When Pitt welcomes Youngstown State to Heinz Field on Sept. 1, the Panthers will open a regular season with their third different head coach in as many years.
Pitt coach Paul Chryst hopes his power-rushing offense from Wisconsin that bowled over opponents the last two seasons can be as effective in the Steel City. After leading rusher Ray Graham went out for the season last October, the Panthers averaged just 3.03 yards per carry in their final five contests. The final three were particularly horrid as opponents held Pitt to just 1.9 yards per rush, including 30 carries for 10 yards in a loss to SMU in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
1. Thunder and Lightning in the backfield?
Ray Graham has already been cleared and is hoping to bounce back from the aforementioned season-ending right knee injury. At the time of the injury, Graham (5-9 190) ranked second in FBS in rushing yards. The senior running back has learned how to be more decisive with his cutting and how to eliminate superfluous movements.
If Graham cannot return to full-strength, the Panthers have immediate help in electrifying freshman Rushel Shell (6-0, 210). In four seasons at Hopewell High School (Pa), Shell rushed for at least 250 yards more than a dozen times. Shell uses his muscular frame to break tackles, but can also pile up yards with a one cut and go style.
2. Top receiving duo in the Big East
Wide receivers Devin Street and Mike Shanahan were both named to the Biletnikoff Award preseason watch list and have a legitimate shot at earning a place on the All-Big East First Team. The duo will benefit from the tutelage of new receivers coach Bobby Engram, a 14-year NFL veteran. Street (6-3, 190) is adjusting well to the new terminology in the offense, while Shanahan (6-5, 225) is a polished route-runner and one of the most physical receivers in the conference.
3. Seasoned secondary could carry D
Pitt will return three of four starters in the secondary, including senior FS Jarred Holley. The 5-10, 190-pound senior is a ball hawk and could contend for Big East Defensive Player of the Year. Holley has nine career interceptions. SS Andrew Taglianetti and CB K'waun Williams are also back. Pitt ranked fourth in the Big East in passing defense (233.7 ypg) in 2011.
1. Steep learning curve for front seven
The front seven returns little beyond DL Aaron Donald, a 2011 Big East Second Team performer. Donald will move from DE to DT as Pitt transitions into the 3-4. DLs Shayne Hale, Bryan Murphy and Khaynin Mosley-Smith will need to step up.
2. Struggles continue for Sunseri
In Tino Sunseri's first two seasons at Pitt, the senior QB threw for 18 TDs and 9 INTs. Sunseri regressed dramatically in 2011 with more INTs (11) than TDs (10). Sunseri's struggles could be attributed to his unfamiliarity with former coach Todd Graham's spread offense. Pitt will go back to a pro-style offense under Chryst. If Sunseri is unable to return from his early career form, a change may be needed.
3. Little push from the offensive line
While three starters – OG Chris Jacobson, OG Ryan Schlieper and C Ryan Turley – return, the unit must play better than it did at the end of 2011. Chryst had success with a good mix of zone and power blocking at Wisconsin and will try to do the same with a veteran line.
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