Pitt football opens its 2012 campaign in about a week, and we'll get some new clues about how new head coach Paul Chryst and his staff will fare this season. I’ve already written my season preview, but with camp now concluded and preparations under way for Youngstown State, I’ve enlisted the help of the guys over at Cardiac Hill to have a little chat about the upcoming season
The team has many question marks, but let’s get the obvious question out of the way first...
What are your expectations for Pitt's offense under Paul Chryst with Tino Sunseri at quarterback?
Anson (@PittPantherBlog): I've set my goals pretty low on purpose ... mostly to avoid disappointment later. The offense will be run-heavy, but I I do expect Sunseri will be better. While there may not be a ton of big plays through the air, I think the two tight end set can really provide a bit of a security blanket, and Sunseri has done a good job of finding those guys in training camp scrimmages. As a three-year starter, Sunseri should be able to move the ball down the field pretty effectively with the threat of a strong backfield to keep defenses in check.
Bryan M. (@FearTheStache): Higher than if Chad Voytik, Trey Anderson, Anthony Gonzalez, or Mark Myers were the starter. The one thing that Todd Graham said that I never disagreed with is that Tino gives this team (as it's currently constructed) the best chance to win. That being said, I expect it to be right on par with the last two seasons ... moreso 2010 than 2011.
Bryan H. (@PittScript): Sunseri will clearly be the wild card of this offense. So far, he's shown very little to demonstrate that he's capable of joining Bill Stull as a mediocre underclassman who matures into a fantastic senior. With Ray Graham expected to miss some time while he gets back to 100 percent, it's not unrealistic to imagine a 1-2 start to the season due to a decidedly low-octane offense.
Pat (@The_Incline): I expect improvement because its easy to improve on whatever you want to call last season’s offense. I hope Sunseri will settle into Chryst’s offense and find some sort of niche. If that niche is handing it to Ray Graham and Isaac Bennett 50 times a game, so be it.
What are your biggest concerns for the offense this season? (Let's try to only pick two, it could be many more)
Anson: The offensive line is clearly number one, even though I don't think it will be nearly the disaster many people do (provided everyone stays healthy). The other is Ray Graham's health. We can go on and on about how great Isaac Bennett has been in the spring and fall training camp, but it's not the same as getting out there in a game. Plus, Pitt needs both of those guys, as Rushel Shell is a bit of a question mark at this point.
Bryan M.: Offensive line play. With multiple new faces along the front line, there has to be concern for how well they will play together. The good news is that Chryst has stuck with the same starting five throughout camp, so that should help build some chemistry. Most other concerns I have, with the exception of Ray Graham's health, will be created by or prevented by the o-line.
Bryan H.: Well, since Tino's been pretty thoroughly covered above, I'll go with the offensive line. Pitt returns center Ryan Turnley from last year's final line, but that's really it. That might not be a bad thing when you consider that Pitt led the FBS in sacks allowed, but it does lead to an exceptionally inexperienced line. Getting guard Chris Jacobson back should be a big boost, but at tackle two inexperienced players - Matt Rotheram and Cory King will be charged with protecting Sunseri from defensive end pressure.
Pat: Since everyone is in agreement that the offensive line is a HUGE question mark (as always), I’ll go off the board here and say that the receivers concern me. There were very few big plays last year, and some of that had to do with Sunseri, but I just didn’t see them creating a lot of separation. Hopefully Devin Street steps up and becomes the playmaker everyone expects him to be. Sunseri and the tailbacks could use the help.
Are there any freshman, on either side of the ball, that Pitt fans should keep an eye on?
Anson: There's Shell, obviously, but If we're talking redshirt freshmen, too, Lafayette Pitts is the guy I really like on defense. He was an absolute playmaker at cornerback in Pitt's first scrimmage and has a great chance to start this season. Two true freshmen who should play are tight end J.P. Holtz and linebacker Bam Bradley. Holtz, especially, will be a nice fit for Chryst's offense that relies on tight ends so much, and Bradley looks to be one of the biggest hitters at Pitt I've seen in a while.
Bryan M.: It's hard to predict if the freshman will see any playing time, or possibly even redshirt. But for someone to keep an eye on, walk-on (now a scholarship player as of Thursday morning) Chris Wuestner. He has received a lot of first- and second-team reps with Devin Street and Mike Shanahan on the shelf for most of camp.
Bryan H.: Lafayette Pitts. Lafayette Pitts. Lafayette Pitts. The redshirt freshman was a prized recruit who originally committed to Dave Wannstedt, decommitted for Rutgers, but then eventually signed with Pitt and Todd Graham. He's currently competing for the starting corner spot opposite K'Wuan Williams and from what I've seen of him at camp, I think he'll get it.
Pat: I’m happy to see guys like Pitts and Jahmahl Pardner step up in the secondary. When was the last time Pitt had two freshman pushing for playing time in the secondary? I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not, but I’m excited nonetheless. Also, JP Holtz has already been told he’ll see playing time at tight end and will be one to look out for in Chryst’s offense.
Defensively, what positions worry you the most? Also, where are the strengths?
Anson: Linebacker is a pretty clear weakness for Pitt, just with so many new guys cycling in there. The strength is the defensive line, but the secondary probably is a close 1A behind them. Aaron Donald is the big key on the line simply because he'll draw a lot more attention this season after his big 2011.
Bryan M.: I would have to say the linebackers worries me the most. There is great potential as this position, but with Todd Thomas coming off knee surgery and Ejuan Price yet to step up, I'm a little weary. The strength of the defense would be the secondary, as there is quite of bit of experience returning and very capable depth behind the starters.
Bryan H.: The secondary will be good and the defensive line will be fine, albeit thin, so that leaves linebacker. Eric Williams and Shane Gordon both seem athletic and look the part, but are still working on putting it all together. With Todd Thomas and Ejuan Price still slowed by injury, someone will have to step up. Sophomore Nick Grigsby was able to contribute some last season, but still seems like he's a year or two away.
Pat: Linebacker. It’s been said above, but the position has been a mess all summer. Also, a true freshman starting at corner opposite Williams is a concern, but Pitts has impressed many in camp and I’m driving the bandwagon. I don’t know if I could name the potential starters at linebacker right now.
Where do you see this Pitt team finishing at the end of the season (give a W-L, Big East finish, bowl)?
Anson: I've got to start by saying that this team is plenty capable of winning the conference. That said, I'll go 8-4 and Russell Athletic Bowl with a second-place Big East finish just to avoid being a complete and utter homer.
Bryan M.: Overall: 8-4 (5-2 Big East). Where do they finish in the Big East with a 5-2 record? That could range from a fourth-place finish to a three-way tie for first. All bets are off in the conference. If both Syracuse and Rutgers end up as undesirables in the bowl selection, I'm giving the nod to the Pinstripe Bowl. NYC over New Years? Yes please.
Bryan H.: Oh my. Where to begin. If the offensive line can gel; if Ray Graham can come back quickly; if the defensive line can stay healthy, if Heinz Field doesn't implode a la The Dark Knight Rises, Pitt could be relatively good. I say "relatively" because Pitt only has to be good relative to the rest of the similarly crappy Big East. With just one team in the top 25 - barely - Pitt really doesn't have many excuses to lose to other bad teams. Screw it, I'll be optimistic. Put me down for 9-3 (losses to Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, and Rutgers) and a trip to the Orange Bowl. Pitt finally wins the Big East in it's last season. Poetic.
Pat: I’ll refer you to my season preview again, but I’m aiming low and hoping to be surprised: 7-5, probably in a five-way tie for 2nd in the conference, and naturally, a trip to Birmingham.
Name your team MVP and breakout player(s):
Anson: MVP: Ray Graham (Isaac Bennett if Graham's not healthy). Breakout players: Josh Brinson (WR) and Shane Gordon (LB).
Bryan H.: MVP: Aaron Donald. Breakout Player: TJ Clemmings.
Pat: MVP: Ray Graham. Breakout Player: Lafayette Pitts.
Bonus Question: Best Pitt football experience you have ever witnessed IN PERSON?
Anson: Easily the 12-0 win over Penn State at Three Rivers Stadium. It's an oldie, but a goodie. It was the first time we beat Penn State in years and even though the Nittany Lions were down that year, it was still a big deal. Plus, Pitt wasn't exactly a great team that season, either.
Bryan M.: There have been a couple. However, the 2003 Virginia Tech game at Heinz Field takes the prize. After starting the morning with ESPN GameDay and winning on a Lousaka Polite touchdown late at night, you couldn't ask for a better day. My runner-ups: The 2008 Notre Dame four-overtime game in South Bend, and yes, the 2005 Fiesta Bowl (the game was awful, but the experience was fantastic).
Bryan H.: Please let someone pick the Sun Bowl. I won't -- I wasn't there -- but I will pick a game from that season. I went to South Bend to see Pat Bostick and LeSean McCoy lead Pitt to victory in four overtimes. Fantastic atmosphere. Fantastic game. The sprinklers turned on at one point. Really just a great win for the team en route to Pitt's return to bowl eligibility since the Fiesta Bowl. After that game, it finally seemed like Pitt had turned a corner under Dave Wannstedt and that brighter times were ahead. What chumps we all were.
Pat: I was also in South Bend for the four-overtime game where Shady McCoy had my Notre Dame friends shaking their heads (and buying us dinner -- a bet is a bet). I would also argue the most uplifting half of football I’ve ever seen was against Cincinnati in 2009. We all know how that mood quickly changed. However, none of these moments will top the night my dad and roommate traveled on a whim to Morgantown one rainy December evening. 13-9. Need I say more?
* * *
So there you have it. Thanks to Anson and the Bryans for playing along. As you can see, not one mention of a quarterback controversy. Not one mention, until now, of Mike Haywood. Nary a mention of font or uniform color. Just an incredible job all around.
Obviously Pitt has a few question marks heading into the season (offensive line: bad), and a few strengths (defensive line: good). Like every Pitt football season, there will be surprises and controversy. Its almost time for football season. Enjoy the ride.