2012 Pittsburgh Football Preview: Transition And Angry Sons

CINCINNATI OH - DECEMBER 04: Tino Sunseri #12 of the Pittsburgh Panthers throws the ball during the Big East Conference game against the Cincinnati Bearcats at Nippert Stadium on December 4 2010 in Cincinnati Ohio. Pittsburgh won 28-10. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Including interim coaches, Paul Chryst is the fifth head coach Pitt has had in 18 months. That is not healthy. But if they Panthers can overcome yet another transition, not to mention the discipline struggles that sometimes come with going through multiple fathers in a short period of time, they have some interesting potential. Related: Pitt's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends, and rankings galore.

For more on Pittsburgh football, visit Pitt blog Cardiac Hill, plus SB Nation Pittsburgh. And Big East Coast Bias, for the time being.

It goes without saying that sometimes Twitter can dumb a conversation down to an intolerably stupid level. But sometimes it can sum an issue in wonderfully clean, elegant fashion.

Case in point: two tweets from Saturday morning.

What you will read below are 2,000 words talking about Pitt's last 12 months, its offense, defense and what I expect from the Panthers this season. I hope you read it. But really, these two Tweets sum them all up in under 280 characters.

Pitt has had four head coaches in 18 months: the team fired Dave Wannstedt in December 2010, hired Mike Haywood, fired him a couple of weeks later, hired Todd Graham, lost him 11 months later and brought in perhaps the man they should have hired all along: Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst. Let's just say that when you have the same interim coach for consecutive bowl games, something went wrong.

Alas, it does appear that Pitt has made a solid hire this time around, even if one could have said exactly the same thing about Todd Graham. Chryst inherits an offense deep with running backs and enormous linemen; after his time in Madison, he should very much know what to do with that. Despite shifting toward something of a spread offense under Graham, this personnel seems geared more toward power running and deeper pass routes. Of course, the offensive line is not very experienced, and the defense suffered some key losses in the front seven. That probably would have prevented me from doing something rash like picking the Panthers to win the Big East; but the incredibly awkward coaching situation definitely will.


Related: Check out Pittsburgh's statistical profile.

Last Year

Here's what I said about Pitt last July:

In the three decades since Pitt emerged as a national power in the 1970s, the Panthers have rather constantly been almost good. That continued during the recently-concluded Dave Wannstedt era; from 2008-10, Wannstedt constantly put a quality product on the field, but despite a Top 15 finish in 2009, his tenure will be remembered as the same missed opportunities that have punctuated Pittsburgh's recent history. […]

The good news: Graham is more proven (and more expensive) than Haywood as a head coach, having generated three ten-win seasons in the last four years. He is bringing Texas ties to recruiting, and his style of play will force energy into a program that needed some.

The bad news: Tulsa regressed a bit as they became completely Graham's program. They ranked 54th and 39th in F/+ his first two years (2007-08) but only 86th and 60th the next two; they won 10 games with smoke, mirrors and turnovers in 2010. With a growing number of young, strong recruiters in the Big East, Graham might lack in that regard (and his early commit list for 2012 does not assuage that fear). […]

With quite a bit of experience returning to a team that has performed at a Top 25 level in recent years and recruited relatively well for a Big East team, Pittsburgh is going to be projected quite high in this year's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011. And with their offensive potential, they might live up to the projections. But the defense concerns me. They do not appear built for a smooth transition to the 3-4, with the shift in personnel placing extra emphasis on last year's weakest unit (linebacker) and turning a somewhat light line into a really light line. If the front seven holds up, and if the secondary avoids injury, then Pittsburgh could be outstanding in 2011. But as I've said before, give me two if's, and I can make just about any team really good.

After three seasons of teases under Wannstedt -- the Panthers ranked 16th, 18th and 21st in F/+ from 2008-10 but couldn't squeeze out a major bowl bid and went 1-3 in one-possession games in 2010 -- Pitt completely and totally regressed under Graham. They ranked 47th in 2011, falling from 27th to 67th in Off. F/+ and failing to generate any consistency whatsoever.

First Four Games: Opponents 28.8 Adj. PPG, Pitt 26.5 (minus-2.3)
Next Three Games: Opponents 26.4 Adj. PPG, Pitt 24.4 (minus-2.0)
Next Three Games: Pitt 32.4 Adj. PPG, Opponents 28.3 (plus-4.1)
Last Three Games: Opponents 28.1 Adj. PPG, Pitt 23.2 (minus-4.9)

When you change from a pro-style offense to a spread, and from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4, you should probably expect some growing pains, and that's exactly what Pitt found in 2011. Now the Panthers face the incredibly awkward process of almost moving back to what they practiced in 2010.

Offense

Throw the ball, Tino. My god, get rid of the ball.

In Paul Chryst's seven seasons as Wisconsin's offensive coordinator, he pulled off something rather incredible: he not only modernized the run-first, run-second Wisconsin offense, but he made it better. It took him a few years to work out the kinks -- the Badgers were 56th in Off. F/+ in 2008 -- but the last two years in particular were just devastating. They ranked fourth in Off. F/+ in 2010, and despite solid turnover at each level of the offense (Wisconsin returned just four starters and had to replace its quarterback, two All-American linemen and three of its top five receiving options), Wisconsin improved to No. 1 in the country last fall, better than Baylor, better than Stanford, better than Oregon, better than Oklahoma State. (They lost three games, in part, because their defense was worse than that of any of the aforementioned teams not named Baylor.) The Badgers were ruthless and efficient; they were as big as you would expect a Wisconsin power offense to be, but with Russell Wilson behind center, they were able to wing the ball around when they needed to.

Needless to say, Tino Sunseri is not Russell Wilson. And he took more hits than any non-option quarterback in the country last year. Hell, he may have had the option guys beat, too. He was a reasonably effective runner (94 pre-sack carries for 487 yards), but when passing, he held. The ball. For far. Too. Long. Let's put it this way: a 13.5 percent sack rate isn't completely unheard of if you're in a run-first, run-second offense and tend to throw the ball mostly on passing downs. It is bad no matter what, but it isn't unprecedented. It quite possibly is, however, unprecedented for a pass-first spread offense. Quick math: what is 13.5 percent of 445 pass attempts? 60 sacks. Sixty. Sunseri was sacked almost five times per game. That is simply absurd. And it falls mostly on Sunseri. The Pitt line ranked eighth in the country in Adj. Line Yards (suggesting a reasonably high baseline of quality), and backup quarterback Trey Anderson was sacked only once in 34 pass attempts (sack rate: 2.9 percent). Sunseri was not made to run the spread offense, and it showed.

That said, he will still be the starter in 2012, and he should find a lot to like about the Paul Chryst offense, as should the line. Wisconsin ran 69 percent of the time on standard downs (national average: 60 percent) and 43 percent of the time on passing downs (national average: 33 percent). Pitt's averages were 58 percent and 27 percent, respectively. If nothing else, that should ensure that Sunseri gets hit less in 2012. Beyond that, however, there are three reasons why a run-heavy approach could suit Pitt well:

1. The Panthers are deep at running back. Assuming Ray Graham is 100 percent healthy this fall (he was lost to a knee injury in the eighth game of the season), Pitt returns a back with serious workhorse potential. Graham averaged 25 carries per game over the first six contests last season and owns seven career 100-yard games and a career Adj. POE of plus-23.5 (meaning he has been about four touchdowns better than the average back given his carries, blocking and opponents). He has some interesting backups, too; Isaac Bennett managed a respectable minus-0.7 Adj. POE last year as a freshman thrust into service with Graham's injury. Bennett, sophomore Corey Davis and incoming high-four-star signee Rushel Shell should give Pitt interesting options when Graham needs a breather.

2. The Pitt offensive line is enormous. On Pitt's statistical profile, I listed 10 returning linemen. Average size: 6'6, 318 pounds. No lineman listed is shorter than 6'5, and only two are smaller than 305 pounds. It goes without saying that you need quality and experience too, and the Panthers are at least somewhat lacking in the latter -- four players with starting experience return but have combined for only 33 career starts. But this is still a line that ranked eighth in Adj. Line Yards last year. Chryst can work with that.

3. Devin Street, Mike Shanahan and Hubie Graham were meant for this offense. Street and Shanahan are each big wideouts (6'4 and 6'5, respectively) who thrive more in downfield routes. The two combined for a catch rate of 61 percent (not great, not terrible) but averaged a healthy 13.3 yards per catch. This isn't perfect for a spread offense, but they could take well to play-action opportunities. So could Graham, an Illinois transfer who found himself a fish out of water in Todd Graham's attack. (And yes, every Graham in college football was associated with Pitt last year, just like every hyphenated player goes to UConn, and every Williams goes to South Florida.) Graham managed a healthy catch rate of 75 percent and averaged 8.3 yards per target, but the 230-pound senior should be much better-suited for the new offense.

Defense

The Pitt defense, long a relative strength under Wannstedt, held steady last year despite the move to a 3-4. The Panthers ranked 27th in Def. F/+ and have now ranked between 21st and 32nd in every year since 2007. They did show some cracks -- they provided abnormally soft coverage and relied on a solid pass rush to bail them out -- but the results were at least decent. New defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable, however, has his work cut out for him to maintain that level of quality, as Pitt must replace three of its top four linemen and four of its top five linebackers.

To be sure, there is still talent up front. For whatever recruiting issues may have beset the Panthers through their numerous transitions (Two-year recruiting rank: 48th), there could be as many as eight former four-star recruits in the two-deep for the front seven. Plus, the Panthers still have Aaron Donald. The small, quick tackle (270 pounds) logged 16 tackles for loss last year, which is incredibly high for a 3-4 lineman. He is a strong playmaker, but he might find the going a bit rougher without the services of Chas Alecxih (15.5 tackles for loss) and Myles Caragein alongside him. Four-star sophomores like tackle Khaynin Mosley-Smith and ends Bryan Murphy and T.J. Clemmings need to begin proving their potential sooner than later, as do upperclassmen like senior end Shayne Hale and converted offensive lineman Jack Lippert. The line was only mediocre against the run before those losses, so this is an enormous question mark.

If the line turns out okay, Pitt can move on to its next concern: linebackers. Four 'backers who combined for 29 percent of Pitt's tackles, 28.5 tackles for loss, 11 sacks and eight passes defended are gone, leaving behind a mix-and-match crew with potential but little experience. Four-star sophomore Todd Thomas is particularly intriguing -- he combined 4.0 tackles for loss with four passes defended -- and sophomore Ejuan Price was used aggressively (and successfully: 6.5 of his 22.0 tackles were behind the line of scrimmage) last season. They will join long-injured upperclassmen Dan Mason and Manny Williams as the most proven players in the unit. There is more potential here than with the line, I think, but the experience level has taken a hit.

The top five safeties from last year's defense return, which should provide at least some continuity for a unit that prevented big plays rather well. Throw in a pair of Michigan transfers -- safety Ray Vinopal and corner Cullen Christian -- and as with the rest of the defense, you've got some potential. I don't expect the Panthers to continue playing at a Top 30 level, but they could avoid a tumble beyond about 40th or so.

Defining Success

Despite last year's regression, Pitt did still manage to qualify for its fourth consecutive bowl and ninth in 12 years. With the ridiculous head coaching drama, a fifth straight bowl would have to be considered a success, especially since it will require a 7-5 record with two FCS opponents on the docket.

Prognosis

I just don't know what to think. The offense fits the new coach's philosophy, and the defense has both consistency and upside on its side. But how do you handle moving to your third offense and your third defense in three seasons? In a sport where intuitive action is key -- if you're thinking, you aren't playing quickly enough -- how could this roster possibly play to its full potential? I am comfortable enough with this team to think another bowl season is possible, but they probably won't be in a position to contend for a Big East crown by any means.

For more on Pittsburgh football, visit Pitt blog Cardiac Hill, plus SB Nation Pittsburgh. And Big East Coast Bias, for the time being.

While we’re here, let’s watch some college football videos from SB Nation’s new YouTube channel together:

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