By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.
Pittsburgh Panthers 2012 Spring Preview
2011 Record: 6-7, 4-3 Big East
Spring practice: March 15-April 14
Returning Starters: Offense – 9, Defense – 5
Passing: Tino Sunseri, 247 of 385, 2,616 yds., 10 TDs, 11 INTs
Rushing: Ray Graham, 164 car., 958 yds., 9 TDs
Receiving: Devin Street, 53 rec., 754 yds., 2 TDs
Tackles: Jarred Holley, 67
Sacks: Aaron Donald, 11
Interceptions: Six players tied with 1
Redshirts to watch: TE Sam Collura, RB Malcolm Crockett, LB Nicholas Grigsby, DB Roderick Ryles
Transfers to watch: OL Tom Ricketts (Penn State), WR Brendon Felder (North Carolina), DB Cullen Christian (Michigan), DB E.J. Banks (Notre Dame), DB Ray Vinopal (Michigan)
Sept. 1 Youngstown State
Sept. 15 Virginia Tech
Sept. 22 Gardner-Webb
Oct. 6 at Buffalo
Nov. 3 at Notre Dame
TBD at Cincinnati
TBD at Connecticut
TBD at Syracuse
TBD at USF
Offensive Strength: Ray Graham was well on his way to rushing for 1,000 yards, but a torn ACL ended his season in the victory over Connecticut. All signs point to Graham returning for the 2012 opener, but if he is slowed early on, there’s solid depth at running back with Isaac Bennett and true freshman Rushel Shell.
Offensive Weakness: Quarterback Tino Sunseri had a disappointing junior year, throwing 11 picks to only 10 touchdowns and often held the ball too long in the pocket. Sunseri struggled, but the offensive line deserves its share of the blame. The front five never found its rhythm, largely due to injuries and the struggles of adapting to a new scheme.
Defensive Strength: End/tackle Aaron Donald had a breakout season last year, collecting 47 tackles and 11 sacks. Donald will need to anchor the line with three key contributors departing. The secondary ranked 72nd nationally in pass defense last season, but cornerback K’Waun Williams and safeties Jared Holley and Andrew Taglianetti are back.
Defensive Weakness: With six starters departing, there are several holes for new coordinator Dave Huxtable to fill this spring. Up front, the Panthers suffered huge losses, as Brandon Lindsey, Chas Alecxih and Myles Caragein have expired their eligibility. The linebacking corps must also be rebuilt thanks to the departures of Greg Williams, Max Gruder and Tristan Roberts.
Spring Storylines Facing the Panthers
1. For a team that has had four head coaches since December 2010, this spring is all about building stability. After Todd Graham decided to bolt for Arizona State after one season, the Panthers brought in Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst as the new head coach. This will be Chryst’s first head coaching gig, but he was one of the top coordinators in college football and should be a terrific fit in Pittsburgh. The Panthers aren’t far off from contending in a wide-open Big East race. However, how quickly the team adapts to Chryst will determine how high Pittsburgh can climb in the Big East standings this year.
2. Quarterback Tino Sunseri was a lighting rod for criticism last year, as the Panthers offense slumped to a disappointing 83rd nationally in scoring. Graham promised a high-octane offense, but Pittsburgh was stuck in neutral most of last year. Sunseri had a few bright spots, including a 419-yard passing performance in the 35-20 win over Connecticut. However, Sunseri had some awful games, throwing for only 38 yards in a loss to Utah and tossing three picks in a 34-10 defeat to Rutgers. The senior enters spring with a fresh start and a system that should be more suited to his strengths. The Panthers really need Sunseri to improve this year, especially when there are no proven backups on the roster. Sophomores Trey Anderson, Anthony Gonzalez and Mark Myers will compete with incoming freshman Chad Voytik for the backup role. If Sunseri fails to show much progress early on, expect Chryst to get an extended look at the other quarterbacks on the roster.
3. Although Sunseri deserved a good chunk of the blame for last season’s offensive struggles, the offensive line also deserves its share of criticism. The front five ranked last in the nation with 64 sacks allowed or around 4.9 per game. Coming from Wisconsin, Chryst is well-aware of the importance of a solid offensive line. Outside of the quarterback play, this group has to make the biggest strides for Pittsburgh to compete for the Big East title in 2012. The Panthers lose three starters up front, but return six with starting experience. Guard Chris Jacobson was limited last year due to injuries, but his return should help solidify a line that cannot be any worse than it was last year. The switch from a spread to pro-style scheme should also benefit this group and prevent another disastrous sack total at the end of 2012.
4. Running back Ray Graham is expected to sit out spring practice as he continues to recover from a torn ACL. Although Graham needs as much work as possible in the new offense, the Panthers need him at 100 percent and can’t afford to rush his recovery. With Graham sidelined this spring, look for Isaac Bennett and Corey Davis to shoulder the workload in the backfield. All signs point to Graham returning at full strength in the fall, and his recovery will be one of the top injuries to monitor before the 2012 Big East gets underway.
5. Defense was usually a strength under former coach Dave Wannstedt and overall, this group wasn’t bad last year. The Panthers finished 21st nationally against the run, allowed 22.9 points a game and generated 3.3 sacks a game. There’s some key voids to fill this preseason, as Pittsburgh must replace six starters. The front seven will be the biggest area of focus, as end Brandon Lindsey is gone after collecting 8.5 sacks last year and two solid contributors are gone at linebacker. The secondary ranked 72nd nationally in passing yards allowed per game, but should be improved with three starters returning for 2012. Although there are some pieces to work with, new defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable has to rebuild the front seven and find players that can replace Lindsey’s production off the edge.
Related Content Links: