July 15, 2011

Top 120 countdown
No. 35 Pittsburgh
Coach: Todd Graham (first season at Pittsburgh, 43-23 record in five seasons overall) | Staff
Last season: 8-5, 5-2 (T-1st in Big East; beat Kentucky in BBVA Compass Bowl)
Returning starters (At least seven starts last year): Offense (5): T Jordan Gibbs, G Chris Jacobson (moving to C), G Lucas Nix (moving to T), WR Mike Shanahan, QB Tino Sunseri. Defense (8): T Chas Alecxih, T Myles Caragein, LB Max Gruder, FS Jarred Holley, E Brandon Lindsey, CB Antwuan Reed, LB Tristan Roberts, LB Greg Williams. Special teams (0): None.

OFFENSE

OVERVIEW: Dave Wannstedt's Pittsburgh teams were one of the few running the classic pro-style offense, featuring a fullback, a tight end and a huddle. That changes this season with new coach Todd Graham. He's installing a no-huddle spread, which the coach wants to run at a breakneck pace. Three of his four Tulsa teams were in the top seven nationally in total plays. Pitt must answer two questions on its offense, though. First, how will the existing personnel, recruited to play for Wannstedt, fit into Graham's system? Second, what impact will coordinator Calvin Magee have? At Tulsa, Graham had Gus Malzahn and Chad Morris running the offense. Magee was Rich Rodriguez's right-hand man at West Virginia and Michigan, but he was not the playcaller for Rodriguez.

AN INSIDE LOOK
THE LINGERING QUESTION: How quickly can the offensive players adjust? Few teams around the country need to make as many adjustments as Pitt. The huddle is a thing of the past, as is the quarterback crouching under center. The timing in the spring was an ongoing issue, particularly with the shotgun snap. Pittsburgh will have a few warm-up games to smooth out the rough spots, but the offense's ability to adjust quickly will determine how successful a season this will be.
THE BEST-CASE SCENARIO: The Panthers pick up the new schemes and take advantage of a favorable Big East schedule. A perfect Big East record would be overly optimistic, but a first- or second-place finish is not out of the question.
THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO: The offense suffers a major setback, either with an injury to Ray Graham or ineffectiveness in the passing game. Non-conference losses to Iowa, Notre Dame and Utah mean a 6-6 record and a lower-tier bowl.
STAT TO KEEP AN EYE ON: Graham should have a shot at 2,000 all-purpose yards. No Pitt player has done that since Tony Dorsett in 1976. Meanwhile, WR Damaris Johnson topped 2,400 yards in each of the past three seasons at Tulsa. But Graham seems unlikely to return kicks given the lack of depth at running back. Still, he should be the focal point of the offense as a runner and receiver. Last season, Graham accounted for 1,636 all-purpose yards in an offense with Dion Lewis and Jon Baldwin.
BACKFIELD: Coaches have been impressed with QB Tino Sunseri's intangibles and leadership, but he was uneven in his first season as the starter in 2010. He'll get a fresh start with Graham, but he will be working almost exclusively in the shotgun for the first time in his career. The success of the offense depends on timing, and Graham says it's imperative that his quarterback to play soundly within the system. Backup Anthony Gonzalez has been suspended and that leaves redshirt freshman Mark Myers next on the depth chart. RB Ray Graham was one of last season's pleasant surprises in the Big East, accounting for 922 rushing yards, 213 receiving yards and 10 total touchdowns despite sharing carries with Dion Lewis. Graham is quick and shifty - a combination of skills that lends itself nicely to the new offense. He'll be the focal point. Zach Brown's transfer from Wisconsin is huge as Graham was the only scholarship tailback on the roster in spring. Pitt has three freshman tailbacks.

RECEIVERS: The Panthers won't have the pure talent they had the past three seasons with Jon Baldwin, who left early for the NFL. Mike Shanahan is the top returning receiver with 43 catches for 589 yards. Devin Street, though, could be the breakout receiver. Both are tall targets - Shanahan is 6 feet 5, Street 6-4. Pitt doesn't have much experience after Street and Shanahan, as no other returning receiver had more than seven catches last season. Some of that production could come from the tight end or H-back positions. Brock DeCicco, the brother of former All-Big East safety Dom DeCicco, is a prototypical tight end, but Pitt won't use that formation all the time. Hubie Graham, a transfer from Illinois, returns to his home state as the top candidate at H-back.

LINE: A story line worth watching is at center. The timing of the offense starts with the center, who must adroitly handle shotgun snaps. The revolving door at the position was a problem through the spring before coaches settled on former starting G Chris Jacobson. Lucas Nix, who is back at tackle after playing guard last season, is the team's best lineman. Jordan Gibbs, who started last season at right tackle, will move to left tackle, replacing the steady Jason Pinkston. Greg Gaskins will get another chance as a starting guard; he was pulled from the starting lineup after the third game last season.

DEFENSE

OVERVIEW: Pitt's transition on offense has received a lot of attention in part because of Tulsa's success putting up points under Graham. The defense, though, will have a scheme change as well. Graham will replace Wannstedt's 4-3 defense with a base 3-4 that could include a handful of different looks. A defense that rarely blitzed under Wannstedt will be blitz-heavy under the new staff. The personnel could be suited to the new scheme as Wannstedt liked to recruit undersized defensive ends and big linebackers.

LINE: E Brandon Lindsey is the star here after recording 10 sacks last season (though five of those came against New Hampshire and Rutgers). The question is how Lindsey will perform without offensive lines paying extra attention to Jabaal Sheard. On the interior, both starting tackles return in Myles Caragein and Chas Alecxih. Caragein is a run-stuffer and Alecxih (7.5 sacks) can rush the passer.

LINEBACKERS: This is a veteran group with three returning starters, but there's plenty of competition among a group that underachieved last season. Greg Williams will play an outside linebacker spot and will have the responsibility of rushing the passer. This will be a new role for Williams, a three-year starter with five career sacks. Returning starters Max Gruder and Tristan Roberts are poised to start at the inside linebacker spots, but Shane Gordon, who played sparingly as a redshirt freshman, will put pressure on both. Sophomore Kevin Adams, who signed as a fullback, is slated to play the hybrid outside linebacker/safety spot.

SECONDARY: The secondary lost two starters, but the Panthers have high hopes for the new faces. Jason Hendricks replaces multi-year starter Dom DeCicco at strong safety. In part-time duty last season, Hendricks had 42 tackles. CB K'Waun Williams started the bowl game and played most of the regular-season finale in place of returning starter Antwuan Reed and proved himself to be a good tackler and cover corner. Reed has the talent to contend for all-league honors; he needs more consistency. FS Jarred Holley has eight interceptions in his past 18 games.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Pittsburgh will be untested in the kicking game with the departure of Dan Hutchins, who pulled double duty at kicker and punter. New K Kevin Harper was a kickoff specialist last season. Sophomore P Matt Yoklic is a former walk-on. Cameron Saddler has averaged 10.6 yards on punt returns the past two seasons. The Panthers will look to senior Buddy Jackson, a backup cornerback, or a perhaps a true freshman to boost the kickoff-return unit. The coverage units were spotty last season: Pittsburgh was the only program in the Big East to allow both a punt return and kickoff return for a touchdown.

THE RECRUITING SIDE
Average national ranking past five years: 38th
Buzz: After the firing of Dave Wannstedt and the hiring and subsequent firing of Mike Haywood, new coach Todd Graham arrived too late to save what was shaping up to be one of the best recruiting classes in the Big East. Instead of finishing atop the Big East rankings, Pitt instead limped to a No. 5 finish and still is trying to find its way in 2012. Things are not going well in recruiting so far this year, and it could be another recruiting cycle before the new staff can even attempt to keep some of the top in-state prospects at home. - MIKE FARRELL

IMPACT NEWCOMER

In the spring, Ray Graham looked as if he would have to be a workhorse back. But the arrival of Wisconsin transfer Zach Brown should be a big plus,. Brown, who will be eligible immediately, rushed for 1,152 yards and 11 touchdowns in three seasons with the Badgers. He was the odd man out in a logjam at running back for the Badgers last season. At 5-10 and 219 pounds, Brown should be a good complement to the 5-9, 195-pound Graham.

SCHEDULE

Pittsburgh opened last season with a 27-24 overtime loss at Utah and didn't fully recover until mid-November. A similar start shouldn't happen this season with Buffalo and Maine to start the season. With a new coaching staff and new schemes on both sides of the ball, Pitt could benefit from such a "preseason." The Panthers need to be ready by late September, with back-to-back-to-back games against Iowa, Notre Dame and USF, which features a quick turnaround on five days' rest. The Panthers also get a return visit from Utah on Oct. 15. Pittsburgh will have four Big East home games and three non-Saturday games (USF, Connecticut, at West Virginia). The Panthers were 0-4 in non-Saturday games last season.

OUTLOOK

After a tumultuous December, which included the botched hiring and firing of former Miami (Ohio) coach Mike Haywood, Pittsburgh ended up with a good Plan B. Graham has coached four bowl teams in five seasons at "non-traditional" programs Rice and Tulsa. Pitt hopes he can have the same impact and more in the Big East. The overhaul of the offensive and defensive schemes could mean an inconsistent season. Still, if Pittsburgh avoids any major pitfalls, the Panthers have enough experience and talent to challenge for one of the Big East's better bowl bids.

OFFENSE
QB Tino Sunseri (6-2/215, Jr.)
Mark Myers (6-4/215, R-Fr.)
TB Ray Graham (5-9/195, Jr.)
Zach Brown (5-10/219, Sr.)
WR Cameron Saddler (5-7, 170, Jr.)
Kevin Weatherspoon (5-10/170, R-Fr.)
WR Mike Shanahan (6-5/225, Jr.)
Salath Williams (6-3/195, R-Fr.)
WR Devin Street (6-4/190, Soph.)
Ted Tinker (6-2/190, Soph.)
H-BACK Brock DeCicco (6-5/240, Soph.)
Hubie Graham (6-4/230, Jr.)
LT Jordan Gibbs (6-7/315, Sr.)
Juantez Hollins (6-5/305, Soph.)
LG Greg Gaskins (6-4/295, Sr.)
Ryan Turnley (6-6/320, Jr.)
C Chris Jacobson (6-3/295, Sr.)
Ryan Turnley (6-6/320, Jr.)
RG Cory King (6-6/325, Soph.)
Matt Rotheram (6-6/350, R-Fr.)
RT Lucas Nix (6-6/310, Sr.)
Zenel Demhasaj (6-7/330, Jr.)
P Matt Yoklic (6-4/205, Soph.)
KR Buddy Jackson (6-1/180, Sr.)
DEFENSE
E Brandon Lindsey (6-2/250, Sr.)
Justin Hargrove (6-4/270, Sr.)
T Chas Alecxih (6-5/285, Sr.)
Aaron Donald (6-0/270, Soph.)
NT Myles Caragein (6-2/290, Sr.)
Khaynin Mosley-Smith (6-0/295, Soph.)
OLB Kevin Adams (6-1/215, Soph.)
Eric Williams (6-3/215, R-Fr.)
ILB Tristan Roberts (6-1/230, Sr.)
Shane Gordon (6-1/230, Soph.)
ILB Max Gruder (6-2/230, Sr.)
Tristan Roberts (6-1/230, Sr.)
OLB Greg Williams (6-3/240, Sr.)
Bryan Murphy (6-3/250, Soph.)
CB Antwuan Reed (5-10/190, Sr.)
Buddy Jackson (6-10/180, Sr.)
CB K'Waun Williams (5-10/190, Soph.)
Saheed Imoru (5-10/185, Sr.)
FS Jarred Holley (5-10/190, Jr.)
Andrew Taglianetti (5-11/190, Jr.)
SS Jason Hendricks (6-0/185, Soph.)
Brandon Ifill (6-1/200, R-Fr.)
K Kevin Harper (5-10/180, Jr.)
PR Cameron Saddler (5-7/170, Jr.)

Chris Peak of PantherLair.com contributed to this report.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.



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