Despite being ranked fifth in the preseason Big East media poll, Pittsburgh is regarded by many as the conference's top sleeper for the upcoming season.
The Panthers have the conference's only nominee for the Walter Camp Award (Ray Graham), two veteran, rangy receivers (Devin Street and Mike Shanahan) and an imposing defensive tackle (Aaron Donald). Still with Graham's return from a torn right ACL up in the air, questions remain.
Pitt 5 questions heading into the season:
How disconcerting is Graham's knee injury?
Graham is expected to be out for the Sept. 1 opener vs. Youngstown State. The senior running back's status for the road opener at Cincinnati on Sept. 6 and a Sept. 15 matchup vs. Virginia Tech is also unknown. Panthers coach Paul Chryst could just be giving Graham added rest or he could be legitimately concerned about his health for the season. If Graham can't return to full strength, Pitt has viable alternatives in Isaac Bennett and Rushell Shell. It may be a few weeks before Graham knows for sure.
How improved is the offensive line?
The Panthers have three returning starters in guards Ryan Schlieper and Chris Jacobson and center Ryan Turnley. The unit struggled down the stretch last season after Graham went out for the year. In a season-ending loss to SMU, Pittsburgh gained just 10 rushing yards. Junior offensive tackle Juantez Hollins was suspended for the season before the start of camp, but redshirt junior Cory King has been impressive in the preseason. Chryst's experience with power blocking could help the line as a whole. Chryst comes from a Wisconsin team that dominated defenses with its power blocking over the past several seasons.
Can an inexperienced defensive line adjust to the transition to the 4-3?
The Panthers' rush defense struggled last season, ranking fifth in the conference. As a result, the Panthers are switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense. Defensive lineman Aaron Donald, an all-conference performer, is moving inside from defensive end. Donald is the lone returning starter on the front seven. It could be difficult for Pitt to replicate its sack total of 43 from 2011. Linemen Jack Lippert and Tyrone Ezell, though, have shown glimpses of potential throughout the preseason.
Can QB Tino Sunseri regain his sophomore season form?
The senior didn't fit well in former coach Todd Graham's spread offense last season. Sunseri threw more interceptions than touchdowns and took unnecessary sacks at times. A return to a pro style offense could help Sunseri immensely. If Sunseri's struggles continue, freshman quarterback Chad Voytik appears ready to play immediately.
How talented is the Panthers' receiving corps?
Street and Shanahan provide a pair of huge targets for Sunseri. Both are at least 6-4 and weigh at least 190 pounds. The pair might be the top receiving duo in the Big East. The upperclassmen could start slowly, however, after being limited by injury in camp. The receivers are complemented by tight end Hubie Graham, one of the most athletic tight ends in the conference.
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