Last night, word emerged that Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst was nearing a deal to become Pittsburgh's head coach. Honestly, this would be a wonderful hire barring some last-second glitches. He should be able to leverage Dave Wannstedt's personnel and mold a pretty special offense out of Ray Graham, tight end Hubie Graham and a solid play-action quarterback in Tino Sunseri.
What's that? This isn't December 2010? Pittsburgh has since spent a year in Todd Graham's spread-out system and now have to conform back to a more power-based, run-first attack? Okay, that's not ... optimal. But in theory, Chryst is still a potentially strong hire, and he should be able to have some fun playing with the toys on hand. As soon as he figures out how to craft a better offensive line, anyway.
Chryst is evidently about to become Pittsburgh's fourth head coach in 12 months after Dave Wannstedt's resignation, Mike Haywood's drama and Todd Graham's fleeing. Now seems like a good time to check out the offensive personnel he would inherit next season assuming he signs the dotted line on the contract.
Projected Depth Chart
Tino Sunseri (6'2, 215, Sr.) -- 228-for-357 (64%), 2433 (6.8), 10 TD, 10 INT, 54 sacks for 350 (5.1, 13.1% sack rate); 87 carries, 469 (5.4), 4 TD, +5.8 Adj. POE
Trey Anderson (6'0, 180, So.)
Depending on your general side of the "half-full/half-empty" debate, Steve Pederson's hire of Todd Graham was either completely misguided (possibly a fair charge with Pederson's less-than-stellar track record) or done very much with the future tense in mind,because there were a lot of square pegs crammed into round holes this season in Pittsburgh. Tino Sunseri was certainly one of the pegs. Sunseri has a reasonably accurate arm and nice legs, but through some combination of poor decision making and dreadful pass protection, he was sacked a ridiculous 54 times in 2011. That would be too many sacks even in an offense like Houston's or Texas Tech's, one that attempts 600 passes in a season; but Sunseri was sacked that many times in just 411 pass attempts, an absolutely horrific total.
Sunseri's success will be determined mostly by the success of the running game. Again, he has a good arm and solid mobility, and there will be times when he is able to play something of a Russell Wilson type of role with his dual-threat ability. But if he is simply sitting in the pocket, on obvious passing downs and with no hope of play-action assistance, he is likely to continue getting drilled, and not even the world's best offensive coordinator can figure out how to make too much noise with a horizontal quarterback.
Projected Depth Chart -- Running Back
Ray Graham (5'9, 195, Sr.) -- 164 carries, 964 yards, 9 TD, +13.5 Adj. POE; 40 targets, 30 catches, 200 (5.0)
Isaac Bennett (5'11, 190, So.) -- 48 carries, 215 yards, 2 TD, +0.9 Adj. POE; 13 targets, 12 catches, 87 (6.7)
Projected Depth Chart -- Fullback
Mark Giubilato (6'2, 230, So.)
K.K. Mosley-Smith (6'0, 295, So.)
There is some good news for Chryst in regard to the running game: while Pittsburgh was one of the passingest teams in the country (they ranked 109th in Adj. Run-Pass Ratio), Graham was able to retain the services of some interesting running backs, and he did occasionally employ a fullback in his scheme. Not full-time, mind you (of the two fullbacks listed above, Giubilato is a linebacker, Mosley-Smith a defensive tackle), but they did earn a spot on the depth chart, and they did see a little bit of action. Obviously Chryst's schemes at Wisconsin were built around old-school power, with huge linemen and fullback playing roles that are less prevalent in today's college football landscape. I would have to figure that someone like Giubilato will be moved full-time to the fullback position, and he should be at least somewhat ready for such a move.
Also likely ready in 2012: Ray Graham. Pittsburgh's offense took a downturn after Graham was lost for the season with a knee injury, but barring setbacks, he should most likely be ready for fall camp. That is a decent scenario for Chryst, really, as he would get a reliable veteran when the season starts, and he would get to test out a pair of sophomores -- Bennett and Corey Davis -- in the meantime.
Projected Depth Chart -- Wide Receiver
Devin Street (6'4, 190, Jr.) -- 83 targets, 48 catches (58%), 692 yards (8.3)
Mike Shanahan (6'5, 225, Sr.) -- 59 targets, 35 catches (59%), 443 yards (7.5)
Cameron Saddler (5'7, 170, Sr.) -- 28 targets, 19 catches (68%), 207 yards (7.4)
Ronald Jones (5'8, 165, So.) -- 14 targets, 11 catches (79%), 107 yards (7.6)
Projected Depth Chart -- Tight End
Hubie Graham (6'4, 230, Sr.) -- 36 targets, 27 catches (75%), 307 yards (8.5)
Anthony Gonzalez (6'3, 215, So.) -- 15 targets, 9 catches (60%), 58 yards (3.9)
Brendan Carozzoni (6'4, 230, So.) -- 6 targets, 4 catches (67%), 43 yards (7.2)
Because they didn't play at the same mach speed a lot of spread attacks tend to utilize (and because their quarterback spent a lot of time getting sacked), Pittsburgh managed an interesting combination in 2011: they threw a high percentage of time and didn't end up with a single receiver over 50 receptions. In fact, they had only one over 35. Chryst will inherit an experienced unit here, and he is lucky enough to inherit an offense that actually has some tight ends on the roster (and at least one really good one, as a matter of fact). Players like Hubie Graham took a leap of faith in sticking with Pittsburgh despite the new offense, and it will indirectly end up paying off for him. Meanwhile, a player like Street could, like Sunseri, thrive in play-action situations. It all depends on the success of the running game.
Projected Depth Chart -- Offensive Guard
Ryan Schlieper (6'5, 305, Jr.) --- 7 career starts
Juantez Hollins (6'5, 305, Jr.) -- 7 career starts
Cory King (6'6, 325, Jr.) -- 5 career starts
Matt Rotheram (6'6, 350, So.) -- 2 career starts
While plenty of experience returns at the skill positions, the offensive line is a complete question mark. On one hand, it appears to be one of those bad news-good news situations. (The bad news: four of Pitt's five most experienced linemen will depart following the bowl game. The good news: the line wasn't very good anyway.) The problem is, the line was only poor in pass protection; they were actually quite solid in the run-blocking department (seventh in Adj. Line Yards, 117th in Adj. Sack Rate), which probably lends some credence to the thought that a lot of the sacks were due as much to Sunseri as the line (throw the ball, Tino!). In that way, losing a three-year starter in guard Lucas Nix and a total of 80 career starts could certainly lead to a bit of stumbling early on. The returning linemen are plenty big and beefy -- though there could be quite a bit of shuffling before the season starts, the five "projected" starters above average 6-foot-5, 317 pounds -- but their 33 career starts will rank them at or near the bottom of the national list next season. You can count on some shuffling, especially at a tackle position that returns zero career starts.
For the most part, we are touching on offense in this depth chart series -- defense will get its say in the offseason. Chryst will certainly inherit some intriguing defensive players like end Aaron Donald (15 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, 11 quarterback hurries), cornerback K'Waun Williams (five tackles for loss, six passes broken up) and safety Jarred Holley, but in 2012 all eyes will be on an offense that will have gone from run-heavy to pass-heavy, and back to run-heavy in the span of just a few months.