by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

Pittsburgh is starting over—again. But this 2012 situation is at least expected to be much more stable than in 2011. Recall how things have played out for the Pitt program in the last one-plus seasons. Long-time coach Dave Wannstedt found himself in limbo toward the end of the 2010 season, even though the Panthers had a 7-5 record and had gained a piece of the Big East title. But Pitt had disappointed by not being able to make a BCS bowl in Wannstedt’s six-year tenure.

So, even though Wannstedt was a Pittsburgh native and Panther alum--and had a winning record of 42-31--the coach had failed to live up to lofty expectations and resigned under pressure in December 2010. That opened the door for the hiring of Michael Haywood, fresh from winning the MAC championship at Miami University. Two weeks later, that fresh start was down the drain after Haywood was arrested on a domestic violence charge. After Haywood was quickly dismissed, the coaching search began anew, with [the now-despised] Todd Graham hired to bring his dynamic uptempo spread offense from Tulsa and to install it to perk up what was judged to be the stodgy Pitt offense.

From that perspective, the Panthers’ 2011 season can be looked upon as a period of transition from Wannstedt’s pro-style offense to Graham’s speed-oriented spread--an attack-style that has been sweeping college football. Pitt finished its year of transition with a 6-6 regular-season record, a slew of key injuries, a frustratingly inconsistent offense, and a handful of agonizing losses (four by four points or fewer).

Then, things got even worse when coach Graham bolted for a better situation at Arizona State, insultingly informing his Pitt players of the move via a text message to the director of football operations. One could hardly blame the Panther players and fans for being about as confused about the situation as the infamous Miss Teen South Carolina during the Q&A portion of that competition.

However, it is the belief here that after Wannstedt, Haywood and Graham, Pittsburgh has finally acquired the right guy in new head coach Paul Chryst, the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin the last seven years. Chryst not only is the son of a coach, he has also had four total stints in three pro leagues (WLAF, CFL, NFL). But he is best known as the architect of the some of the Badgers’ best smash-mouth attacks that have sent more than a dozen offensive linemen/TEs to the NFL in recent years. And, considering Pittsburgh’s cold-weather location and the appreciation of Steel City fans for hard-hitting football, what is more likely to be the better approach? Some high-octane, flippy-football, spread offense? Or, a no-frills, Wisconsin-style, run-heavy, active-TE, all-weather attack? Until they put a dome over Heinz Field (don’t wait for it), we think the latter.

Chryst inherits decent makings for such an offensive style this season, but with cautious optimism. First, top RB Ray Graham (left; 958 YR last season until suffering a torn ACL with five games to go) must show he can return to his previous productive form. If not the 5-9, 190 Graham, then it’s promising 5-11, 205 soph Isaac Bennett (237 YR in 2011; excellent spring). And, if not those two, perhaps it’s 6-0, 215 true frosh Rushel Shell, who posted a record 39-straight games with 100 YR in high school. Judging by the productive way Chryst used his RBs at Wisconsin, all three are likely to see considerable action.

A ground-gobbling running game will suit sr. QB Sal Sunseri just fine after the Panthers gave up an FBS-worst 64 sacks last season, dropping their hard-earned ypc to 3.5 and their total offense to 83rd in the nation. Under pressure virtually all season (but especially following the loss of RB Graham), Sunseri suffered 11 ints. vs. only 10 TD passes. However, Sunseri’s 64.2% completion percentage and 2616 YP last season, and his 26 consecutive starts, show that the 6-2 senior has the makings of a winning ball-control, keep-it-simple QB.

The receiving crew includes a proven group of long-limbers (6-4 Devin Street, 53 catches; 6-5 sr. Mike Shanahan, 39 recs.; spends his Sundays coaching the Washington Redskins—or, perhaps not) and quick-steppers (5-8 Ronald Jones, 17 recs.; 5-7 Cameron Saddler, 19 recs.). Established sr. TE Hubie Graham (28 recs. LY) has been adding weight this offseason to fit better in Pitt’s new offensive system.

The biggest challenge for Chryst will be re-establishing the Panther OL, which returns only two starters, both of whom are coming off injuries. Sr. C Ryan Turnley played with a foot problem last season; he virtually never practiced in order to save wear and tear, yet started all 13 games. Sr. G Chris Jacobson suffered a knee injury, but is back after being awarded a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. Pitt has the needed frontline size at the other three positions (plus a top OL recruit who followed Chryst from Wisconsin), but the Panthers go into 2012 quite thin up front. Quite tellingly, new OL coach Jim Hueber spent a long tenure in Madison under Barry Alvarez and new Panther offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph is a former Badger guard and assistant.

On defense, the new coordinator is David Huxtable, who coached LBs last year in Madison and is changing back to a 4-3 base after one year in Graham’s 3-4. The always-stubborn Panther stop unit gave up only 3.3 ypc last season and allowed only 117 ypg on the ground. However, Pitt was vulnerable through the air (234 ypg) and collected only 8 ints. in its 13 games. The front four should be rowdy, with 6-0, 275 jr. Aaron Donald (right) returning after collecting 11 sacks last season. Soph LB Ejuan Price added five. And jr. LB Dan Mason is expected to return to action after sitting out last season with a major knee injury. But insiders warn that the front-seven defenders, while hard-nosed, are also few in number, with the depth very young. The secondary does have considerable depth at safety, and jr. K’Waub Williams is an established CB. But the other CB will be inexperienced and is likely to draw considerable attention.

Sr. PK Kevin Harper (21 of 31 FGs) missed 10 FG attempts last season, among the most in the nation. He was only 7 of 14 in the handy 40+ range, but he showed a stronger leg in spring.

Summary...If Pittsburgh can keep its key players healthy, the experienced Panther offense might very well give Pitt a shot at the title in the watered-down Big East. With no Backyard Brawl vs. West Virginia on the schedule, the Panthers have it a bit easier this season. Pitt has paid $7 ½ million to bolt to the ACC in 2013. Will the Panthers get a fair shake on their way out of the Big East? If they do, escaping key injuries is likely to determine how far Pitt goes in 2012. But for the long term, the UW-like, blue-collar approach instilled by new HC Chryst in a blue-collar city seems to be a sound one.


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