No. 53: Pittsburgh
By Paul Myerberg // Jul 17, 2012
Take a deep breath… Dave Wannstedt was fired on Dec. 7, 2010. Then-defensive coordinator Phil Bennett was his interim replacement through Jan. 8, 2011. Former Miami (Ohio) head coach Mike Haywood was hired as Wannstedt’s permanent replacement on Dec. 17, 2010, lasing in that spot until Jan. 2, 2011, when he was fired following his arrest on a domestic violence charge. On Jan. 11, Pittsburgh hired former Tulsa head coach Todd Graham. Twelve games and less than 12 months later, on Dec. 14, Graham jilted the Panthers for Arizona State – his “dream job,” of course. The Panthers were led through bowl play by interim head coach Keith Patterson. On Dec. 22, the program hired former Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst to be its fourth permanent head coach and sixth head coach overall in 380 days.
12 (8 offense, 4 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 1
- Sept. 6
- Sept. 15
- Sept. 22
- Oct. 5
- Oct. 13
- Oct. 20
- Oct. 27
- Nov. 3
at Notre Dame
- Nov. 9
- Nov. 24
- Dec. 1
Last year’s prediction
So there’s plenty to like, and Pittsburgh is nipping at West Virginia’s heels as we prepare for the Big East in 2011. What’s holding the Panthers back? Not that much, really, but enough to make you think twice about making this team the conference favorite heading into September. Sunseri is not built for this system, to be blunt. The back seven of the defense isn’t great, though we should include Lindsay as a piece of the linebacker corps, at least in part. And you worry about whether this team can fit Graham’s philosophy on each side of the ball: this team is built for a pro-style, 4-3 system, so look for some growing pains this fall. But there are seniors to help bridge the learning curve, which will help, and the program has a fine coach in Graham to help seal things together throughout the season. Pittsburgh’s going to be good, like 8-4 good, but I think it’ll take a year to get everything in order.
In a nutshell It’s hard to take this step, seeing that the Panthers were never overly impressive even in victory, but this team was close to making a breakthrough in Graham’s one and only season with the program. Outside of a two-week span in October, when Pittsburgh dropped games to Rutgers and Utah by a combined 36 points, the Panthers were very much in every regular season loss. They just threw away a sure win against Iowa, giving up 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter in a 31-27 loss. After keeping Notre Dame in check for all of three quarters and most of a fourth – giving up only one touchdown, on a 79-yard defensive breakdown – Pitt’s defense faltered for one drive in the fourth quarter. The Panthers held double-digit leads against both Cincinnati and West Virginia but still lost, by three points and one point, respectively. Pitt didn’t show up for a bowl loss to S.M.U., but that was to be expected: this entire program was completely demoralized. But even if the Panthers went 6-6 during the regular season, this was an eight-win team – both in overall talent, which was high, and in the fact that three or four games could have gone either way.
High point Two solid wins during Big East play. The Panthers whipped on then-No. 16 South Florida, 44-17, showcasing the sort of offensive balance that Graham’s system brought to the table: 216 yards passing, 307 yards on the ground. On Nov. 12, a 21-14 win at Louisville cost the Cardinals the conference title.
Low point One final conference loss to West Virginia. What makes the loss doubly painful – though it doesn’t need the help – is the fact that Pitt could have reached a B.C.S. bowl had it not blown its third quarter lead. Take that game and avoid a similar letdown late against Cincinnati and the Panthers are in sole possession of first place in the Big East.
Tidbit With the rivalry dead, perhaps revived in the future on a non-conference basis, a few notes on the Backyard Brawl. The series began in 1895, with West Virginia pulling out an 8-0 win, and ran annually from 1920 through last fall with a three-year break from 1940-42. Pitt held the all-time lead in the series at 61-40-3, thanks in large part to a streak of 23 wins in 25 tries from 1924-51. The Mountaineers owned the series over the last two generations, however, going 18-9-2 from 1983-2011. Overall, the Panthers outscored W.V.U. by 2,092-1,606 and held seven winning streaks of three or more games: 1904-8 (no game in 1905), 1910-21 (no games from 1911-12, 1914-16 and 1918), 1924-27, 1929-1946 (no games from 1940-42), 1948-51, 1954-56 and 1976-82. One more thing: Pitt gave up a total of 12 points to W.V.U. over an 11-game span from 1930-43 – nine shutouts, and six points allowed in both 1934 and 1935.
Tidbit (red zone edition) Pittsburgh was the only team in the Big East to not suffer one turnover in the red zone during the regular season. In all, the Panthers went into the postseason having converted 40 of 43 tries inside the red zone, with the three point-free trips coming via missed field goals. Pitt would go 1-3 in the red zone in the bowl loss to S.M.U., however, and early in the second quarter, looking to move back into the game, would toss an interception at the five-yard line.
Former players in the N.F.L.
28 DT Chas Alexcih (Miami), WR Jon Baldwin (Kansas City), CB Aaron Berry (Detroit), TE Nate Byham (San Francisco), OG C.J. Davis (Denver), LB Dom DeCicco (Chicago), WR Dorin Dickerson (Buffalo), WR Larry Fitzgerald (Arizona), LB Max Gruder (Atlanta), FB Henry Hynoski (New York Giants), CB Buddy Jackson (Indianapolis), P Andy Lee (San Francisco), RB Dion Lewis (Philadelphia), OG John Malecki (Pittsburgh), RB LeSean McCoy (Philadelphia), C Mike McGlynn (Indianapolis), LB Scott McKillop (Buffalo), OG Lucas Nix (Oakland), OT Jeff Otah (Carolina), OG Jason Pinkston (Cleveland), CB Antwuan Reed (Cleveland), CB Darrelle Revis (New York Jets), DE Greg Romeus (New Orleans), LB Clint Session (Jacksonville), DE Jabaal Sheard (Cleveland), CB Shawntae Spencer (Oakland), RB LaRod Stephens-Howling (Arizona), LB Greg Williams (Houston).
Arbitrary top five list
Pittsburgh’s best wins over West Virginia
1. 2007: Panthers 13, Mountaineers 9.
2. 1976: Panthers 24, Mountaineers 16.
3. 1963: Panthers 13, Mountaineers 10.
4. 1955: Panthers 26, Mountaineers 7.
5. 2004: Panthers 16, Mountaineers 13.
Paul Chryst (Wisconsin ’88), entering his first season. Chryst was hired last December to not only lend some consistency and continuity to a program searching for direction, but also to lead Pittsburgh away from Todd Graham’s spread system and back into the pro-style offense that better fits the program’s current personnel and its vision moving forward. If Pitt was looking for an offense-first, pro-style head coach, it couldn’t have done much better than Chryst, the former offensive coordinator at Oregon State and Wisconsin. While it’s with the Badgers that Chryst made his name on a national level, his first taste of major college football came as Mike Riley’s first coordinator at Oregon State. He spent two years with the Beavers, from 1997-98, helping the program land its first five-win season since 1971; he left with Riley for the N.F.L., serving as his tight ends coach with the San Diego Chargers from 1998-2001. He returned to college football at Wisconsin – his alma mater, by the way – in 2002, as the Badgers’ tight ends coach, before rejoining Riley at O.S.U. from 2003-4. In 2005, Chryst was hired as Wisconsin’s co-offensive coordinator and tight ends coach; a year later, he took sole possession of coordinator duties and coached the quarterbacks under Bret Bielema. The last six seasons of Wisconsin football, with Chryst the engine behind the powerful and dynamic offense, have the been the finest in program history. The Badgers won at least 10 games four times from 2006-11, including a combined 32 wins over Chryst’s final three seasons with the program – reaching the Rose Bowl in both 2010 and 2011. Chryst’s final offense scored a program-record 618 points, bettering the team’s 539-point outburst in 2010, and topped the 40-point mark nine times. While pursued by a few N.F.L. teams looking for a top-notch coordinator in 2009 and 2010, Chryst patiently waited for the opportunity to take over a B.C.S. conference program; Pittsburgh called, and wisely, Chryst took advantage of this opportunity. His vision meshes well with what the program wants to achieve: Pitt wants to get tougher, more physical and more explosive on offense, and it should be those things once Chryst gets this house in order.
Tidbit (coaching edition) Chryst’s first staff has a decided Wisconsin feel, even if his first choice as offensive coordinator, former U.W. offensive line coach Bob Bostad, left in February to become the line coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Two assistants came with Chryst from Madison: offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Joe Rudolph, who coaches the Badgers’ tight ends, and defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable, the former linebackers coach. Another pair have deep ties to Wisconsin: quarterbacks coach Brooks Bollinger, whom Chryst plucked out of the high school ranks in Minnesota, was a four-year starter at quarterback for the Badgers, from 1999-2002, and line coach Jim Hueber held the same position at U.W. from 1995-2005.
Rounding out Chryst’s offensive staff are wide receivers coach Bobby Engram, one of the most prolific receivers in Penn State’s history, and running backs coach Desmond Robinson. Serving under Huxtable are defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield, linebackers coach Chris Haering and secondary coach Matt House. Breckterfield spent last season in the same capacity at U.C.L.A.; Haering comes off the Pennsylvania high school ranks; and House, who once held the same position at Buffalo, spent the last four seasons as a quality control assistant in the N.F.L.
Players to watch
Everything is lined up for Tino Sunseri to cap his career with a strong senior season. He’s now a senior with two years of starting experience under his belt. Unlike the spread system in which Sunseri struggled, Chryst’s pro-style offense is a nice fit for his skill set – and remember that Sunseri played well, though not spectacularly, in a similar system as a sophomore. After entering spring ball on an even plane with three other contenders, Sunseri cemented his hold on the starting role with a series of strong drills and scrimmages. Most of all, this offensive line will go from being historically inept in protection to a bit more stingy, giving Sunseri the time he needs to deliver the ball on passing downs.
Chryst’s offense will also delegate responsibility, perhaps taking some pressure off of Sunseri’s shoulders. This will be a good thing not only for this offense but for its quarterback, as Sunseri is obviously not the sort of quarterback capable of being the centerpiece of a dynamic attack. In short, when used properly, Sunseri can be a caretaker – someone who can avoid turnovers, work well in play-action and prevent defenses from putting an eighth man in the box. That’s his ceiling, and if Sunseri brings just that to the table it’s easy to see Pitt making a nice move in most statistical categories.
Chryst and this staff merely hope that last season was an aberration. In Sunseri’s defense, his dreadful junior campaign was stymied by the ill-fitting scheme change and the incompetence of his offensive line; if you rectify those factors – one has already been fixed – Sunseri will do just fine. If he fails to recover his confidence, Sunseri could very well be replaced by sophomore Trey Anderson or incoming freshman Chad Voytik. Chryst doesn’t want that, even if Voytik is the clear future at the position: he wants Sunseri to be his starter, eliminating his turnovers and taking advantage of the opportunities that will come his way thanks to a strong running game.
Sunseri also has the benefit of working with a very deep and experienced receiver corps. The team’s go-to target will again be junior Devin Street (53 receptions for 754 yards), who did a nice job last fall despite the team’s inability to chew up yards with consistency in the passing game. But Street, like senior Mike Shanahan (39 for 493) – he’ll be ready for August after undergoing back surgery over the winter – is better suited for a pro-style system; both are bigger receivers, not the smaller, shiftier options made to gain yards after the catch in the spread.
Street and Shanahan will start, backed up by a very nice blend of experience and promising youth. Senior Cam Saddler (19 for 207) had a very good spring; while stymied by some knee issues throughout his career, Saddler can be a very valuable third option if he can play at 100 percent throughout the season. Sophomore Ronald Jones (17 for 143) had a nice final month to his rookie season. The Panthers can also turn to senior Joshua Brinson, junior Ed Tinker and sophomores Salath Williams and Brendon Felder. Add in an all-conference tight end like Hubie Graham (28 for 325), a former Illinois transfer, and his backup, Drew Carswell – who could be a dangerous pure receiver at tight end – and you get one of the Big East’s best receiver corps.
Last fall’s knee injury prevented senior Ray Graham from participating in spring ball, but Chryst and this staff are planning on having the all-conference contender ready to go come August. Prior to suffering that season-ending injury against Connecticut in October, Graham was averaging a Big East-best 133.6 yards per game to go with nine touchdowns – he had cracked the 200-yard mark twice in his first seven games, and was on pace for one of the most prolific seasons by a running back in school history. Obviously, Graham should be highly motivated to get back into game form before September; not only is he entering his final season, but there’s every reason to think that if healthy, Graham is going to put up a huge season playing in this offense.
While some expect true freshman Rushel Shell to step right into the mix as Graham’s backup – or even the starter, should Graham not be ready for the season opener – it won’t be easy for him to move ahead of sophomore Isaac Bennett (237 yards), who had a superb spring. Bennett was thrust into the mix over the final five games of last season following Graham’s injury, when he split time with then-senior Zach Brown, so that experience does give him a leg up over his freshman competition. If Graham is ready to go, Pitt can team him with Shell and Bennett to form a very nice three-headed backfield. And if Graham is healthy, he’s going to make a run at 1,800 yards and some national hardware. This running game should flourish from the start in Chryst’s offense.
As on offense, the Panthers’ defense will move back into a system not only more tailored for the team’s personnel but also one quite familiar to the vast majority of this roster. After one year in a 3-4 base set, Pitt moves back into a 4-3 system. While the transition comes with its growing pains – moving back and forth and back again must have the Panthers’ heads spinning – it is, like the scheme change on offense, the best move for the program’s present and its future.
Two things to like about this defense heading into September: one, this group was actually pretty strong last year, if only due to the supreme individual effort put forth by three or four now-departed seniors; and two, Huxtable and the Panthers have enough returning pieces to move fairly seamlessly back into a four-linemen formation. The Panthers might be stronger inside, but I’d rather have weapons inside and be forced to bring pressure off the edge from the second level than have those roles be reversed – as with any defense, it pays to be able to stop the run with regularity.
The star of this defense is junior Aaron Donald (47 tackles, 16.0 for loss, 11.0 sacks), a converted end who will play inside in this system. While not overly big, Donald is strong enough to handle interior linemen against the run; in addition, he’s a proven pass rusher who will demand double-teams on clear passing downs. That should open things up for ends Shayne Hale, T.J. Clemmings and Bryan Murphy, the Panthers’ top three on the outside. Getting production out of Hale will be key: now a senior, Hale’s growth has been hampered by the scheme changes and the program’s logjam at the position over the last two years.
Yes, this line is inexperienced. And yes, there’s a lot of pressure on Donald to deliver inside. But one fact to keep in mind is that the top group is littered with major recruits: Donald, who has already produced at an all-Big East level, Hale, Murphy, Clemmings and nose tackle Khaynin Mosely-Smith. The latter trio, all sophomores, are unknown only because they had trouble breaking into last fall’s three-lineman rotation. Each has the talent to make an immediate impact. It’s easy to find warning signs amid the inexperience, but don’t sleep on the line’s overall talent base.
The Panthers’ rebuilding project continues at linebacker, where Huxtable and Haering will break in three new starters. Due to injuries, Pitt wasn’t able to cement down a trio during spring ball. One player who could impact the rest of the lineup is junior Dan Mason, who is still working his way back to 100 percent after suffering a horrific knee injury during the 2010 season. Prior to his injury, Mason looked every bit like the program’s next all-conference middle linebacker; if he can regain his former agility and mobility, Mason will give Pitt’s run defense a significant boost – after seeing how his career was sidelined, here’s hoping that Mason can get back on track.
If Mason can’t go, or if the knee issues continue to slow him down, the Panthers will move sophomore Ejuan Price (27 tackles, 4.0 sacks) into the middle. Last year’s rush outside linebacker, Price is a better fit outside, even if he has the size to shed blockers at inside linebacker. If both Mason and Thomas are ready to go come September, Pitt can put Mason in the middle, Price on the strong side and Thomas on the weak side. If both are unavailable, Pitt flank Price with sophomore Eric Williams and junior Shane Gordon (22 tackles).
[You may have noticed that midway through the above section on the Panthers' linebackers, I went from calling Dan Mason by his given name to referring to him as "Morgan." Fixed above -- thanks to PittBlather.com for the help. In my defense, I had obviously mixed up my two injury-prone middle linebackers. Ignore the fact that Mason and Morgan, the former Miami (Fla.) linebacker, bear no resemblance whatsoever.]
Only Rutgers can match the Panthers’ depth in the secondary. The only question at safety is how to best utilize four players with ample experience: seniors Jared Holley (67 tackles) and Andrew Taglianetti (49 tackles), junior Jason Hendricks (36 tackles) and sophomore Ray Vinopal. The latter, a former transfer from Michigan, is eligible after sitting out last season. Holley, who dealt with injury issues during the spring, started all 13 games of last season at free safety; Hendricks joined him at strong safety through the Utah game, with Taglianetti replacing an injured Hendricks for the year’s last six games.
All four will play – with Holley the only unquestioned starter – giving this defense enough flexibility to create several different looks in the secondary. Another former Michigan transfer, sophomore Cullen Christian, is expected to join junior K’Waun Williams (64 tackles, 1 interception) in the starting lineup at cornerback. If so, Christian needs to be up to the challenge: teams are not going to test Williams, a burgeoning star who will end this season as one of the top two cornerbacks in the Big East.
There’s some room for improvement on special teams. The Panthers need to find a replacement for Buddy Jackson in the return game, with Ronald Jones – who handled punt returns last fall – the team’s best option. Now a senior, kicker Kevin Harper doesn’t have the leg to make field goals of 40-plus yards or contribute much on kickoffs; however, Harper is one of several kickers who will benefit from the new kickoff rules. What the Panthers do as well as anyone, however, is limit what opponents can do in the return game. In addition, Taglianetti is one of the nation’s best when it comes to blocking punts.
Position battle(s) to watch
Offensive line Due to the change in scheme, a lack of depth and wall-to-wall injuries, last year’s offensive line allowed an F.B.S.-record 63.0 sacks – sneaking past Rutgers’ previous low-water mark by allowing seven sacks in the bowl loss to S.M.U. For the Panthers, the search for greater consistency begins and ends with the one thing out of the team’s control: injuries. Simply put, this offense cannot afford to move beyond an already inexperienced starting five; doing so would again cripple Sunseri’s chances at a rebound while slowing down a promising running game.
While he wasn’t able to participate in spring ball, senior left guard Chris Jacobson – who landed a sixth season of eligibility – is expected to be ready to go come August. Returning Jacobson, who missed all but the first three games of last season due to injury, dramatically alters the makeup of Pitt’s starting five: Jacobson moves back to left guard, pushing one of juniors Cory King and Ryan Schlieper into a reserve role – with the competition for right guard settled during fall camp. At tackle, Pitt spent most of the spring with a pairing of sophomore Matt Rootheram and junior Juantez Hollins. Both are plus-sized, to put it lightly, and both earned enough playing time last fall – including six starts at left tackle for Hollins – to take on larger roles without much difficulty. The lone returning full-time starter is senior Ryan Turnley, who is one of the Big East’s best.
Bringing back Jacobson gives Pitt some much-needed experience. If healthy, he’ll team with Turnley to solidify the interior of the line. But tackle play is a concern, as is depth along the second level. While the Panthers will embrace the move back to a more physical blocking scheme, and while the line will make a drastic improvement upon last year’s numbers in pass protection, this group as a whole remains a significant concern heading into September. While Hueber brings years and years of experience to the table, it would have been nice to see what Bostad could have pulled out of this group.
Game(s) to watch
November games against Rutgers and South Florida may decide the final Big East standings, but in my mind, the biggest games on the Panthers’ schedule come against Cincinnati and Syracuse. It’s highly likely that Pitt plays its best football late, once the offense and defense get on the same page with this new coaching staff; therefore, netting wins in both of those games would leave the Panthers in a great spot heading into the second half of the season. In all, Pitt will play six games at home and six games on the road, with four of those road games coming during conference play. Included in this bunch are three road games in four tries to end the regular season, with Connecticut, Notre Dame and U.S.F. sandwiching a home date with Rutgers. It’s not the toughest schedule in football by any means – in fact, it’s easier than some of the program’s recent schedules. Nevertheless, the Panthers’ upcoming slate does provide some reason for concern, mostly because of the many road games and the difficult close.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell You feel for a roster that has been through more coaching incarnations over the last 16 months than most programs experience in a generation. Even if Chryst and his staff will bring Pittsburgh back into its comfort zone, it’s going to be hard for the Panthers to grasp a third system – new verbiage, new calls, new alignments, new voices – in as many years. That’s one reason to keep Pitt out of the top group in the Big East heading into September. There’s more: quarterback play remains a concern, as is depth at the position; the offensive line will be better, though it would be hard not to improve upon last season’s incompetence; the defensive line is very talented but unproven – even if I don’t think is a huge concern, as noted earlier; and the Panthers are making wholesale changes at linebacker. Personnel concerns, coaching moves, scheme changes: Pitt has a workable schedule in its favor, but I can’t see a way that this team makes a run towards a B.C.S. bowl in Chryst’s debut season.
But I can think of a few ways in which Chryst can be an immediate hit. For starters, the team’s personnel is built for a 4-3 defense and a pro-style offense; while the roster will need to get back into the swing of things, the veteran leadership on both sides of the ball will help ease the transition. In addition, Chryst has a proven ability to get the most out of his offense – whether rebuilding at quarterback and the offensive line or otherwise. Finally, this defense could again be among the top two or three in the Big East if the several underclassmen along the front seven play beyond their youth. It wouldn’t be impossible for Pitt to win eight or nine games in the regular season and make a run to the B.C.S. – it’s just not probable. Considering what this program has been through since last December, winning seven games, four in the Big East, would be a solid accomplishment in Chryst’s first season.
Dream season The Panthers open 1-2, losing at Cincinnati and to Virginia Tech at home, but turn on the jets once the calendar turns to October. The Panthers lose only once more, at Notre Dame, and reach a B.C.S. bowl at 9-3 overall, 6-1 in the Big East.
Nightmare season Pitt notches a pair of wins over F.C.S. competition, a win at Buffalo and a Big East win against Temple. But that’s it: the Panthers go 4-8 overall, 1-6 in conference play.
In case you were wondering
Where do Pittsburgh fans congregate? Pittsburgh fans can find impressive recruiting coverage and message board chatter at Panther Lair, Panther Digest and Panther247.com. For a blog’s take, visit Pitt Blather and Cardiac Hill.
Pittsburgh’s all-name nominee CB Lafayette Pitts.
Through 72 teams 281,082.
Who is No. 52? The head coach at tomorrow’s program is one of 10 in the F.B.S. with four or more vowels in his last name. Of the 10, this head coach is one of two to win a national title as an offensive assistant. Of those two, he is the only one whose last name does not end in a vowel.
Tags: A.C.C., Aaron Donald, Big East, Bryan Murphy, Chris Jacobson, Cullen Christian, Dan Mason, Dave Huxtable, Devin Street, Eljuan Price, Hubie Graham, Isaac Bennett, Jared Holley, Jim Hueber, Joe Rudolph, K'Waun Williams, Kevin Harper, Mike Shanahan, Paul Chryst, Pittsburgh, Ray Graham, Ray Vinopal, Rushel Shell, Ryan Turnley, Shayne Hale, Tino Sunseri, Todd Graham
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