Another college football season is upon us and the Pitt Panthers will begin the Todd Graham era of High Octane Football on Saturday. After an underachieving 2010 campaign where the Panthers finished 8-5 and went to the BBVA Compass Bowl, Pitt controversially fired head coach Dave Wannstedt and hired Miami (Oh) coach Michael Haywood. Seventeen days into Haywood's tenure he was fired after being charged with domestic violence. Athletic Director Steve Pederson then went out and hired Todd Graham from Tulsa. Graham led the Golden Hurricane to a 10-3 record in 2010 that included a 28-27 upset at Notre Dame and a trip to the Hawaii Bowl. The 46 year old Texas native oversaw a Tulsa offense that ranked first in the nation in 2007 and 2008 and fifth in 2010, averaging 505.6 yards and 41.4 points per game. Graham is familiar with the Big East due to his time as a defensive backs coach on Rich Rodriguez's staff at West Virginia. The coaching staff that he hired at Pitt consists of former Tulsa and Michigan assistants. Here is the Blast Furnace's preview of the 2011 Pittsburgh Panthers.
|Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette|
Conference: Big East
Head Coach: Todd Graham - 1st season (Five Seasons 43-23, Tulsa/Rice)
Offensive Coordinator: Calvin Magee/Mike Norvell
Defensive Coordinator: Keith Patterson
Home Stadium: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA
All time Record: 671-483-42
National Championships: 9
All Americans: 88
College Football Hall of Famers: 24
NFL Hall of Famers: 6
Iowa City, IA
The Panthers will be transitioning from a Pro-Style Offense under Dave Wannstedt to a new no-huddle hurry-up spread offense that emphasizes speed, power, and explosiveness under Todd Graham. Graham's goal for the offense: snap the ball as soon as it is spotted and run approximately 80 plays per game. Former Michigan and West Virginia Offensive Coordinator Calvin Magee will oversee the offense and along with Mike Norvell whom coached at Tulsa with Graham. Pitt's base formation will include a three receiver set along with an H-back, which differs from the prior regimes traditional use of a fullback and tight end. Junior Ray Graham is primed to take over for Dion Lewis at running back. Graham finished last season rushing for 922 yards on 148 carries. His 277 yard performance against FIU last year was the second highest rushing total in a game in Pitt history. Wisconsin transfer Zach Brown will back up Graham and Texas freshman speedster Corey Davis is expected to see some playing time.
Tino Sunseri returns as the team's starting quarterback. The redshirt junior is coming off a rocky 2010 season. He struggled early on last season and had trouble throwing the deep ball. Sunseri's statistics were respectable by seasons end, completing 64.5% of his passes for 2,572 yds, 16 TDs and 9 INTs. Sunseri will be the key to the success of this team. Will he be able to pick up the new offensive scheme and has his arm strength improved? Coach Graham likes to attempt several long throws a game so he will be tested.
The offensive line returns three starters: Lucas Nix, Jordan Gibbs, and Chris Jacobson. The question mark will be on the center position as (RS Jr.) Ryan Turnley was converted from guard to center during summer camp and the shotgun formation calls for accurate snaps. Aliquippa product Juantez Hollins will start at left tackle after having a strong camp.
The receiver position will feature Mike Shanahan, Devin Street, and Cam Saddler. Street is a big play candidate and expectations are for him to have a breakout year. The 6' 5" Shanahan will be relied upon to be the steady possession receiver and safety blanket for Sunseri. Mike Norvell wants to have at least six receivers at his disposal to accommodate the multiple formations and game situations so expect senior Ed Tinker and youngsters Salath Williams and Ronald Jones to see plenty of playing time. Hubie Graham will man the H-Back position which is described as a hybrid of a tight end and fullback. This will be Graham's first season playing as a Pitt Panther after transferring from Illinois last year.
|RB Ray Graham|
Starters returning (5): QB Tino Sunseri (RS Jr.); WR Mike Shanahan (RS Jr); OL Jordan Gibbs (RS Sr); OL Chris Jacobson (RS Sr); OL Lucas Nix (Sr)
Key Losses: WR Jon Baldwin; RB Dion Lewis; OL Jason Pinkston; FB Henry Hynoski
Newcomers to watch: RB Zach Brown (RS Sr.); RB Corey Davis (Fr.); H-back Hubie Graham (RS Jr.)
The defense returns eight starters from last year's squad. Defensive Coordinator Keith Patterson will employ a new base 3-4 defense and will at times use a 3-3-5 look and possibly even resort to the previously used 4-3 scheme depending on the down and distance. This defense will focus on pressuring the quarterback and forcing turnovers. In the new scheme the two OLBs will take on new roles; the 'Panther' linebacker will essentially be a stand-up defensive end and the 'Spur' linebacker will be a safety/linebacker who will be versatile enough to cover slot receivers and be able to play the run. Brandon Lindsey will man the 'Panther' spot. Lindsey is a pre-season All American after recording 10 sacks as a defensive end in 2010. The 'Spur' will be played by RS Fr Todd Thomas and veterans Greg Williams and Andrew Taglianetti will be used depending on the down and distance. Questions persist about the MLBs which was a trouble spot for the Panthers a year ago. Senior Max Gruder and inexperienced Shane Gordon are listed as starters.
The defensive line is the most experienced and deepest position on the team. Seniors Myles Caragein and Chas Alecxih anchor the line and promising end Aaron Donald is expected to make an impact in his second season.
The secondary is led by All Big East safety Jared Holley and K'waun Williams stock has risen after a strong freshman season. The corners were a weak spot last year, perhaps a change in scheme and experience will result in better pass defense.
|LB Brandon Lindsey|
Key Losses: DE Jabaal Sheard; DE Greg Romeus; DB/LB Dom DeCicco
Newcomers to watch: LB Juan Price (Fr.); DB Lafayette Pitts (Fr.); DL KK Mosely-Smith (Fr.)
There will be new faces on the kicking team this season. Kevin Harper will take over place kicking duties and Matt Yoklic will be the punter. These players come in as unknowns, Harper is said to have a very strong leg but lacks consistency making field goals. He was rated as one of the top kickers in high school a few years ago but was not deemed ready to play by the former staff. Yoklic displayed long distance punts in the spring game and there has not been much talk about him to date. It is expected that he will perform well as the starting punter. Speedster Buddy Jackson and freshman Ronald Jones will be the kick returners. Jackson is one of the fastest players on the team and he displayed his new role as KR in the spring game with a blazing kickoff return for a touchdown off the opening kick. Cam Saddler will continue to field punts.
Key Losses: P/K Dan Hutchins
Newcomer(s) to watch: Ronald Jones (Fr.)
Complete Depth Chart
The Blast Furnace predicts the Panthers to go 10-3 and contend for the Big East Championship. West Virginia and Iowa will be difficult road games and Notre Dame under Brian Kelly, Utah and USF will present a difficult challenge to the Panthers at Heinz Field this season. Todd Graham has set the bar very high as he expects to win the Big East and go on to a BCS game. We will see Pitt take a lot of chances on offense and defense. Dave Wannstedt ran a very conservative system that rarely blitzed and stayed in the base defense no matter what the offense showed. Expect the defense to create more turnovers and blitz linebackers and defensive backs. Todd Graham is not going to abandon the running game with Ray Graham in the lineup, but Pitt will throw the ball quite a bit more than we are used to seeing. It should be an exciting season. See you at Heinz Field!
|Pitt fans are hoping the Cathedral is lit gold after many games this season|