MORGANTOWN, WV - NOVEMBER 25: Tino Sunseri #12 of the University of Pittsburgh Panthers throws a pass against the West Virginia Mountaineers during the 2011 Backyard Brawl on November 25, 2011 at Mountaineer Field in Morgantown, West Virginia. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
As the team prepares to head into the 2012 football season, several questions remain surrounding Pitt's football program.
How will Paul Chryst handle his first season as a head coach? Paul Chryst will have plenty of challenges in trying to get the team ready to play each week - that much we know. But what I'm interested in are the other things he'll be juggling for the first time. Chryst will need to handle recruiting players, take care of disciplinary issues, and deal with the media on a regular basis, among other things. As a coordinator at Wisconsin, these issues won't be new to him. But as the man in charge, he'll be managing each of those aspects for the first time -- all while trying to lead Pitt's gameday planning. Regardless of what type of an Xs and Os coach he turns out to be, the added pressure of being a head coach is something that shouldn't be taken lightly.
Ray Graham's return from injury. It's easy to forget that Graham is still going to be a bit of a question mark health-wise. He hasn't played a game since late October and while he should be ready for the start of the season, he was unable to participate this spring. Here's the thing -- even if Graham is ready for the team's opener against Youngstown State on September 1, it's quite possible he'll have to shed some rust first.
Will the team start slowly? Pitt's season doesn't start off all that slowly as in past seasons. After that aforementioned Youngstown State game, the Panthers have a big road conference game against Cincinnati followed by a game against Virginia Tech -- arguably the toughest team on their schedule. But that game against the Hokies isn't nearly as important as the one against the Bearcats. If the Panthers drop that first conference game to Cincinnati, they'll be behind early in the Big East standings.
How will Pitt handle their trio of running backs? Three running backs (Graham, sophomore Isaac Bennett, and incoming freshman Rushel Shell) are all expected to compete for time. If Chryst wanted to get creative, he could redshirt Bennett and play someone like Corey Davis or Malcolm Crockett as the third back. But if all three play, it will be interesting to see how the carries are split. Graham is the likely workhorse if he's healthy, but Shell and Bennett should get their fair share of attempts.
Aaron Donald's continued dominance? Donald was the surprise of the team on defense last year, racking up 11 huge sacks. Despite the new defense, though, he was playing with experienced defenders Myles Caragein, Chas Alecxih, and Brandon Lindsey. All three are gone and Donald will likely draw some double teams this season. Donald's talent isn't in question, but increased attention could mean he's slowed down a bit.
Tino, Tino, Tino. No Pitt preview would be complete without mentioning maligned quarterback Tino Sunseri. Most fans will agree that Sunseri should be better going back to the pro style offense after dealing with Todd Graham's quirky up-tempo style. However, there's no guarantee that he'll be successful or even adequate. I do believe Sunseri will rebound to have a good season, but that's far from a slam dunk.
For more on Pitt football, check out SB Nation's Pitt blog, Cardiac Hill.