- From a tech site I frequent...I bolded the part I think affects our matchup the most fwiw.
This season Virginia Tech will resume playing former Big East foe Pittsburgh. Pitt will be a non-conference road game for Tech in 2012. Moving forward, it's unknown whether Pitt will fulfill the return trip of a home-and-home in 2013, or the Panthers will be ACC members leaving the Hokies likely to head back to Pennsylvania for the second year in a row. As a student I saw the Panthers "upset" the Hokies three straight seasons before Tech joined the ACC. I still can't get over Kevin Jones running wild in 2003 (241 yards, 4 TDs!) only to be bested by Rod Rutherford (and Larry Fitzgerald). I’m anxious for a chance at redemption.
Much like Tech, Pitt's traditionally been a run-first, defensive-minded team, because of which they've historically matched up well against the Hokies. Of the 11 games between the two, 4 have been decided by 7 points or less, and there have only been 3 games decided by 3 or more touchdowns.
Since Pitt's been off the radar for a little bit, let's play catchup. Following the 2004 season Walt Harris (a major thorn in Virginia Tech's side) left to take the Stanford job (he failed hard there). Pitt hired former Miami Dolphins head coach/Pitt offensive tackle, Dave Wannstedt. Wannstedt recruited some high-profile players, but his teams were never deep enough to dominate the Big East on talent alone, and they always seemed to fail to reach their potential. He posted a slightly above average 42-31 record over six seasons. He never won the Big East outright, or reached a BCS bowl. The greatest accomplishment during Wannstedt's tenure might be the 13-9 win in Morgantown over West Virginia. That loss knocked the 'Eers from playing in the national championship game. (At least that's what I'll always remember him for.) After a ten win season in 2009, many pundits predicted Pitt to get over the hump, win the conference, and reach a BCS bowl in 2010. Pitt fired Wannstedt after a disappointing 7-5 campaign.
Pitt then hired Tulsa head coach Todd Graham. Graham annually directed one of the nation's best offenses at Tulsa (1st, 1st, 35th, 5th). However, during his one-and-done season at Pitt the offense sputtered (88th), the Panthers went 6-7, and Graham bailed to Arizona State.
Pitt hired Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst (2005-11), an offensive guru in his own right, to replace Graham, their third (full time) head coach in the last three seasons.
Chryst will have a lot of talent to work with as Pitt returns nine starters on offense including veteran quarterback Tino Sunseri. After an impressive debut in 2010 (223/346 2,572 yards 16 TDs 9 INTs), Sunseri took a step back in '11 (247/385 2,616 yards 10 TDs 11 INTs). Sunseri struggled as the triggerman in Graham's up-tempo "spread" offense, and received criticism from his then coach for it. Chryst runs a methodical pro-style offense focused on establishing the rush to setting up play-action. That's more similar to what Wannstedt, rather than Graham did at Pitt. Consider this, of the 944 plays Pitt ran in 2011 Sunseri attempted 385 passes, and rushed 154 times (57.1% of total plays). By comparison, of the 937 plays Wisconsin ran in 2011 Russell Wilson attempted 309 passed and rushed 79 times (41.4% of total plays). Wilson was able to account for 811 more yards (3,513 to 2,702) on 151 less plays. I'm not saying Sunseri will have a season like Wilson had in '11, but I do believe by design he'll be much more efficient, and will benefit from a reduced role.
Pitt's three leading receivers and tight end from 2011 are back. Devin Street and Mike Shanahan made Phil Steele's first and second, respectively, Big East team. According to Shanahan, Chryst's offense will allow the receivers to be more productive.
"I like the route combinations, they make sense, they are very clear, and that helps us," Shanahan said. "Last year, we weren't asked to run routes specifically, and there was some confusion. Most of us were recruited to play in this pro-style offense. So, it should be an easy transition and it has been."
Tight end Hubie Graham caught 28 balls and was Pitt's third leading receiver in 2011 (325 yards). He always envisioned himself playing in a pro-style offense.
"I definitely want to be a dominant blocker," he said. "I feel like that's a very important aspect of a tight end. I want to be versatile so I'm working on that aspect."
Physical tight ends who can make plays in the passing game have been known to give Bud's defense fits.
There could be a bit of a running back by committee to start the season. Pitt's leading rusher last season, Ray Graham (5.8 YPC), suffered a torn ACL last October.
"He's progressing," Chryst said last month. "Now what that means, I'm not even trying to be tricky about it, you don't know. But he is making progress and then you get to the point … the more you do are you feeling confident with it? We've had nothing that's been discouraging."
If Graham isn't 100% there are other options. Isaac Bennett rushed for 121 yards in Pitt's Blue-Gold Scrimmage, and had four 50+ yard runs during spring ball. Incoming blue-chip freshman Rushel Shell (offers from Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, among others) will compete for carries.
Shell said Pitt coach Paul Chryst told him to be ready.
"He said that I could make a lot of impact as a freshman," Shell said last week at the Big 33 game.
"In my head, I always want to be the starter," Shell said. "But there are times where you have to sit back and learn. I'm ready to learn, because Ray Graham is a great running back.
Keep in mind that at Wisconsin Chryst effectively used multiple running backs, so even if he is healthy, Graham will probably share the load.
Like every team ever, Pitt's offensive success will depend on the o-line. Pitt gave up 64.0 sacks in 2011, dead last in the NCAA. Miami (Ohio) gave up 47.0, second to last. That's quite a differential. Someone hand Gayle a towel to wipe the slobber off his mouth. Sunseri owns some of those sacks too. As Mark Ennis put it, "Sunseri is often erratic, holds on to the ball too long, and takes too many sacks." In 2010 Pitt only gave up 23.0 sacks, so consider Graham's pass protection scheme (not just the line's responsibilities, but absence of tight ends and fullbacks blocking), and the line's lack of familiarity with it a culprit too.
Pitt's offensive line is in good hands with NFL and college veteran Jim Hueber (Minnesota Vikings 2006-10, Wisconsin 1992-2005) coaching the unit. Pitt returns three starting offensive linemen from 2011, neither of their tackles, and sixth-year senior guard Chris Jacobson was held out of contact drills during spring ball. Jacobson started all 13 games in 2010 and the first three in 2011 at left guard before suffering a season ending ACL injury. According to Hueber, Jacobson will have to earn his starting job back. Center Ryan Turnley was recognized as the most improved player on offense during spring. Tackles Juantez Hollins and Matt Rotheram put a stranglehold on the starting tackle jobs. As it stands now, Pitt is looking at a solid six-man rotation along the line for the fall (3 guards, 2 tackles, 1 center), but depth is a concern.
"I think there are some guys who are trying, but I am not happy with that part of it (the depth) at all," Hueber said. "Some of these young guys have not stepped up like I thought they would."
The problem: The backups have almost no experience. Guard Arthur Doakes, who played in six games last year, earned a letter, but tackles Tom Ricketts (a Penn State transfer) and junior college transfer Zenel Demhasaj (redshirt) didn`t play.
The Hokies 8-10 man rotation at d-line could quickly wear out a thin line like that.
There's still work to be done, and players need to step up, but it certainly seems like Pitt's line is moving in positive direction, quickly.
"We think we made progress, but we are nowhere near where we need to be," Hueber said. "But we are moving in that direction. We have made a lot of progress in a lot of areas, but we have some things we have to shore up and find some depth.
"I can't complain about where we are now as compared to where we were on the first day attitude-wise and accomplishing things we wanted to accomplish.
"I didn't know who we had to replace [at tackle], so everyone was on the same level at the start. [Hollins and Rotheram] are still growing up -- there is not much experience there, but they are still growing up and they have done a lot of really good things. And now it is my job to get them over the hump in the fall."
The players are buying into a familiar system.
"We're playing real football again," Jacobson said Tuesday after the Panthers' fourth spring practice. "I mean, the guys are out there pulling and being really physical and being able to study defenses. I love it. It is great to be able to double team guys, pull around and hit people -- that's how I love to play.
"We're blowing the defensive line off the ball and taking care of the line scrimmage and working up to the next level. It isn't finesse anymore; we're back to banging heads.
The defense is undergoing an overhaul as well. Todd Graham installed a 3-4 scheme when he was hired, Chryst is switching back to a 4-3, the base defense run by Dave Wannstedt.
Many of the key players on the defense were recruited by Wannstedt and played in his system for at least one season.
"It definitely helps that some of them have played in the 4-3 before because they understand the concepts of the defense and what we are looking for from each level," [Defensive Coordinator, and Wisconsin import, Dave] Huxtable said. "There are obviously little differences between what they did [under Wannstedt] and what we are doing, but the base 4-3 defense is what we play and it is what they have played in the past.
"The one thing we want to be is physical up front, and we also like guys who want to run to the ball. The thing I told these guys is that I love them, I love their attitude, I love the way they come to work and I love the fact that they want to learn and get better and that is all you can ask."
One key difference between the Panthers' current 4-3 and the way it was played under Wannstedt is that one or even both of the safeties will be asked to play more in run support, so there will be more pressure on the cornerbacks as there will be some plays in which they won't have help to cover receivers.
Huxtable said he likes to have an eight-man look and sometimes will even drop a ninth man into the box, but it will only work if the corners are able to cover on their own.
Fortunately for Pitt, returning starter K'Waun Williams is one of the best corners in the Big East. Pitt isn't settled on the starter opposite of Williams. Either Michigan transfer Cullen Christian, or redshirt freshman Lafayette Pitts is likely to win the job. Pitts got most of the first team snaps during spring. Depth isn't a concern at safety. According to Andrea Adelson, "Pitt has some major talent at safety, with four players capable of starting in Jarred Holley, Andrew Taglianetti, Jason Hendricks and transfer Ray Vinopal, one of the highlights for the Panthers this season."
The front-seven is inexperienced, but there are few proven playmakers. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald was a second-team All-Big East selection in 2011 after an 11-sack season. Redshirt freshman linebacker Todd Thomas started 6 games and posted 47 tackles. There are high hopes for senior defensive end Shayne Hale a 4-star recruit who was selected as the most improved defensive player of spring. However, T.J. Clemmings and Bryan Murphy, two more former 4-star recruits, could be the two starters this fall after standout springs. Because of injuries and inexperience Pitt probably won't settle on its three linebackers until before the season.
"I think we're thin at a few spots on defense, but we have time to worry about the depth chart," Huxtable said. "Our linebackers, like the other groups, are working very hard and I like their attitude. We are really just sort of mixing and matching in order to try and find the best combination."
The starting unit during the spring has been redshirt junior Dan Mason at middle linebacker, with redshirt junior Shane Gordon and redshirt sophomore Eric Williams on the outside.
Pitt has switched from a 3-4 alignment to a 4-3, so the responsibilities of the linebackers have changed, although Mason noted that "playing linebacker is playing linebacker no matter what the system is."
Gordon (6 feet, 1 inch) is the wild card in the bunch. He has been on the brink of breaking out as a star but has never quite been consistent enough to become a full-time starter. He is athletic and fast and has shown the ability to make big hits but has struggled in pass coverage. The new defense seems to be better suited to his talents.
Williams, who is 6-3, is more slender but, like Gordon, has athleticism and has been working at developing consistency.
"The thing I like about Shane Gordon is he wants to be good, he is a hard worker and I think he has a chance to be a very good player," Huxtable said.
"Eric Williams is kind of a taller guy who is raw but does have some ability. Again, we're really just trying to find out what we have and what we're capable of, but I like [the way] these guys approach things."
At the time, hiring hot-shot offensive guru Todd Graham seemed like a homerun for Pitt. Graham was supposed to be a breath of fresh air after the program had gone stale under Dave Wannstedt. That didn't work out at all. It didn't seem like the players had any confidence in Graham's schemes, and Graham took the first opportunity to leave town instead of digging in for the long haul. Pitt hired Chryst with hopes of returning to its comfort zone—hard-nosed football—palpable in every player quote post-Graham that I read. Time will tell if Chryst is the right coach for the job. He's never led a team before, but he's been apart of successful programs and worked for proven coaches (Barry Alvarez, Mike Riley, and Bret Bielema). Thanks in part to Wannstedt, Pitt's roster is built for Chryst's schemes. If the players can forget everything Todd Graham tried to teach them, and plug some holes, they could be poised for a successful season.
I realize this post was light on '12 Tech-Pitt specifics. My hope was this piece would provide insight into where Pitt stands heading into the season. I promise there will be more X's and O's pertaining to the game during the season. For right now, believe that this will be a tough test for the Hokies. Pitt has a well stocked depth chart and their strengths are now aligned with the philosophies of their head coach.
Good is the Worst Enemy of Great