To say the past 12-months of Pitt football were tumultuous would be an understatement. For only a 1-year ago, the Panthers were picked to win the Big East with a lineup that featured a lot of star power. However, as it seems to be the case every year the Panthers have hype around them, they were unable to live up to expectations. Following the finale against Cincinnati, the Panthers fired Head Coach Dave Wannstedt and hired Michael Haywood from the University of Miami (Ohio). However, Haywood was fired only 16 days later after being arrested on felony domestic violence charges on New Year’s Eve. So Pitt found themselves in the middle of a P.R. nightmare and right back at the beginning of the coaching carousel again.
This time Athletic Director Steve Pederson had to get it right and on January 10, the new era of Pitt football started. At his initial press conference, the new coach won over the media and the fans with his enthusiastic persona and his “Speed, speed speed and high-octane football” approach to the game. It was clear that Todd Graham was the guy for the job. Graham, formerly the coach at Tulsa, is just as enthusiastic about being in Pitt and having a chance in a BCS conference.
Graham won people over when talking about his offense as a no huddle system. He made sure to point out the fact that he had a 3,000 yard passer, 1,000 yard rusher and three 1,000 yard receivers, the first school to accomplish such a feat. Joining Graham will be former University of Michigan Offensive Coordinator Calvin McGee, assuming the same role to provide a much needed spark to the program.
Graham listed his 5 goals for the team at his initial press conference:
1. Produce men of character and integrity – without this goal, all the others can’t be reached.
2. Graduate every single player
3. Win the Big East Championship
4. Win a BCS Bowl
5. Win the National Championship
Coach Graham said the right things and I honestly believe he means them. However, being nice doesn’t keep you around in the coaching ranks, winning does. How will the new look Panthers fair this season under the tutelage of Graham and switching from a pro-style offense to a no-huddle spread offense. The catalyst behind it will be quarterback Tino Sunseri who Graham called a “field general” to me earlier this year and has no worries about Sunseri succeeding in the the new system.
“Tino’s doing well so far and has 12 games under his belt as a starter. Tino is ahead of the curve right now and manages the offense accurately”, Graham said of his quarterback.
Last year was shaky for Sunseri in his first year as the starting quarterback, but if he follows the footsteps of his predecessor, Bill Stull, he should be ok. Stull improved in every statistical category in his second year as the starter and with the new system, Sunseri should as well. While Pitt lost Dion Lewis and Jon Baldwin from their arsenal to the NFL, the offense is still filled with speed and explosive talent.
Sunseri will have Mike Shanahan, Devin Street and Cam Saddler returning at the wide receiver positions and preseason Maxwell Award candidate Ray Graham coming out of the backfield. Graham, who backed up Lewis last season, racked up 922 yards and 8 touchdowns in only 148 attempts (6.2 ypc). Joining Graham in the backfield for Pitt will be senior transfer Zach Brown from Wisconsin to help shoulder the load for Pitt. Also, keep an eye out for true freshman Corey Davis out of Texas. When I asked Coach Graham one player to keep an eye on, he shot me a smile and said “Corey Davis, that boy is fast.”
On the defensive side of the ball, Bednarik candidate Brandon Lindsey, Jared Holley and Buddy Jackson look to lead the way. Lindsey has his breakout season last year as then Pitt defensive end Greg Romeus missed the majority of the season with back surgery and a torn ACL. Lindsey succeeded last year opposite of then teammate Jabaal Sheard as Sheard faced constant double teams. Lindsey is excited for the new year and his new position known as the “Panther Linebacker”.
“It’s exactly like what (Lamarr) Woodley does for the Steelers. I’ll still be the 4th lineman, but I need to be versatile enough to stop the run as well as drop into coverage. I’m going to be coming from the outside, the middle and the other side and bringing a lot of pressure, but making sure we disguise it so they can’t pinpoint where I’m coming from,” Lindsey said to me.
With 8 home games this season, Pitt is looking to usher in the Graham-era of football on top of the Big East this year and as always, the conference isn’t the strongest one again. With marquee games against Utah, Notre Dame and West Virginia, it won’t be a walk in the park for Graham and the Panthers in his first season. Look for the Panthers to go 8-4 this season and finish third in the Big East, behind West Virginia and South Florida. Pitt fans need to temper their expectations in Grahams first season as Pitt coach. Similar to how hiring Clint Hurdle saved General Manager Neal Huntington’s job, Graham may have just done the same for Pederson.
About the Author
Written by Michael Waterloo
I'm currently pursuing my Master's degree in Communication and Journalism from Clarion University. I currently work for Ohio Valley Athletics where I serve as the West Virginia Football Beat Writer and cover West Virginia Men's Basketball as well. I'm a big Pittsburgh Pirates, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Penguins, Pitt Panthers and Oregon Ducks fan. Follow me on Twitter at @MichaelWaterloo or visit www.ovathletics.com