ACC 2012 Season Preview: Pittsburgh Panthers

Can Pitt Running Back Ray Graham Regain His Place As the Leader of the Panthers’ Rushing Attack in 2012?

Team: Pittsburgh Panthers

2011 W-L: 6-7 (4-3)

Head Coach: Paul Chryst (first season)

Returning Starters: 12 (8 Offense, 4 Defense)

After another offseason of transition in the program, the Pittsburgh Panthers are once again trying to enter a new season with a clean slate. Out goes Todd Graham, the known carpetbagger now despised by Pitt fans everywhere. In comes Paul Chryst, who spent the last seven years as Wisconsin‘s offensive coordinator. And while the first-team head coach inherits a challenging job with the program as currently comprised, he may also spot some similar surroundings. With a strong defense and a deadly running game, the coach is already taking to his new team just like his old one. Now, with a skeptical senior class (three different head coaches), he just has to hope they take to him.

As mentioned, the Panthers’ offense will go primarily through the running game, which I think may actually be among the best in the country (O-line permitting). So long as he’s healthy, the bulk of the carries should go to senior Ray Graham, who makes a surprise return after an ACL tear last year. At the time of the injury last season, Graham was second in the country in rushing yards, and appears to have some unfinished business to attend to. He’ll also be spelled by sophomore Isaac Bennett. After some flashes of potential late in 2011, and a very strong spring workout, he’ll be the favored back if Graham fails to return at 100-percent. Carries may also get doled out to freshman Rushel Shell as well. The highly-touted recruit runs a 4.45 40-yard dash. If given an opportunity for extended touches, he has the talent to jump right in and produce.

Though the running game will carry the crux of the load though, we can’t forget about the quarterback situation in Pitt, which for the last two full seasons has centered around Tino Sunseri. Inconsistent and lacking the type of pro-level arm elite quarterbacks need to have at this point, Sunseri’s been looked at as a game manager that tries not to muck things up for the running game and defense. Sometimes he succeeds at this, and other times, not so much. When Graham went down in the eighth game of 2011, increased pressure was placed on the quarterback to take ownership of the team’s success. But he saw mixed results, trading wins and losses in all six contests. With the running game back at full speed in 2012, some of that urgency will come off him, but he must be driven to produce better results. We haven’t been able to see much of his progress in camp, with top targets Devin Street and Mike Shanahan missing extended time, but the tools are at his disposal to really give Pitt a diversified attack on offense.

The Pittsburgh defense, while losing a good portion of its starting lineup from a year ago, brings an interesting group to the table in 2012. For the most part, opposing offenses will see tons of inexperience on the line and at the linebacker spots, with just one senior in the group. The secondary, on the other hand, is chock-full of veterans. As a junior, tackle Aaron Donald is bound to continue building his leadership on the team. His 10.5 sacks last year were tops in the Big East, but now he’s a marked man. He’ll have help from DE Tyrone Ezell, though again, Donald will remain the primary target for opposing blocking schemes. And while there are, indeed, plenty of veterans at the safety and corner spots, there’s always room for improvement. The group only managed eight picks all of last year, and that number must go up to create more opportunities. Most importantly, Pitt needs to work on keeping energy up through all four quarters. Last year, they were outscored 100-62 in the fourth quarter of games — a sure recipe for close losses (the Panthers lost four games by a touchdown or less).

He can’t do it overnight, but Paul Chryst is attempting to change a lot about this program. The current crop of seniors can still remember when they were a play away from a BCS bowl game back in 2009. The others have seen what’s happened since, and the three different coaches they’ve served under, to varying degrees of mediocrity. If Chryst is going to find a way to succeed, he’s going to have to try and bury those images and move on.

As mentioned, he does have a lot going for him on the field, however. Pitt should possess a nice pass-rush this year, and while it’s not world-class by any measure, the team should be able to put pressure on teams and take advantage of undersized, inexperienced O-lines in the Big East, where applicable. On offense, Chryst is gifted with a fantastic running game, though it must be utilized correctly. With three talented backs, and his history getting a lot out of ball-carriers, it shouldn’t be an issue. Though the team does face some hurdles in the schedule. By mid-October, they face several tough tests: Louisville, Virginia Tech and Cincinnati. But the toughest games may end up toward the end. Both Notre Dame and USF could surprise, and they bookend a challenging slate of four games to end the year.

Prediction: (8-4) (5-2); Belk Bowl in Charlotte

Previously: Boston College, Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Miami, NC State, North Carolina

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