2011 Pitt Preview - Offense
Pitt QB Tino Sunseri
Pitt QB Tino Sunseri
Posted May 11, 2011

CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - Pittsburgh Offense

Pitt Panthers

Preview 2011 - Offense

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What you need to know: It's not the spread. That's the message Todd Graham is trying to convey as his offense gets improperly labeled by casual observers. Despite what you've heard, Pitt is not about to become Western Pennsylvania's version of Texas Tech, throwing the ball from the moment it gets off the bus. Up-tempo? Yes. No-huddle. You bet. However, Graham does not plan to abandon the running game. In fact, he craves balance, often running first and then burning defenses on play-action. His Tulsa team was No. 15 nationally on the ground, something you'll never see in Lubbock. The staff's top offseason priority will be making sure that QB Tino Sunseri is the right man to guide this offense into a new era. A starter in 2010, the new staff has different expectations and measurements of success. The two players to keep an eye on are RB Ray Graham and WR Devin Street, who both have high ceilings and will fit in nicely in the revised attack.

Returning Leaders
Passing: Tino Sunseri
223-346, 2,572 yds, 16 TDs, 9 INTs
Rushing: Ray Graham
148 carries, 922 yds, 8 TDs
Receiving: Mike Shanahan
43 catches, 589 yds, 1 TD

Star of the offense: Junior RB Ray Graham
Players who has to step up and become a star:Junior QB Tino Sunseri
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore WR Devin Street
Best pro prospect: Senior C Chris Jacobson
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Graham, 2) Jacobson, 3) Street
Strength of the offense: The running game, yards after the catch, physicality of the O-line
Weakness of the offense: Inconsistency at quarterback, depth at receiver, converting in the red zone


State of the Unit: The Panther quarterbacks are about to get a crash course in what it takes to play the position in a Todd Graham offense. At Rice and Tulsa, some of the coach's most effective passers didn't have the biggest arms or prototypical size. What they had were a good feel for the up-tempo system, accuracy, and the ability to escape pressure and make something happen on the move. All of the current Pitt quarterbacks were recruited to run a very different, pro-style offense. Adjusting to a new scheme and playbook will be their biggest challenge.

Is 6-2, 210-pound junior Tino Sunseri an ideal fit for the new attack? No, but that rarely happens when a new regime takes over. Sunseri is, however, a returning starter and the heavy favorite to retain that title when Buffalo visits Sept. 3. As expected, he had ups-and-downs in his debut, struggling in big games and on deep balls, but those 13 starts were irreplaceable. A respected, with enough zip on his passes to make it in this offense, he opened by going 223-of-346 for 2,572 yards, 16 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. If anything, he built a bigger lead on the competition in March and April.

The real competition is for the backup job, a duel between two redshirt freshmen, 6-3, 215-pound Anthony Gonzales and 6-4, 225-pound Mark Myers . A highly-regarded and athletic member of the 2010 class, Gonzalez decided to remain in state rather than attend other prominent programs, such as Florida State or Stanford. A lefty, Myers might have the strongest arm of the trio, but is not nearly as light on his feet.

Watch Out For .... the learning curve to remain steep right into the start of the season. One offseason will not be enough for the Panther quarterbacks to master the nuances of a markedly different system. It'll be a work-in-progress, with fewer mistakes the goal as the season progresses.
Strength: A returning starter. Say what you will about Sunseri's comfort level in the new offense, but a full season of experience is a luxury for any new coaching staff. Already a poised and confident performer, he saw plenty in 2010, which will dramatically help his development this fall.
Weakness: Consistency. At face value, Sunseri's numbers appear respectable for a first-time starter. However, digging a little deeper reveals that he was erratic and threw just four touchdown passes over the final six games. Not only must he become a more prominent part of the offense, but he'll have to do so with the added burden of digesting a new offense.
Outlook: Just how well will Pitt adapt to a suped-up, no-huddle offense? The answer begins right here, with the play of the quarterbacks. Sunseri is the starter, a tough and experienced Panther looking to display some versatility in his game. He'll likely have two years and an enormous opportunity to flourish in an offense designed to accentuate the skills of the man behind center.
Rating: 6.5

Running Backs

State of the Unit: Just because the new offense moves at a frenetic pace and is perpetually in motion does not mean it'll abandon the run. On the contrary. Todd Graham's teams have run it well wherever he's been, ranking 15th nationally on the ground at Tulsa last fall. Unfortunately for the Panthers, the backfield lost two players to early entry into the 2011 NFL Draft, TB Dion Lewis and FB Henry Hynoski. Hynoski recognized that his role might be phased out, but Lewis might have been wise to stick around for another year.

Lewis' questionable decision will wind up being a boon to 5-9, 195-pound junior Ray Graham , who no longer must split carries. He's the focal point of a running game looking to employ his myriad skills. Despite starting just twice, he still rushed for 922 yards and eight scores on 148 carries, adding 24 catches for 213 yards and a pair of touchdowns. A downhill, one-cut runner, it doesn't take a lot of movement for him to bolt into the secondary. Plus, his soft hands will be an added bonus in this system.

At least for now, 5-9, 185-pound junior Desmond Brown is enjoying being the backup to Graham at a very thin position. A former walk-on and the brother of Pittsburgh Steeler WR Antonio Brown, he has no relevant experience, but plenty of speed and a determination to earn a scholarship.

Watch Out For .... for the arrival of the rookies. In the spring, the Panthers had one scholarship back on the roster. In August, that number grows to five. The new staff went from D.C. to Tennessee to bolster the position, which could mean Brown's stay as the No. 2 is a brief one.
Strength: Graham. A genuine sleeper heading into 2011, he's capable of being one of the nation's breakout stars of September. Although he runs with the determination that you'd expect from a Pittsburgh back, he also has the finesse to help this offense in a number of different ways.
Weakness: Depth. Walk-ons in a prominent role make for good copy, but are hardly ideal situations for a school such as Pitt. Like it or not, the Panthers will either have to overload Graham with carries or immediately elevate one of the true freshmen into the two-hole.
Outlook: As far as Grahams go, Ray has a chance to eclipse head coach Todd in terms of notoriety this fall. He's a very talented runner, stepping out of Lewis' shadow and into an offense that fits his skill set. As long as the rest of the attack carries its share of the weight, the junior is capable of piling up as many as 1,500 total yards in 2011.
Rating: 7.5


State of the Unit: Now more than ever, as Pitt shifts to more three-wide sets, it would have been nice to have the services of star receiver Jon Baldwin. However, he's a member of the Kansas City Chiefs, having relinquished his final year of college eligibility. Not only will the Panthers be looking for another go-to guy in the passing game, but also more depth to support the handful of holdovers.

The program is excited about the future of 6-4, 190-pound sophomore Devin Street , the starter on the outside, or "X" receiver. He showed flashes in his debut, starting four games and making 25 grabs for 318 yards and two scores. A long and lean athlete, with good speed, he's been assigned to the position designed with the most dynamic playmaker in mind.

In this scheme, the "Y" receiver is a possession guy, preferably a big target who can create mismatches with linebackers out of the slot. Enter 6-5, 220-pound junior Mike Shanahan , the most reliable and experienced pass-catcher of the group. A 10-game starter a year ago, he pulled down 43 balls for 589 yards and a touchdown. The equivalent of a tight end, he has the hands and the gait to be a dangerous threat on intermediate routes.

When the Panthers go three-wide, 5-7, 170-pound junior Cameron Saddler will be lined up at the "Z" position. A dynamic blend of speed and elusiveness, he could be to Pitt what Damaris Johnson has been to Tulsa, a versatile playmaker who can do a little bit of everything for the offense. He only caught seven passes for 33 yards in 2010, but that level of inactivity is about to change. Of the young receivers filling out the two-deep, 6-3, 200-pound redshirt freshman Salath Williams might be the closest to being ready to contribute. The backup to Shanahan at "Y", he has field-stretching ability to go along with his good size.

With Mike Cruz leaving the team after being suspended, 6-5, 240-pound sophomore Brock DeCicco is locked in at tight end. A quality pass-catcher at the position, he started three games and caught two passes, both touchdowns. At H-back, an important position in this offense, the Panthers are excited about the potential of 6-4, 230-pound junior Hubie Graham . A transfer from Illinois, who played 20 games in Champaign, he's a former four-start recruit looking for a breakout year.

Watch Out For .... Saddler. In the new attack, some of the most successful receivers don't always look like Baldwin. Sure, Saddler is smaller than the kickers, but he's the kind of playmaker who'll force the staff to get the ball in his hands. He's also a natural on fly sweeps and quick pitches that catch the defense off guard.
Strength: Playmakers. The staff is fortunate that it inherited quality athletes, such as Street and Saddler, who can make things with the ball in their hands. The Panthers also have plenty of novices to mold, underclassmen, like Williams, who have ascended into the two-deep.
Weakness: Proven depth. While the program may feel comfortable with Street, Shanahan, and Saddler, this is an offense that requires a deeper corps of wideouts. Only two returners caught at least 10 passes in 2010, meaning there'll be plenty of on-the-job training taking place in September.
Outlook: The Panthers clearly have potential in the receiving corps. It's up to the coaches to bring it out as quickly as possible. Shanahan will be the most reliable option for Tino Sunseri, with Street, Saddler, Graham, and DeCicco improving as their reps become more prominent.
Rating: 7

Offensive Line

State of the Unit: The Panthers will be looking to replace a pair of important starters, left tackle and current Cleveland Brown Jason Pinkston and C Alex Karabin. The bigger issue, however, will be getting the unit comfortable with new blocking schemes and in the best possible conditioning prior to the opener. Unlike in the past, in the no-huddle system there's simply no place for huffing and puffing linemen.

Senior Chris Jacobsonbegan the spring at his familiar left guard position. By the end of the session, he was the answer to the program's opening at the pivot. While he'll still have to work on his snaps, the staff is convinced the 6-3, 290-pounder will do a solid job at center. A one-time can't miss prospect from the 2007 class, he possesses the tenacity and power as a run blocker to get looks from NFL scouts this fall.

Filling Jacobson's slot at left guard will be 6-4, 285-pound senior Greg Gaskins , who started four games on the right side a year ago. A versatile blocker, he's more steady than spectacular. The new left guard is 6-6, 315-pound Cory King , a 2009 recruit who has reshaped his body. Looking and moving more like a tackle, he could wind up on the outside at some point in his career. The veteran of the guard rotation is 6-6, 305-pound junior Ryan Turnley, a letterman and top backup over the last two seasons. A better run blocker, he has good punch coming out of his stance and the leg drive to move the other guy off the ball.

At tackle, the Panthers will have a pair of seasoned veterans. On the right side, 6-6, 305-pound senior Lucas Nix is settling down after starting games at guard and tackle in 2010. One of the most decorated linemen to ever sign with Pittsburgh, he plays with a nasty attitude and has improved in pass protection. He recognizes that continued improvement could mean a chance to continue playing on Sundays. The coaches have been thrilled with the play of 6-7, 305-pound senior Jordan Gibbs, who has locked down the job at left tackle. He turned heads with his footwork and pass protection in the spring, clearly benefitting from start last year's final 10 games at right tackle.

Watch Out For .... Gibbs to catch the attention of pro scouts arriving to get a look at Nix and Jacobson. No lineman in Pittsburgh has made bigger strides over the past 12 months than the rising senior, who is going to soften the blow of losing an All-Big East first teamer, such as Pinkston.
Strength: Run blocking. Regardless of the new look on offense, this is a group that still does its best work when it can line up bloody the nose of the other team. It's a physical, blue-collar front wall that plays to the whistle and gives the backs lanes to exploit.
Weakness: Depth. This could be a major concern as the season unfolds, especially since conditioning will be such a big factor during the year. Of the five offensive linemen listed on the two-deep exiting spring, just one, Turnley, had earned a letter at this level, a troubling reality for line coach Spencer Leftwich.
Outlook: Just like it'll be for everyone else on offense, it's going to be an interesting year of transition for the linemen. There are enough savvy veterans and confidence in King, the lone underclassman in the lineup, to feel at ease about the starters. However, that second unit could prove to be a liability if it's forced to play too many meaningful minutes in 2011.
Rating: 7

- 2011 Pitt Preview | 2011 Pitt Offense
- 2011 Pitt Defense | 2011 Pitt Depth Chart
- Pitt Previews  2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006