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March 15, 2011

Panthers begin new era under Graham

After a tumultuous offseason, Pittsburgh finally can focus on football.

From the start of December through Jan. 10, the Panthers effectively had four head coaches.

Pitt parted ways with Dave Wannstedt on Dec. 7 and hired Miami (Ohio) coach Mike Haywood nine days later. But Haywood's tenure was short-lived as he was arrested on domestic violence charges Jan. 1. Interim coach Phil Bennett led Pitt to a 27-10 win over Kentucky in the BBVA Compass Bowl on Jan. 8. Two days later, Pitt restored stability by hiring Todd Graham from Tulsa.

Graham led the Golden Hurricane to three bowls and two Conference USA championship games in his four seasons at the school. Before that, he took Rice to the New Orleans Bowl in his only season with the Owls.

PITTSBURGH AT-A-GLANCE
Tino Sunseri is the returning starter at quarterback, but he will have to earn the spot in Todd Graham's new offense.
THE BASICS
Coach: Todd Graham
Last season: 8-5 overall, 5-2 in the Big East. Beat Kentucky 27-10 in the BBVA Compass Bowl
Spring dates: March 17-April 16.
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (6): TE Mike Cruz, T Jordan Gibbs, G Chris Jacobson, G Lucas Nix, WR Mike Shanahan, QB Tino Sunseri.
Defense (8): T Chas Alecxih, T Myles Caragein, LB Max Gruder, FS Jarred Holley, E Brandon Lindsey, CB Antwuan Reed, LB Tristan Roberts, LB Greg Williams.
Special teams (0): None.
The next challenge for Pitt is the installation of Graham's system. The Panthers were a no-frills team under Wannstedt. They used a run-first, pro-style offense and rarely blitzed out of a 4-3 defense. Graham has used a spread offense everywhere he has been (implemented by coordinators Gus Malzahn and Chad Morris) and utilizes a 3-4 defense with elements of the 4-2-5.

Here's a look at how the changes could impact Pitt during spring practice.

Positions of strength

When TB Dion Lewis struggled early in the year, the elusive Ray Graham flourished. Quick and elusive, Graham ran for 922 yards and eight touchdowns behind a shaky line. He also caught 24 passes for 213 yards, so he could be an ideal fit in new coach Todd Graham's spread offense. Graham is the only scholarship running back on the roster (four running backs were signed in the 2011 recruiting class). Although Pitt will learn a new defense, the Panthers appear to have the personnel in the front seven to fit the scheme. Starting Ts Myles Caragein and Chas Alecxih should remain anchors in a three-man front. Brandon Lindsey and 10 sacks as an end last season, and could be an outside linebacker in the new scheme.

Help is needed

Beyond Graham, does Pitt have the skill-position players to run a spread offense? Tino Sunseri was inconsistent in his first season as the starting quarterback. The Panthers also must replace standout WR Jon Baldwin. Mike Shanahan and Devin Street combined for 68 catches last season, but no other returning receiver had more than seven. Playmaking SS Dom DeCicco must be replaced. Jason Hendricks had a standout freshman season and could step into DeCicco's spot. Pitt does return FS Jarred Holley and CB Antwuan Reed. LBs Tristan Roberts, Greg Williams and Max Gruder return, though the group underachieved last season.

3 guys to watch

LB Shane Gordon: Competition figures to be intense to fill the four linebacker spots. Gruder and Williams are veterans, and Lindsey can be a playmaker. Injuries may limit a few linebackers in camp, giving someone such as Gordon (or Kevin Adams) a chance to impress. Both were used sparingly as redshirt freshmen last season.

WR Devin Street: Shanahan is the leading returning receiver with 589 yards, but Street could be the breakout performer at the position. At 6 feet 4 and 190 pounds, he has good size. And he's quick, too: Against Syracuse he took a screen pass for a 79-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the game.

CB K'Waun Williams: When Reed missed the final game and a half because of an injury, Williams was impressive in his place. He's the best tackler of Pitt's corners (nine stops in the bowl game against Kentucky), and should start opposite Reed this season.

The pressure is on

QB Tino Sunseri: Sunseri is the returning starter, but that doesn't mean Graham is ruling out other options. Mark Myers, a four-star recruit from the 2010 class, and Anthony Gonzalez, a three-star prospect, are looming. Graham added another wrinkle by moving sophomore Kolby Gray to quarterback. Gray signed as a quarterback after passing and rushing for 1,000 yards during his senior season at Houston Cypress Falls. The previous coaching staff moved him to safety, but Graham moved him back to quarterback.

The buzz

Pitt has spent the past few months dealing with questions outside of football. And we don't mean basketball questions. On the heels of the Panthers' eventful pair of coaching searches, the school had to respond to a Sports Illustrated report that showed that Pitt had the most players with criminal records among the preseason top 25 teams last season. Spring practice will contain just as much intrigue with the transition to Graham's offensive and defensive systems.

Chris Peak of PantherLair.com contributed to this report.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.


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