by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

If change is a good thing, Pittsburgh fans should be happy. The first change was Athletic Director Steve Pederson firing Dave Wannstedt, who wore out his welcome after failing to get Pitt to a BCS bowl in his six-year tenure at Pitt. A 27-12 record and 2-1 mark in “minor” bowls the last 3 seasons wasn’t enough to placate the Panther elite, especially coupled with the numerous players having brushes with the law during Wannstedt’s tenure. The second change came in the interviewing process in which the school’s top candidate, Todd Graham of Tulsa, was rejected due to his salary demands (he made $300,000 more than Wannstedt’s $1.3 million with the Golden Hurricane). Pederson selected Mike Haywood instead, but it turns out you get what you pay for. Haywood was dismissed after holding the position for just two weeks when he was arrested for domestic violence in December. Nothing like having your mug shot splashed all over the news to impress your new employers. At that stage school Chancellor Mark Nordenberg got involved and the school re-interviewed Graham, handing him the job (and a contract for $2 million per year. Ouch! Holy pocketbook, Batman!).

The change theme continued with Graham hiring a new staff, leaning heavily on ex-Rich Rodriguez/West Virginia/Michigan refugees to help him install a no-huddle spread offense and a version of the Mountaineer 3-3 stack defense. Graham was a co-defensive coordinator in Morgantown before moving to Tulsa in 2003 as an assistant head coach. He then took a one-year gig in charge at Rice before Tulsa recalled him to head up their program. Graham led his teams to 4 bowls in the last 5 seasons and a 43-23 record (36-28 against the number). The Golden Hurricane averaged 41 ppg & gained 506 ypg last season, ranking 5th in the country in total offense after leading the nation in yardage in 2007 & 2008. The change in schemes will mark a radical departure from Wannstedt’s vanilla pro schemes.

Graham’s next major task was salvaging a recruiting class that had been damaged by the fact the Panthers had four head coaches in five weeks (ex-Wannstedt assistant Phil Bennett coached the Panthers in the bowl game against Kentucky, adding his name to the list). Pitt, which was ranked a cumulative 26th in the nation in recruiting, failed to recruit any “immediate impact” players by the signing date, and the Panthers’ 2011 recruiting class fell out of the top 65. However, don’t put the “sell” label on Pittsburgh just yet. Graham recruited five players into the program after the national signing day, the most recent being all-Pennsylvania LB Ejuan Price (a refugee from Ohio State).

Jr. QB Tino Sunseri came of age last year, throwing for 2572 yards, 16 TDs and completing 64.5% of his tosses. Sunseri’s quick release should be a major plus in the new offense. He definitely has a pedigree, as he made all-star teams in two states as a prep (North Carolina as a junior and Pennsylvania as a senior). Sunseri will be tutored by respected QB mentor Todd Dodge, who developed both Chase Daniel (Missouri & the New Orleans Saints) and Greg McElroy (Alabama & the New York Jets) at Southlake Carroll High in the Dallas area. Unfortunately there’s little depth behind Sunseri, as Graham suspended the top backup QB candidate, redshirt frosh Anthony Gonzalez, due to his arrest for possession of marijuana in May. The offense also welcomes back three solid offensive line starters returning, and T Jordan Gibbs and Gs Lucas Nix & Chris Jacobson all drew raves from the coaching staff during spring work. RB Ray Graham gained 958 yards and scored 10 TDs as a backup, carrying for 6.2 ypc (2nd-best per-tote average in the Big East), but unfortunately he was the only scholarship tailback in the spring.

Co-offensive coordinators Calvin Magee and Michael Norvell went to work developing and finding receivers to stock the spread immediately. Jr. Mike Shanahan (6-5; 43 catches last year) and soph Devin Street (6-4; 25 receptions) return, and two late recruits should contribute, especially California juco Josh Brinson, originally from South Dade HS in Miami, who led El Camino CC in receiving last year despite playing in just nine games. In another disciplinary move meant to set the tone for a Panther team that acted more like a “gang” under Wannstedt, Graham suspended returning starting TE Mike Cruz (19 recs. in 2010) for a violation of team rules. Cruz quit the team as a result.

The Panther defense returns eight starters, and it absorbed the new scheme well in spring work. The crew will be led by a veteran defensive line, as DT Chas Alecxih (57 tackles; 7½ sacks LY), DT Myles Caragein, and star DE Brandon Lindsey (10 sacks, 51 stops) are a serviceable trio. Holdover starting LBs Max Gruder (84 tackles), Greg Williams (64) Tristan Roberts (40) are a decent group to build on, but Buckeye transfer Price, and vets Dan Mason and Todd Thomas (both out during spring) will provide competition. Price is one of four Pittsburgh-area Woodland Hills HS defensive players coming to Pitt this season, and all will get a chance to contribute immediately.

The Pitt secondary has a plumb in 2nd-team all-Big East S Jared Holley, who had 5 interceptions and 54 stops last season, but the corners might be a problem for pass defense coordinator Tony Gibson. A pair of corners were late adds to the recruiting class, as the Panthers sought to fill a need. Pittsburgh was 8th in the nation in total defense a year ago, and the Panthers appear to have the depth to replace a pair of DEs drafted into the NFL.

Summary: Graham’s high-octane attack wants to get off a play every 15 seconds, and the impressive results he achieved at Tulsa should continue in the Big East, where the quality of the athletes is a step above those available in C-USA. The only thing holding o.c. Calvin Magee’s finger off the trigger will be defensive coordinator Keith Patterson’s icy stare and lack of depth on defense. Tulsa’s offensive prowess often put pressure on a Golden Hurricane defense asked to return to the field often and usually without much rest. Pittsburgh was 14-6 against the number in its last 20 Big East contests and 11-4-2 in its last 17 chances as an underdog against all comers.

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