Pitt opens spring practice Thursday morning with yet another new coaching staff, another new scheme, and more questions than answers.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, this has become a familiar story line. Going on their fourth head coach since the end of the 2010 season — five if you count interim coach Keith Patterson — has brought Pitt its fair share of negative ink, along with upheaval for players who have to adjust to new coordinators and terminology all over again.
Nobody is quite sure what to expect. That goes for new head coach Paul Chryst, who embarks on his first practice as a head coach. Chryst understands there will be a "feeling out period" for the players to get to know the coaches and vice versa, along with the natural anxiety that comes along with figuring out what is being asked.
Pitt is going back to a more traditional offensive style, and switching back to the 4-3 defensive scheme that Pitt has historically run with success. The good news is that the majority of the players on the team were recruited to play those particular styles. The bad news is their brains may feel like football mush given all the tumult of the last year.
But the spring is always a time for renewal and hope for every team, and every position. That goes for quarterback, where Tino Sunseri will be under the microscope for the third straight season. Though the Pitt defense has many more holes to fill, Chryst cannot go through an interview without being asked about Sunseri, and what he can do to improve himself should he be the starter again.
"I'm glad he's here," Chryst said. "I'm looking forward to working with him. I know Brooks (Bollinger) is, I know Joe (Rudolph) is. We're fired up about that."
Sunseri never got adjusted to the hurry-up spread system former coach Todd Graham installed, and withstood withering criticism not only from fans but from Graham himself. Never once did Sunseri lash out or complain. He took every single hit on the field and off the field and kept coming back up. Rudolph, the newly installed offensive coordinator, believes Sunseri has a skill-set the Panthers can utilize effectively this season.
"You look at the offense that we run, we had two really different quarterbacks in the last two years at Wisconsin," Rudolph said in a phone interview. "You had Scott Tolzien and you had Russell Wilson, and you wouldn't watch film and mistake those guys for each other. They're different, but both had great success. You can have people with different skill sets, but if you teach them to make good decisions and grow the offense to highlight their skill set, they have a chance to be successful. That's what you feel about Tino. He has the skill set. Now it's can he make those decisions, can you be consistent, can you play within the offense? We'll find out."
The offensive line in front of him was an area of weakness last season, having to fight through injuries and inexperience as well as a scheme that did not lend itself to their strengths. But last season can stay there as far as Chryst is concerned.
"I didn't spend a lot of time watching or caring what their scheme was last year," he said.
Run-blocking generally suits an offensive lineman better than pass-blocking, so there is hope -- especially if Chryst is able to translate the success he had with the ground game at Wisconsin to the Panthers. Ray Graham is out for the spring, but that gives some young players an opportunity to gain some reps and earn playing time come the fall. Isaac Bennett, Corey Davis and Malcolm Crockett will get a majority of the carries.
Defensively, Pitt has to replace linemen Brandon Lindsey, Myles Caragein and Chas Alecxih, along with leading tackler Max Gruder, and needs to work on depth along the line and at linebacker, the two positions that took the biggest hits. Starting linebacker Todd Thomas also will be out for the spring.
So yes, there is plenty of work to be done on both sides of the ball. Chryst and his staff are eager to get started on building this team — for the long run.