On the first day of spring practice, the Pittsburgh players got their first glimpse at what it would be like to run a no-huddle offense. In a word, they were completely gassed.
Nobody was in the shape they needed to be in to run at the tempo new coach Todd Graham wants to run. As the practices continued, players got more used to playing at a faster pace. But this summer is going to be huge for getting the players into shape and prepared for the season.
To that end, new director of strength and conditioning Shawn Griswold has designed a program that is completely different from what players did in the past at Pittsburgh. The tempo has been picked up in the weight room. Instead of one-minute breaks between reps, players have 30 seconds. There is more high-volume running. There is more specialization for each position group. During workouts, players must run and not walk to the water fountain or to their next station.
The goal is to get everybody acclimated to going fast.
"A lot of it is getting the guys to buy into the mindset," said Griswold, who came with Graham from Tulsa. "They have done a good job of that. We are constantly on the go, constantly talking about tempo so it is in the back of their heads. We have got to create an on-field pace that can't be matched by the defense. But we also have got to get the defense in shape. If the offense scores in one or two plays, the defense may have to go back out for a nine-play drive again."
Griswold says it usually takes more than a year to get into the proper shape to run this style. There is no way he will be able to do what he did at Tulsa last summer.
"The amount of volume and conditioning and limited rest intervals was outstanding," he said. "I looked back at it today and said, 'Can you believe we ran this kind of stuff? That’s how good a shape they were in."
Taking the first steps is important, though. Not only do the players have to get into the proper shape, their minds have to operate at a faster pace, too. Most of that falls on quarterback Tino Sunseri, who has to be the rock in a sea of organized chaos. While players are rushing up to the line to get the ball snapped quickly -- usually with no less than 10 seconds on the play clock -- Sunseri has to bark the plays, read the defenses and make sure everyone is lined up properly.
"A really good analogy would be like a hurricane," Sunseri said in a phone interview. "Everything going on around the hurricane is chaotic. But the eye of the storm is the calm point. That’s what the quarterback needs to be in the offense. He needs to move fast, get people down the field, before the ball is snapped understand the reads, what’s expected and what he needs to do to make sure the play is run the proper way."
The only time Sunseri has run the no-huddle was in the Big 33 prep football game between Pennsylvania and Ohio all-star players in 2008. Several of his teammates played in that game with him, a game Pennsylvania won, so they have an idea of the potential they can achieve in this offense.
"The offense is going to bring out a lot of my strengths, show off my arm strength and show I can make every throw on the field and show off my athleticism," Sunseri said. "We're definitely excited about the possibilities."
In their short amount of time together, Sunseri has seen his body transformed thanks to Griswold. The last time he was home, even his mom noticed a difference, saying he looked much better. He feels stronger but needs to continue to work. With nine weeks left in the offseason program, there is still plenty left to do.
In addition to their work in the weight room this summer, players are also simulating the no-huddle in their own organized practices. Nearly every player arrives for the workouts. Kickers help spot the ball, and everybody has been moving as quickly as possible so they can keep the momentum they gained throughout the spring. The same goes for the linemen, who are the toughest to get into the necessary shape to run this offense.
"We've made strides," Griswold said. "Half of this is making the guys believe they can do it. We have to get 'can't' out of their head. If you say you can’t, you have no shot."