2012 OUTLOOK: The Pitt fans got over the unexpected departure of coach Todd Graham, who won few friends and not all that many games in his one year, rather quickly and are excited about the arrival of Paul Chryst from Wisconsin for his first head coaching job.
Christ made the Wisconsin offense one of the nation's most potent, but he had Russell Wilson running it last year, not Tino Sunseri.
It appears that Pitt will be as good as Sunseri is. He has not done a great deal during two years as the starter and while establishing himself as No. 1 again in the spring, he wasn't eyepopping. Part of it, of course, is he is running his third different offense in three years.
In some ways, the schedule they face is difficult, going to Cincinnati for the Big East opener on a Thursday night in their second game on Sept. 6. They also are looking at pair of big time nonconference games, getting an early taste of the ACC by hosting Virginia Tech and later going to Notre Dame.
How well they do will depend in part on the recovery of RB Ray Graham, one of college football's top runners until he suffered a season-ending knee injury that required surgery last year. He missed the spring but is expected to be ready for the season. RB Isaac Bennett stepped up big time in his place during spring practice, easing some of the anxiety.
The defense is rebuilding up front and needs a strong return from linebacker Dan Mason, who missed last year with injury, to play like a typical Panther defense.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE
It all begins with QB Tino Sunseri, who must cut down turnovers and increase accuracy and consistency. He spent the spring learning his third system in the last three years, which is difficult.
He has a group of good receivers to throw to, headed by Devin Street and Cameron Saddler while Brandon Ifill made what seemed to be a successful move from defensive back to wideout.
The Panthers figure to make the run their bread and butter if star RB Ray Graham comes back completely from a mid-season knee injury that took away his season when he was second in the nation in rushing. While Graham missed spring, he is on schedule in rehab.
They found his backup in sophomore Isaac Bennett, who had an outstanding spring with four runs of more than 50 yards in scrimmages and 121 rushing yards in the spring game.
Two true freshmen also will offer protection, although they may wind up being redshirted, in RB Rushel Shell, the all-time leading prep rusher in Pennsylvania history, and QB Chad Voytik, who passed for more than 5,000 yards in Cleveland, Tenn.
The offensive line is rebuilt after having lost three starters. The competition in the spring was fierce but the line seemed to be coming together.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE
There are two keys to the Pittsburgh defense, the play of DE Aaron Donald and the health of LB Dan Mason.
Donald established himself as a sophomore last year as one of the nation's most disruptive players and looked in the spring like he was ready to pick up where he left off. He earned second team All-American honors from FoxSports.com last year and will be in position to earn a lot more honors this season.
Donald gets unexpected help up front from fifth-year senior DE Shayne Hale, who had contributed much during his career, but who made a big jump in the spring and became the team's most improved defensive player.
Mason was a terror two years ago but sat out all of last season with a serious knee injury that threatened his career, but he came back in the spring and played healthy while offering much needed leadership for the other linebackers, Shane Williams and Eric Gordon.
The secondary is crucial.
"I think the secondary needs to be the best part of this defense," said S Andrew Taglilanetti. "We need to be solid back there and I think we have the guys to do it. It's going to be interesting come around fall camp to see who really steps up and gets on the field early."
The corners are young but improved in the spring.
"I think they've gotten better over the spring but there's still a huge learning curve. I tell them in meetings, every rep, every chance they get to watch a minute of tape is super valuable because that's how they're going to learn," said Matt House, the secondary coach.
The safety position is deep and experienced.
"We've got four guys who can play the safety spot. Unfortunately there are only two spots so especially when fall camp comes around it's going to be every day where we'll be fighting for our jobs," said S Andrew Taglianetti.
SCOUTING THE SPECIAL TEAMS
Pitt seems well set in its kicking game, as junior P Matt Yoklic comes in off a season in which he averaged 41.2 yards per punt, second in the Big East. He is intent on getting better.
Pitt also returns its starting placekicker, Kevin Harper. The senior led Pitt in scoring last year (95 points) and ranked 11th nationally in field goals made per game (1.62 average).
WR Ronald Jones, just 5-foot-8 and 165 pounds, will be the main punt and kickoff returner. He returned 14 punts for an average of 6.6 yards last year.
--Michigan gave Pitt two transfer safeties, each of whom had impressive springs and figure to play a lot. S Ray Vinopal is a sophomore who seemed to make a big play in every practice while another sophomore, Cullen Christian, inserted himself into contention for a starting role with his performance.
--RB Rushel Shell is out of Aliquippa, Pa., the same town that sent Tony Dorsett to Pitt. He was one of the nation's most heavily recruited running backs after rushing for a Pennsylvania state record 9,078 yards and averaging 8.2 yards a carry for his career. Shell visited Pitt during spring drills and will enroll in the fall.
--QB Chad Voytik comes out of Cleveland, Tenn., where he threw for more than 5,000 yards and was named to the "Elite 11," which honors the nation's top prep quarterbacks. He is a pro-style quarterback who fits into what new coach Paul Chryst wants to do at Pitt. He was one of two players featured in the TV show "The Ride: The Road to the U.S. Army All-American Bowl," which chronicled his senior season.
--LB Dan Mason is coming back after missing a year with serious knee surgery and seemed poised to make a complete comeback this year.
--Star RB Ray Graham, a senior who was on his way to challenging for the nation's lead in rushing eight games into last year before going down with a knee injury, missed the entire spring but is expected back next year. Also out was sophomore LB Todd Thomas, who is a leading candidate to play an outsider linebacker spot after contributing heavily last year with 47 tackles, four for losses, and an interception despite missing three games.
--Senior WR Mike Shanahan missed the physical part of spring drills following back surgery but the senior remained active. "I've been learning the offense, getting mental reps and watching the film," Shanahan said. "I still have the opportunity to go out there and do some individual drills and I still try to catch a lot of passes and stay tuned up with that. The biggest thing is mentally being in there and learning the offense."
--Junior S Jason Hendricks looked strong in spring drills after missing the final six games of the 2011 season with a shoulder injury.
--Redshirt freshman TB Malcolm Crockett was slowed through much of the spring with a hamstring injury but returned to get some work in through the final few practices.
--Senior S Jarred Holley, the only player on Pitt's roster to play in every single game the past three seasons (39), making a team-high 34 starts during that span, had limited drills due to offseason knee surgery. Holley has been active in drills and the meeting room.
--Also limited in what they could do was returning starting OL Chris Jacobson, who is out after knee surgery, and WR Salath Williams, out after shoulder surgery.
--LB Carl Fleming was suspended from the team after being arrested for drug possession and resisting arrest at the start of camp.
--A year ago sophomore Brandon Ifill lettered in the secondary but requested a move to wide receiver and showed great promise, including caching the longest touchdown pass of camp, 60 yards from QB Tino Sunseri.
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