Quarterback Tino Sunseri leads Pitt into the 2012 season (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
If there's one overarching theme for Pitt's football season that I can think of, it's 'uncertainty.'
First, there's the new head coach. Paul Chryst takes over for Todd Graham, and not only is he new to the Panthers, but he's new to head coaching in general. He's never been in charge of a Division I program so he's still learning the ropes. We can go back and forth all day about his on-field coaching ability, but the fact is that he'll also have to find a way to juggle other things such as recruiting, media commitments, alumni relations, and all of the other non-game stuff.
And on top of all of that, Chryst will have to win. Todd Graham didn't do it last year and while Dave Wannstedt did a bit, averaging eight wins a season for his last three years, it wasn't enough. Expectations in terms of winning the ACC will no doubt be lessened a bit since it's a tougher conference than the Big East has been in recent years, but if Chryst continually rolls out seven- or eight-win seasons, fans will eventually get tired of that as evidenced by Wannstedt's success (or lack thereof, depending on the side you've chosen). Wannstedt helped Pitt put together their most success in 30 years and was still run out of town, so it's pretty obvious that Chryst will eventually need to win an ACC title or two to keep fans happy. While it's true that the ACC is a step up in terms of football than the Big East was, it's not such a huge step that winning a conference title should be considered out of the question.
Onto the actual players.
The fact that Pitt could use the most improvement at quarterback goes without saying. After a solid 2010 (16 TDs, 9 INTs, 2,572 yards), Sunseri took a big step back last year (10 TDs, 11 INTs, 2,616 yards). Even worse than the TD/INT ratio of under 1:1, Sunseri looked wildly confused through much of the season in Todd Graham's new offense. The good news is that he'll be on more familiar footing in Chryst's pro style offense and things should be a bit simpler. Still, that won't guarantee success. He'll need to release the ball quicker and take far fewer sacks than last year.
In other words - this can't happen.
Protecting Sunseri is the job of the line and unfortunately, there are a few issues here. Starting tackle Juantez Hollins was suspended for the year and that forced more inexperienced players into battle. One such player who should have been competing for the job was Penn State transfer Tom Ricketts, but an injury ended his season before it started. Because of the extreme lack of depth there, former guard Cory King converted to tackle to take Hollins' spot.Center Ryan Turnley and guard Chris Jacobson are two guys with significant experience that should bring some stability. The other guard and tackle spots, manned by Ryan Schlieper and Matt Rotheram respectively, are a bit of a work in progress. Both players have some experience, but not much. If there's anywhere that the word 'uncertainty' should be applied, it's probably here more than anywhere else.
Pitt's bread and butter on offense should be the running game. Ray Graham's return from injury is really the type of thing that could make or break the team this year. If he can't get all the way back and Pitt needs to rely on sophomore Isaac Bennett to carry the load, things will be okay. But Pitt needs quality depth at the position and a combo of a healthy Graham/Bennett is better than pairing freshman Rushel Shell, Malcolm Crockett, or Corey Davis with Bennett. And as good as Bennett has looked in the spring or fall, it's hard to imagine him having the type of season Graham was having up until his knee injury last year. A healthy Ray Graham could make all the difference and his infrequent participation during camp means there are still going to be questions about his health for the start of the season.
The running backs won't be able to do it all, though. They'll need the help of the receivers who also need to rebound from a subpar season. Pitt's two top wideouts, Devin Street and Mike Shanahan, combined for under 1,250 yards. Part of that was on Sunseri, but part of it was also on dropped balls and running routes, to be sure. The good news is that both are back and there should be a good bit of familiarity with Sunseri as this will be the third season they're working with him. Playing a bigger role this season should be Cam Saddler and Ronald Jones and if you're looking for an 'X-factor' type of guy, it's probably Josh Brinson. Brinson's looked good in both of the scrimmages from camp that I saw and is an athletic guy with some big play potential. He may not have a ton of catches simply because Pitt has so many veterans in the mix, but he could make some plays along the way.
Uncertainty rears its ugly head in most of Pitt's offensive units, but this could actually be an area of great stability. Paul Chryst already likes to use tight ends and with the lack of a true deep passing game, this is the security blanket Sunseri can utilize to help move the ball down the field if the running game falters a bit. Returning to lead the unit is Hubie Graham and if he put up 28 catches for 325 yards last year in an offense where he wasn't a focal point, I think he's in for a nice season here. But it's more than a one-man show here, so even if Graham doesn't have a huge year, other guys should put up some numbers as well. Drew Carswell looked good in camp and there's also backup true freshman J.P. Holtz. Holtz was a highly-regarded recruit and has also worked well in the scrimmages with second-string quarterbacks Trey Anderson and Chad Voytik.
Check back tomorrow for the defensive preview.