2012 Pitt Preview - The Stability Is Here
Pitt RB Ray Graham
Pitt RB Ray Graham
Posted May 13, 2012

CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - Pittsburgh Panthers

Pitt Panthers

Preview 2012

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By Richard Cirminiello

Head coach: Paul Chryst
First year: 0-0
Returning Lettermen
Off. 27 Def. 23, ST 3
Lettermen Lost: 18
Ten Best Pitt Players
1. DT Aaron Donald, Jr.
2. RB Ray Graham, Sr.
3. FS Jarred Holley, Sr.
4. WR Devin Street, Jr.
5. CB K'Waun Williams, Jr.
6. C Ryan Turnley, Sr.
7. OG Chris Jacobson, Sr.
8. QB Tino Sunseri, Sr.
9. WR Mike Shanahan, Jr.
10. RB Isaac Bennett, Soph.
2012 Schedule

Sept. 1 Youngstown St
Sept. 6 at Cincinnati
Sept. 15 Virginia Tech
Sept. 22 Gardner-Webb
Sept. 29 OPEN DATE
Oct. 5 at Syracuse
Oct. 13 Louisville
Oct. 20 at Buffalo
Oct. 27 Temple
Nov. 3 at Notre Dame
Nov. 9 at Connecticut
Nov. 24 Rutgers
Dec. 1 at USF

Having called four different men head coach over the last 18 months, Pittsburgh is desperately seeking a little stability within its football program. Paul Chryst was pried away from Wisconsin to address that very issue.

The former offensive coordinator with the Badgers arrives in Western Pennsylvania with an outstanding resume and an even better reputation. In fact, he was so highly regarded in Big Ten circles that those closest to the Panthers privately feel that the abrupt departure of former coach Todd Graham will wind up being a long-term blessing.

The offseason figures to feature a steep learning curve, not only for the players but also for a coach who has spent his entire career as an assistant. Considering Pitt's struggles in pass protection in recent years, there's cautious optimism that Chryst can share some of the O-line secrets, among others, he picked up while in Madison.

Chryst, by so many measurements, is more quintessential Panthers football than Graham likely ever would have been. The latter was a stark departure from the conservative, blue-collar mentality that once made Pitt Pitt when Johnny Majors and Jackie Sherrill were on the sidelines in the 1970s and 1980s. The former wants to build a bridge to the glory days behind a power ground game, mistake-free quarterbacking and excellence along both lines. Chryst is going to get there, but as is often the case with a new regime, it's going to take some time.

The Panthers have a good pool of talent with which to work, but not a preponderance of playmakers, even by Big East standards. Oh, and those lines that are expected to be the cornerstones of the program going forward. Yeah, they're going to be works-in-progress. The O-line, which allowed 64 sacks in 2011, needs three new starters. Ditto the D-line, which has ferocious tackle Aaron Donald and a lot of question marks surrounding him.

Pitt is going back to basics, with Chryst as its headmaster. He has a blueprint for a revival on the banks of the Allegheny and Ohio Rivers. Panthers fans are hoping that unlike his last two predecessors, he's around long enough to see it come to fruition.

What to watch for on offense: Is Ray okay? The Panthers clearly want to run the ball more under Paul Chryst, so getting All-Big Eat RB Ray Graham back to full strength is a top priority leading up to the opener. When he suffered a season-ending knee injury last Oct. 26, only one other back in America had rushed more yards. The staff has been thrilled with the play so far of sophomore Isaac Bennett, one of the stars of the spring. However, with a physical philosophy on the way, the team is going to need more than just one capable runner to shoulder the load on the ground.

What to watch for on defense: The end all and be all. The Panthers were No. 3 nationally in sacks a year ago, but even approaching that lofty standing will require one or more defensive ends to step up in the new 4-3. Sophomores Bryan Murphy and T.J. Clemmings have plenty of upside potential, but both players will be trying to shake off rust after sitting out all of 2011. And senior Shayne Hale has been missing in action for far longer than one season. DT Aaron Donald will get plenty of attention from opposing guards and centers, but Pitt needs its once-heralded ends to create a little chaos off the edge as well.

The team will be far better if… it improves dramatically along the offensive line. Yes, the Panthers were struck by injuries a year ago, but allowing an FBS-high 64 sacks comes with no excuses. Oh, and it's not as if the running backs regularly had wide lanes with which to navigate on the ground. While Pitt is going to throw the ball less in 2012, which will alleviate a lot of pressure, the front wall still has to master the basics, such as getting off the snap quickly, and winning the battles at the point of attack.

The Schedule: The layups in the non-conference slate against Youngtown State and Gardner-Webb are okay considering the Panthers have to deal with Virginia Tech and go to Notre Dame. The YSU game has to be nothing more than a light scrimmage with a road date at Cincinnati to open up the Big East schedule five daye later. There's a nice early stretch of four home dates in six games, but the payback comes after October with three road games in the final four going to Notre Dame, Connecticut, and South Florida but with the home game against Rutgers, one of the favorites to with the Big East.

Best offensive player: Senior RB Ray Graham. If Graham's surgically-repaired knee is south of 100%, feel free to insert the name of junior WR Devin Street who is set to explode. However, the Panthers remain hopeful that Graham can recapture the form he had before getting injured last October. The 5-9, 195-pounder runs with terrific leverage and an economic gait, delivering more punishment than he endures. In three seasons, he's rushed for 2,229 yards and 21 touchdowns, averaging almost six yards a carry. The program is eager to see what Graham can do if he can finally log 250 carries in a season.

Best defensive player: Junior DT Aaron Donald. Donald began 2011 as a backup. He'll start 2012 as one of the most disruptive defensive linemen in the Big East. He arrived on the scene like a tornado a year ago, a virtually unblockable pass rusher with great moves and quickness. At 6-0 and 270 pounds, he's not ideally built for any one position, but a lack of prototypical size couldn't prevent No. 97 from collecting 47 tackles and team-highs with 16 tackles for loss and 11 sacks. The buzz around spring camp is that Donald will be even more dangerous this fall.

Key player to a successful season: Senior QB Tino Sunseri. Again. Even if the Panthers somewhat deemphasize the position in 2012, Sunseri will need to play with a higher level of consistency in order for the team to win more games. For the senior, that means better decisions, fewer costly mistakes and the wherewithal to fire the ball away instead of taking a sack. He's about to enter his fifth year with the program—and third as a starter—so it's not unreasonable to request a higher level of efficiency from behind center.

The season will be a success if ... the Panthers win seven games. It's not asking for the moon, especially since two of the team's non-conference games will be against Youngstown State and Gardner-Webb. In many ways, 2012 represents a second straight transition year at Pitt, as the team adapts to a new staff, a new playbook and a lot of new starters on both sides of the ball. If the program can earn the seven wins needed to bowl, and get increasingly comfortable with the philosophy of first-year head coach Paul Chryst, it'll serve as a table-setter for 2013.

Key game: Sept. 15 vs. Virginia Tech. For the first time since 1942, there'll be no Backyard Brawl meeting with West Virginia, leaving the Pitt schedule a little light on red-letter dates. A visit from the Hokies, though, will produce an interesting preview for when the Panthers join the ACC in 2013. The visitors figure to be ranked, so this will be the first good opportunity for head coach Paul Chryst to make a national splash with his new team. If Pitt can pull an upset at Heinz Field, it could provide a confidence boost that elevates it to higher ground.

2011 Fun Stats:
- Touchdown passes: Pittsburgh 12 – Opponents 16
- Sacks: Pittsburgh 43 – Opponents 64
- Fourth-quarter scoring: Pittsburgh 62 - Opponents 100

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