Last time in the Summer Study series, we took a look at what the quarterback and wide receiver positions will look like for the Panthers come this fall. In this issue, we'll round out the high-octane offense by checking out running backs, offensive line, and tight ends. Hold onto your seat -- if you're not out of it already. It's going to be explosive.Running Backs
With the coaching staff striving for 82 offensive plays a game, the running game will obviously play a huge role in the new offensive system. Junior Ray Graham will be the star of the ground attack, entering his first season as a starter. Last year, as an impressive backup to NFL-bound Dion Lewis, Graham amassed 922 yards on just 148 carries, averaging 6.2 yards per carry. Not too bad. Coming out of high school in 2009, Graham was a more coveted recruit than Lewis, and he showed us glimpses of that last year. Just like every other Pitt blogger has prognosticated, I expect big things from him this year. The high-octane system, rife with hand-offs, reverses, and other athletic trickery, is the perfect fit for an athlete like Graham. Basically open up the field and let the guy go.
Graham himself also seems to be excited about the possibilities with the new playbook. My biggest worry with the kid is his lack of football acumen. Maybe this is just me, but I've never thought of him as a "smart player." More than once over the past couple years, he's made a dumb play or done something stupid on the field to hurt Pitt. I have a lot of confidence in Todd Graham's staff, though, and I'm willing to bet they're drilling him in classrooms with whiteboards to make sure he makes smart plays.
Graham has been named to the Doak Walker and Maxwell Award watchlists. Clearly, people are expecting a spectacular year from him. The backfield was incredibly sparse -- actually it was a bit troubling -- until early July, when Pitt got word that former Wisconsin back Zach Brown would be transferring to Pitt. Brown is a bigger guy than Graham at about 220 pounds. He's also already earned his degree and is a two-time member of the Big-Ten All Academic Team. I think the two will complement one another very well, and make for some great two-back sets. As a frosh for the Badgers in 2007, Brown rushed for 568 yards, but then slowly became buried on the depth chart, ultimately leading to his transfer. Incoming freshman Malcom Crockett is another guy who really intrigues me. I don't know if he'll see playing time this year, but he could be a big factor in the future.
Dion Lewis 2009 vs. Dion Lewis 2010 was the perfect case study in the importance of a good offensive line. They can make or break your team. Seniors Chris Jacobson, Jordan Gibbs, and Lucas Nix will anchor the front line for Pitt. All three are returning starters which is a good sign. After getting off to a wobbly start last year (see early season Dion Lewis), the group got into a rhythm, and ended up being pretty solid for remainder of the year. I'm glad to have these three back, especially Nix who is considered an NFL draft prospect. Both he and Jacobson have been named to the Outland Trophy watchlist. I'm not sure who will fill out the remaining two spots, but Pitt has a heap of depth here. Greg Gaskins has starting experience, and the Panthers have some big bodies in Jack Lippert, Arthur Doakes, Ryan Schlieper, Ryan Turnley, Cory King, and Matt Rotheram. During fall camp, two of those guys will likely separate themselves from the pack and nab the starting jobs. It's hard to predict how well an offensive line will perform, but I don't see any gaping holes with this bunch. My question will be whether these big guys will be able to adapt to the whole 'snap the ball every 15 seconds' thing.
What's this, right? Although it's not a position that gets a whole lot of attention, Pitt's tight end situation looks to be shaping up nicely. Mike Cruz, the starter last year, left the team for unknown reasons some months back, but I was never overly impressed with him anyway. Sophomore Brock DeCicco should get balls thrown his way which I'm excited to see. Last year in limited action he caught two passes, both for touchdowns. Junior Hubie Graham, who transferred from Illinois, had a great spring and seems to be a coaching staff favorite. He's a fine physical specimen who I expect to solidly contribute, especially blocking.
That wraps up our look at the high-octane offense. Pitt fans should expect to witness some growing pains early on, but hopefully as the season goes on, the unit will develop, improve, and ultimately flourish in our new offensive setup. God forbid, even if they don't, it'll still be more exciting than last year's team. Next time, we'll begin our look at the other side of the field -- The Nitro Defense.