Today’s featured team: Pittsburgh Panthers
Pittsburgh enters 2012’s spring practices disappointed, and employing their third head coach in as many years. Not surprisingly, those two items are also linked. As predicted by many around the game, former coach Todd Graham lasted just one season in the Steel City. He failed to truly change any part of a stagnant offense and the team he leaves behind is in a more confused state than the one he inherited. So new head coach Paul Chryst has his work cut out for him, needing role players on both ends to show themselves as leaders from day one of spring ball. First in line on that front is — of course — quarterback Tino Sunseri. Inconsistent as they come, he’ll enter camp with no guarantees about his job status, and will face stiff competition all around. Along with returning reserves Trey Anderson and Mark Myers, there’s additional buzz that redshirt freshman Chad Voytik could actually be the best quarterback on the roster. For this horrendous passing unit (77th nationally in 2011), any sure arm will do, even if there’s little to throw to. Devin Street and Mike Shanahan could improve, but should they fail to, Pitt will once again rely on the run. This is where incumbent starter Ray Graham comes in handy. Arguably one of the best backs in the game, Graham will be unavailable this spring, leaving initial reps to Isaac Bennett and Corey Davis. Come the fall, expect this rotation to be a fierce one-two punch of Graham and five-star back Rushel Shell, who’s certain to continue the schools’ recent tradition of pro-caliber rushers.
The Pittsburgh defense was a large part of their ability to remain competitive come the end of 2011, and the same will likely be true in 2012. Only problem is depth — so that’s where the spring will focus. Standout end Aaron Donald is back for his junior year, but the team has also graduated several of his cohorts on the front line. What remains will be a collection of youth; sophomores like LaQuentin Smith and T.J. Clemmings will all get a shot to prove themselves before the recruits show up this fall, and will likely make the most of it. The same will go for the rest of the defensive unit, too. Of the 11 players slated to start this spring, only two — safeties Jarred Holley and Andrew Taglianetti — are seniors. If Chryst wants leaders out of this young defense, those two may just be his guys. And they’ll need to be if the team hopes to keep pace amidst a tough schedule. While good coverage led to better pressure (43 sacks) last season, the team failed to force the amount of turnovers that really turn games around. If there’s any area for improvement to highlight in the spring for the seniors, that would be the best place to focus in on.
As mentioned, Chryst has a rough road ahead, but there’s enough there already that he can jump out to a quick start. If Graham’s back and healthy, and Sunseri (or another passer) can show consistency behind center, this offense could show some new life. The quarterback position at Pittsburgh doesn’t have to be flashy, but it does need to help out the run everyone once in a while. Given Chryst’s track record of successful backs at Wisconsin and Graham and Shell’s skillsets, it might be a perfect match.
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