2012 Pitt Preview - Offense
Pitt QB Tino Sunseri
Pitt QB Tino Sunseri
Posted May 13, 2012

CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - Pittsburgh Offense

Pitt Panthers

Preview 2012 - Offense

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What you need to know: After one year in an up-tempo, no-huddle attack, Pittsburgh is going back to its roots. New head coach Paul Chryst is installing a physical and balanced pro-style system that accentuates the ground game. The Panthers want to run the ball to set up the pass, wearing out defenses, while limiting mistakes. The program believes it has the ingredients to carry out the new plan. The offensive line, while miserable in pass protection, has tremendous size to go along with enough brute force to establish the line of scrimmage. And now that Isaac Bennett has grown up, the backfield will have options, especially if star RB Ray Graham can make it all the way back from last year’s knee injury. Tino Sunseri is on target to start at quarterback for a third straight year, hopefully with more help from the supporting cast. The senior will access a veteran corps of pass-catchers headed by budding star Devin Street.

Returning Leaders
Passing: Tino Sunseri
247-385, 2,616 yds, 10 TDs, 11 INTs
Rushing: Ray Graham
164 carries, 958 yds, 9 TDs
Receiving: Devin Street
53 catches, 754 yds, 2 TD

Star of the offense: Senior RB Ray Graham
Players who has to step up and become a star: Junior LT Juantez Hollins
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore RB Isaac Bennett
Best pro prospect: Junior WR Devin Street
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Street, 2) Graham, 3) Senior C Ryan Turnley
Strength of the offense: Experience at quarterback, backfield depth, size of the line
Weakness of the offense: Inconsistency at quarterback, pass protection, lack of big plays, third-down efficiency


Senior Tino Sunseri is back for one more season as the starting quarterback. Cue the groans from Panthers fans. The 6-2, 215-pounder has been erratic, to say the least, completing 247-of-385 passes a year ago for 2,616 yards, just 10 touchdowns and 11 picks in 2011. However, he’s hardly been dealt a good hand at Pitt. He’s had four head coaches with the program, and spends too much time ducking for cover or running for his life. When given time, he’s actually a steady passer, with just enough zip on his throws to maximize the talent around him. And there’s no overstating the value of having started the last 26 games for the Panthers.

There was a time in the spring when it looked as if sophomore Mark Myers might be closing the gap on Sunseri. Now, it’s more likely that he’ll be battling to hold on to the No. 2 job. One of last season’s backups, the 6-4, 230-pound southpaw is a classic pocket passer with the strongest arm on the team. In all likelihood, he’ll be groomed to be the starter in 2013.

Watch Out For .... Sunseri to cut down on the costly mistakes that have plagued him over the last two seasons. This latest system, a pro-style attack, is a better fit for his skill set than what Todd Graham tried to install in 2011. Plus, new head coach Paul Chryst had success at Wisconsin developing mistake-free passers.
Strength: Experience. Whatever gets said about Sunseri, no one can suggest that he’s wet behind the ears. The senior is battle-tested, well-respected by the players around him and won’t become unnerved by anything that gets thrown his way. No. 12 is going to be a luxury for a new staff.
Weakness: Consistency in the passing game. It’s the same problem that’s plagued Panthers quarterbacks for the past few seasons. Pitt ranked 93rd in passing efficiency a year ago, throwing for a Big East-low 12 touchdown passes. Big plays were non-existent, with just one of the team’s 263 completions going for more than 50 yards.
Outlook: It could be a lot worse. Sunseri isn’t Dan Marino or even Tyler Palko. He could, however, be exactly what Chryst needs in 2012. Sunseri is capable of being a transition quarterback for the new staff, a steady leader who does just enough to support an offense that doesn’t ask him to be the focal point. If he can manage the game while eliminating mistakes, he’s liable to go from a liability to an asset in his Pitt finale.
Rating: 6.5

Running Backs

The new regime in Pittsburgh wants to run the ball with authority and conviction. The hope is that the team will have multiple backs capable of shouldering the load. Senior Ray Graham was headed toward Doak Walker Award contention last fall, when his season was cut short by a serious knee injury. At the time, the 5-9, 195-pounder was the nation’s second-leading rusher, slashing his way for 958 yards and nine scores on 164 carries. He’d also caught 30 balls for 200 yards. Graham is an economical, downhill runner when at full strength, which the program hopes will occur this summer.

With Graham out for the spring, 5-11, 190-pound sophomore Isaac Bennett took full advantage of his time on the first team. With the new staff paying close attention, he ripped off four runs of at least 50 yards in spring scrimmages, looking as if he’ll be tough to keep off the field in the fall no matter what. Graham’s injury actually helped the rookie from Tulsa get a head start in 2011 by starting two games and carrying 58 times for 237 yards and two scores. Bennett has the physical tools needed to someday be a 1,000-yard rusher, but just needs to work on his vision and cuts.

Sophomore Corey Davis was the de facto backup in March and April. At 5-11 and 180 pounds, he’s a quick-hitter who prefers to outside the tackles where he can use his speed and quickness to beat linebackers in one-on-one situations.

Watch Out For .... the impact of five-star rookie Rushel Shell who happens to be from the same hometown that produced Tony Dorsett. Considering how thin the Panthers are, especially if Graham suffers any setbacks, Shell is unlikely to redshirt in 2012. He arrives as a complete back, the rare 5-11, 215-pounder who is as effective outside the tackles as he is between them.
Strength: The potential of a two-headed ground game. Fingers are crossed that Graham can recapture his pre-injury form. If he can, the Panthers feel they have two legitimate feature runners in the senior and Bennett, who has acquitted himself rather well since last November.
Weakness: Depth. It’s only a concern if Graham continues to be a question mark. If he struggles upon his return in August, the Panthers are staring at the potential of having a second-year back as the starter, and a rookie as his caddy.
Outlook: Any review of the Pitt ground game must include an asterisk. If Graham is Graham again, the Panthers could harbor the best collection of running backs in the Big East. If he’s a shell of his self, Pitt is going to heap an awful lot of pressure on its talented, yet unproven, underclassmen. The problem is that no one will truly know the situation until No. 1 starts cutting and absorbing contact in the summer.
Rating: 7.5


With eight lettermen and last season’s top two pass-catchers still in Western Pennsylvania, Pitt feels good about its depth and talent in the receiving game in 2012. Junior Devin Street overcame the struggles of the passing game to deliver a breakout year, making a team-high 53 grabs for 754 yards and a pair of touchdowns. At 6-4 and 190-pounds, he has a long and lean frame, with the speed and long stride to glide past smaller defensive backs. Street also has some of the stickiest hands on the roster, helping make him a favorite of the quarterbacks.

Learning behind Street will be 6-1, 200-pound sophomore Brandon Ifill . The speedster returns to the position he starred at in high school after lettering and making 13 tackles as a safety a year ago.

While Street is the gamebreaker, 6-5, 225-pound senior Mike Shanahan will be the sure-handed possession receiver of the corps. He’s started 25 career games, including all 13 in 2011, making 39 grabs for 493 yards and four touchdowns last fall. On third downs, he’s a favorite target of QB Tino Sunseri, who likes to use No. 87 like a tight ends crossing over the middle of the field on intermediate routes.

While Shanahan sat out the spring to recuperate from an injury, 6-2, 195-pound senior Joshua Brinson took most of the snaps with the first team. After a quiet first year out of El Camino (Calif.) College, he’s trying to make the most of his chance to impress a new staff.

When the Panthers go three-wide, 5-7, 170-pound junior Cameron Saddler will be lined up in the slot. An exciting blend of speed and elusiveness, he’ll entice the staff to find new ways to get the ball in his hands. Before fracturing his sternum, he made just 19 catches for 207 yards and a touchdown as a seven-game starter. Pitt needs to do a better job of getting him into space, where he can create matchup problems.

The Panthers’ tight end will be 6-4, 230-pound senior Hubie Graham , who played H-back in last year’s offense. The transfer from Illinois has played a lot of football in three seasons, peaking with 28 catches for 325 yards and three scores in 2011. He’s not going to outrun a lot of defenders, but his hands are reliable, and he can be difficult to drag down.

Watch Out For .... Graham to be a busy man. From his days at Wisconsin, Chryst has loved to make use of sure-handed tight ends. And he has inherited a capable one. With Street, in particular, attracting so much attention on the outside, Graham will be able to drift across the middle, where Sunseri will hope to find him uncovered.
Strength: Experienced hands. As it stood coming out of spring, the Panthers planned to start three seniors and a junior in three-wide sets. Not only have the pass-catchers played plenty of meaningful minutes at Pitt, but all of them have been with Sunseri, making for positive chemistry in the passing game.
Weakness: Big plays. Besides Street, the Panthers don’t have enough receivers capable of stretching the defense, and opening up the field for Graham and Saddler. Last year’s squad, as an example, averaged a measly 10.3 yards per completion to rank lowest in the Big East.
Outlook: Pitt is home to a solid and somewhat underrated collection of receivers. Now the team just has to do a better job of utilizing them. With Street and Shanahan on the outside, and Saddler and Graham on the inside, there’ll be plenty of chances to get the best of opposing defenses. Street, in particular, has the skill set to attract the attention of NFL scouts with another year of eligibility still remaining.
Rating: 7

Offensive Line

It was no coincidence that Pitt hired a head coach from a school, Wisconsin, that’s had so much success in the trench over the years. The Panthers are going to need Paul Chryst to rub off on them after getting trampled a year ago. The anchor of the rebuilt group figures to be 6-6, 320-pound senior Ryan Turnley , a 13-game starter at center a year ago. The team’s most improved offensive player of the spring is a nice fit at the position, bringing great size, strength and smarts to the pivot. He’s capable of being the sparkplug for an attack that wants to physically intimidate the other team on the ground.

To the right of Turnley, the Panthers are excited to have senior OG Chris Jacobson back for a sixth season up front. The 6-3, 295-pounder had started the first four games of 2011 before suffering a season-ending left knee injury. The former blue-chipper from the 2007 class hasn’t quite reached expectations, but is just tenacious and powerful enough as a run blocker to finish strong. If Jacobson fails to shed the rust, the job will go to 6-5, 305-pound junior Ryan Schlieper, who was forced into the lineup by injuries in 2011. He started eight games as a sophomore, gaining valuable reps for this fall.

At left guard, 6-6, 325-pound junior Cory King appears to have locked down the starting job that he held briefly in 2011. He was in the lineup for four games after Jacobson went down, but will need to upgrade his pass protection skills in order to hold off massive, 6-6, 360-pound sophomore Arthur Doakes .

All eyes will be on 6-5, 305-pound junior Juantez Hollins who’s being entrusted with protecting the backside of QB Tino Sunseri. He started seven games a year ago, six at left tackle and one at left guard, but too often was a part of the pass protection problem than the solution. He has to improve his footwork or else the porous results will be the same.

The new staff is hoping to groom sophomore Matt Rotheraminto a starting right tackle. The hulking 6-6, 350-pounder started a pair of games last fall before fracturing his left ankle. A battering ram on running plays, he’s now working to become a little lighter on his feet on passing downs.

Watch Out For .... Jacobson to not only beat out Schlieper at right guard, but contend for All-Big East honors. The senior was just getting into gear last season, and attracting the attention of pro scouts, before suffering the second serious injury of his career. A sixth year of eligibility affords him an opportunity for redemption.
Strength: Girth and physicality. There’s a strong possibility that Pitt’s opening day lineup will feature three blockers who weight at least 325 pounds. That’s a lot of weight for opposing rushers to try and navigate. Chryst wants to establish the line of scrimmage with a ground-and-pound mentality, and has the wide-bodies to pull it off.
Weakness: Pass protection. No, the Panthers were not helped by the spate of injuries, but 64 sacks allowed should be considered a crime against humanity. How dire was the situation? The Maine Black Bears got to Sunseri seven times in Week 2. Chryst and his staff are good, but don’t expect an overnight transformation with the marginal talent that was inherited.
Outlook: The Panthers should see a sharp reduction in sacks allowed since Chryst is on board, and the team plans to throw a little less than a year ago. Still, the overall grade for the offensive line might not be much higher than it was in 2011. While Turnley and Jacobson could contend for all-league honors, this is not a very deep or reliable unit for Pitt. Even worse, the tackles are question marks, which will have Sunseri once again ducking for cover.
Rating: 6

- 2012 Pitt Preview | 2012 Pitt Offense
- 2012 Pitt Defense | 2012 Pitt Depth Chart