2,616 yards, 10 TD, 11 INT) staked his claim to the starting spot during spring. What kind of senior season is he capable of having?
PZ: “I think Tino Sunseri will be better than he was last year, though that is not exactly going to be hard to do as he struggled for much of the season. But a lot of that had to do with the fact that he never grew comfortable in Graham’s high octane spread offense. In that offense, he was asked to take quick drops out of the shotgun snap, make quick decisions and that just isn’t his game. He grew up in the pro-style offense and he looked far more comfortable this spring than he did at any point last year. Now, he is back under center, taking the five and seven-step drops and play action and it is far more conducive to his talent.
“That being said, he has some limitations so coaches are looking at him to be more of a game manager than a guy who is going to be asked to win games. As long as he avoids taking bad sacks and throwing killer interceptions – two things he seemed to specialize in last year – and makes a few plays he will give the Panthers a chance to win every week as their defense and running game should be pretty good.”
AB: Running back Ray Graham had an All-Big East season with 958 rushing yards before suffering a knee injury. Will he assume the starting role once he is healthy again or will he have competition for that spot?
PZ: “He will be the starter but the backfield is crowded and if he isn’t 100 percent he will find himself in a stiff competition for playing time. The Panthers have Isaac Bennett returning and coming off an excellent spring and then heralded recruit, Rushel Shell, coming in so the running game will be in great shape. Graham will likely get back to form and have a great season for two reasons – one, he is very talented and two, he is one of the hardest workers on the team. He is determined to get back, finish his career strong and give himself a chance at an NFL career. I expect him to have a big season provided he stays healthy.”
AB: How will an offensive line that was plagued by injuries last year fare now that the team is transitioning from a spread offense to the power pro-style scheme that Chryst uses?
PZ: “The offensive line has been very inconsistent and has some holes but it will benefit from two things – the pro-style offense of Chryst and the coaching of veteran offensive line coach Jim Hueber. The scheme will help because it will utilize more two tight end sets as well as a fullback and that means the five guys up front will have help, particularly on the edges and that’s a good thing as the tackle position is a big question. Also, the run-blocking schemes allow for more pulling and trapping by the guards and to a man they all talked at length about how nice it is to be able to hit guys again as opposed to standing around waiting to be hit. Hueber’s work with the group was easy to see from the start of spring to the end as the unit improved its run blocking almost daily. There is still a long way to go in pass blocking but again, with the help of a tight end and fullback, the unit should be better equipped to protect the quarterback enough to give the passing game a chance to be successful.”
AB: The defense lost seven starters from last year, including All-Big East pick and leading tackler Max Gruder at linebacker. What’s the strength of the group Pitt will put out there this season? And how much different will it look under new defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable?
PZ: “The defense, if healthy, could be the best defensive unit in the Big East and one of the best in the country, at least statistically as the starting 11 should be very, very good. The issue is depth, as in, there isn’t any, particularly on the offensive line and at linebacker. But the secondary is very deep and should be a strength of the team as there are four safeties who could start for most teams and an all-conference corner to go with three talented youngsters fighting for one open corner spot.
“The defense will be much different – last year the Panthers were a three-man front and usually had a 3-5 look to them though sometimes they showed a four-man front, especially later in the season. This year, they are back to a standard 4-3 defense, more like the pro’s (and much more like the defense they played during the Wannstedt era) and they will line up with eight men in the box to try and stuff opposing running games. The team won’t blitz as much they did last year, but it will blitz some. The key is the defensive line, which has one of the top defensive tackles in the Big East, Aaron Donald, leading the way.”
So there it is: another opponent preview in the books. I, for one, am looking forward to the Pitt game, if for no other reason than getting a chance to visit Pittsburgh again, a place I haven’t been since covering UVa in the 2006 opener (I believe Darrelle Revis had a pick-6, one of two for Pitt in the game).
I assume Virginia Tech would enter this game as a decent favorite. The Panthers will still be adapting to Chryst’s way of doing things. While I think he’ll be good in the long haul — those Wisconsin offenses the last few years were rock solid — it’ll take time to get the right pieces in place and used to the type of game he calls. Pitt’s defense looks formidable, although it too will be undergoing a schematic change. My guess would be it’s better to play the Panthers early in the season this year rather than late.
Pitt might not be a marquee BCS non-conference opponent like the Hokies have had in recent seasons (LSU, Alabama, Boise State) and future ones (Alabama, Ohio State, Wisconsin), but it certainly is a decent early-season matchup.