Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Athletics
By Phil Neuffer, Associate College Football Editor
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Sports Network) - 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: After a brief affair with the spread offense, Pittsburgh will get back to its roots this season with new head coach Paul Chryst. After Todd Graham jettisoned to Arizona State, Chryst, the former Wisconsin offensive coordinator was hired and should make for a good fit. Chryst will install a pro style attack built on running the ball that was successful during the Dave Wanndstedt and Walt Harris eras.
The Panthers slipped into bowl eligibility last season with a 6-6 overall mark that included a relatively respectable 4-3 record in Big East play. The Panthers took care of Buffalo (35-16) and Maine (35-29) to begin the season, but then suffered close losses at Iowa (31-27) and against Notre Dame (15-12) putting them at .500 entering conference play. After trouncing USF (44-17) in the opener, the Panthers were on the opposite end of a blowout against Rutgers (34-10) and then traded wins and losses the rest of the season.
The 6-6 mark put the Panthers in the BBVA Compass Bowl for the second straight season but unlike 2010, Pittsburgh suffered an embarrassing loss, falling 28-6 to SMU. Still after losing its best player, Ray Graham, during the season and trying to learn an entirely new offensive system, it was deemed a successful season.
OFFENSE: Graham was on his way to easily taking the Big East Player of the Year award last year but was taken down by injury in the 8th game of the season.
Before that Graham was off to an incredible start, rushing for an NCAA leading 945 yards through seven games. Despite missing so much time, Graham was still named First-Team All-Big East by the league's coaches. If healthy, Graham is one of the best running backs in the nation and gives Chryst a focal point for his offense.
Chryst also has a three-year starter at quarterback in Tino Sunseri. The senior has never risen to stardom but has been a serviceable signal caller and should benefit with the return of Graham and the departure from the spread offense he struggled with last year.
Sunseri completed 64.2 percent of his passes, but threw 11 interceptions against just 10 touchdowns in 2011. A look at his 2010 numbers (2,572 yards, 16 TDs, 9 INTs) hints that he should improve in a more familiar system.
"Every time you go into a new system you have to get the terminology down and as a receiving corps you have to make sure everyone is on the same page," Sunseri said.
The stable of wide receivers has experience led by Devin Street who joins three other receivers who have starting experience, including Cam Saddler and Mike Shanahan. Hubie Graham will return as the starting tight end.
The offensive line won't be as strong as last season with right tackle Chris Jacobson and center Ryan Turnley the only returning starters.
"You have to find five to go at that time. It's always a combination of guys who are putting themselves in position to try to get on the field," Chryst said of establishing the offensive line, "You want to be able to play your best guys in the offensive line so you have some versatility."
DEFENSE: Chryst will not have as many proven pieces to work with on defense where only four starters return from a squad that didn't exactly excel last season.
Under defensive coordinator Joe Rudolph, the Panthers will be shifting back to a 4-3 scheme which is troubling for a team with only defensive tackle Aaron Donald returning with starting experience. Donald is still a nice piece to build around as he recorded a team-high 11.0 sacks last season and 16.0 tackles for loss.
The linebacking corps will also have a mostly new look with Todd Thomas the only returning starter. Thomas recorded 47 tackles last season as a freshman and will be leading a unit that will fit in juniors Shane Gordon and Dan Mason, who is returning from a major knee injury that kept him out all of 2011. Previously Mason had been an anchor in the middle.
"We've got a lot of guys fighting for a spot and I'm glad to see my man Mase (Dan Mason) back off that injury. It's good to be out there with him," Gordon said of his fellow linebackers.
Two starters return in the secondary making it the most experienced unit. Safety Jarred Holley was second on the team in total tackles (67) last season and cornerback K'Waun Willaims was just below that with 67 stops.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kevin Harper and Matt Yoklic are both locked in to their respective roles as place-kicker and punter. Harper connected on 21-of-31 field goal attempts, including a 52-yarder last season, while Yoklic had a respectable 41.2 average on punts, second in the Big East.
OUTLOOK: Chryst may be the right guy in Pittsburgh but the team he inherits has such a lack of depth that the Panthers will probably need a year or two to really contend in the Big East.
The schedule isn't very helpful either, as the Panthers play only three conference games at home, while also hosting Virginia Tech and taking a trip to South Bend to take on Notre Dame.
A brutal schedule and a lack of depth will more than likely counter the healthy return of arguably the best offensive player in the league in Graham. A season ago the Panthers earned a bowl bid, but this time around they will probably fall just short.