NCF Nation: Malcolm Crockett

Five things: FSU-Pitt

September, 2, 2013
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The wait to get things started in 2013 was just a little bit longer for Pittsburgh and No. 11 Florida State, but they'll wrap up opening weekend with a prime-time showdown at Heinz Field Monday night (8 ET, ESPN). Here are five potential keys to the game:

Jameis Winston's debut: In all fairness, Pittsburgh fans get a first look at their new quarterback tonight, too, as Tom Savage makes his debut for the Panthers. But it's no discredit to Savage, who has earned ample praise from FSU's coaches and players this week, to say he's playing second fiddle to the freshman under center for the Seminoles. Winston was one of the most prized recruits in the nation two years ago, and the hype surrounding the multitalented quarterback has only built from there. He's a two-sport star, dominated FSU's spring game and beat out three other talented quarterbacks for the starting job. Now he gets to prove he's ready to live up to all the excitement.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Joel Auerbach/Getty ImagesAfter months of hype, Florida State's Jameis Winston is set for his Monday night debut at Pittsburgh.
New look on defense: Florida State's defenders have spent the long offseason downright giddy about the changes new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt brought with him from Alabama. When FSU released its official depth chart last week, the personnel shifts were jaw-dropping. And yet Jimbo Fisher insists things won't be that different. Is he playing coy? It's hard to say much of anything about the new-look D until Pitt's offense takes the field, but based on the talk of fall camp, it certainly sounds like the Seminoles are planning to combat Pitt's massive offensive line with a dose of heft on defense, then bring the blitz early and often against Savage, who doesn't exactly bring much mobility to the table. If it's a transition that goes smoothly for FSU, it could mean fireworks. If there are hiccups, Savage is more than capable of exploiting them.

Elite receivers: Pitt receiver Devin Street's 73 catches led the Big East last year. He was third in yards with 975. Pitt considers him a legitimate All-America candidate, but Florida State safety Karlos Williams wasn't quite so generous, telling reporters that Street was "productive" but not great. The bulletin-board material grew from there, with Pitt players questioning FSU's secondary in response, and it's all added up to a little more excitement for a matchup that already had plenty of cachet. But perhaps the more intriguing question involves Florida State's receiving corps, which lost three seniors for the season, leaving just four wideouts with previous game experience.

Run the football: For all the intrigue in this game, one thing is clear: Both sides know how to feed an offensive line. FSU's group checks in at an average of 310 pounds. Pitt tops even that, closer to 314. Both units will be looking to throw their weight around in the ground game Monday night in hopes of making things a bit more comfortable for their quarterbacks. Florida State is led by juniors James Wilder Jr. and Devonta Freeman, both of whom topped 600 yards on the ground last year. Pitt's situation is a bit murkier. Junior Isaac Bennett and freshman James Conner both dealt with injuries in fall camp, and sophomore Malcolm Crockett could get plenty of playing time, too.

Big-game environment: The last game of the first week of the season might not be the marquee event, like Clemson-Georgia, but it sure doesn't lack for intrigue. From the two new quarterbacks to the trash talk between players, there's ample buildup. But it's also Pitt's initiation into the ACC, Florida State's first chance to defend its conference title, a national TV game in prime time, and a showdown the Panthers expect will result in a packed house at Heinz Field. So which team responds better to the energy and excitement? Will Winston be rattled by the rabid crowd? Will Pitt be energized by it? Florida State has played in its share of big games before, but plenty of pundits have already chalked this one up as a classic trap game for the favored Seminoles.

What to watch in the ACC: Week 1

August, 29, 2013
8/29/13
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The moment is finally here. The season kicks off tonight, as two ACC teams take the gridiron and mark the return of college football. Here is what to keep an eye on this entire weekend as all 14 teams get back in action.

1. Battle in the trenches in Columbia, S.C. North Carolina will have three new starters on its offensive line Thursday night against No. 6 South Carolina, including two redshirt freshmen. And the Tar Heels will be going up against preseason Heisman contender Jadeveon Clowney and the Gamecocks' lethal defensive line. Don't overlook fellow end Chaz Sutton, either.

2. Conference debuts. Pitt and Syracuse play their first games as ACC schools after exiting the former Big East, which the Orange won a four-way share of in 2012. Both schools have the chance to make big opening statements, as the Panthers host defending conference champion Florida State on Labor Day and Syracuse faces a Penn State squad looking to build off Bill O'Brien's successful first year with the program.

[+] EnlargeSteve Addazio
John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesBoston College's Steve Addazio is one of the conference's new coaches this season.
3. Trio of first-year coaches. New BC coach Steve Addazio hosts Villanova, a familiar opponent from his Temple days. Dave Doeren and NC State host Louisiana Tech, which breaks in a new coach of its own in Skip Holtz after Sonny Dykes left for Cal following a 9-3 season. And Syracuse coach Scott Shafer debuts against Penn State in East Rutherford, N.J.

4. QB choices in Jersey and Raleigh. Two of those new coaches also will be unveiling their starting quarterback choices for the first time, as Shafer sends out either Terrel Hunt or Drew Allen and Doeren picks Pete Thomas or Brandon Mitchell. The Orange will be facing a Penn State team that carries the same surprise in its quarterback race between Christian Hackenberg and Tyler Ferguson.

5. ... Speaking of new starting QBs. Virginia's David Watford will make his first career start against BYU, Duke's Anthony Boone takes over the job from Sean Renfree against NC Central, and Florida State and Pitt will both start new signal-callers when they square off on Labor Day, with Jameis Winston running the Seminoles' offense and Tom Savage handling duties for the Panthers.

6. Pitt's running backs. Ray Graham is gone. Rushel Shell transferred to West Virginia. And Isaac Bennett and James Conner have dealt with injuries in camp. Coach Paul Chryst isn't sure how things will shake out Monday, but we likely will see Rachid Ibrahim and Malcolm Crockett get at least some action given the backfield situation.

7. FSU's defensive backs. Are too many bodies a good thing? Nick Waisome and Terrence Brooks started all 14 games last season for the nation's No. 1 pass defense. The crowd also includes preseason All-American Lamarcus Joyner, reigning ACC defensive rookie of the year Ronald Darby, former five-star prospect Karlos Williams and several other strong athletes. New defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has his work cut out for him, although probably not as much as new Pitt quarterback Tom Savage does.

8. Virginia Tech's backfield. Coach Frank Beamer wasn't kidding when he said the Hokies went from having too many running backs to not enough. Michael Holmes was kicked off the team in July, Joel Caleb was suspended this month for the opener against Alabama, Tony Gregory suffered a career-ending ACL tear and J.C. Coleman's status for Saturday is up in the air because of two ankle sprains. Redshirt freshmen Trey Edmunds and Chris Mangus are the Hokies' next options after Coleman.

9. "Smoke." Taquan Mizzell has earned that nickname despite having never taken the college field. ESPN's No. 9 running back prospect from the class of 2013 has drawn plenty of buzz in Virginia's camp, and he will get a stiff first test against BYU's defense.

10. ACC vs. SEC. What, you really thought we'd forget this one? Three ACC teams face off against squads from the big, bad SEC, perhaps none with as steep a challenge as Virginia Tech's against Alabama. UNC kicks things off Thursday at South Carolina, and No. 8 Clemson hosts No. 5 Georgia on Saturday night in the headliner of Week 1. The ACC went 1-1 against the SEC in last year's weekend openers, with NC State falling to Tennessee in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff the night before Clemson topped Auburn in the Georgia Dome.

Most to prove in the ACC

August, 28, 2013
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Heading into the season, everyone has something to prove -- some more than others, of course. Here’s a look at which coaches, players and position groups have the most to prove in the ACC heading into Week 1:

[+] EnlargeLogan Thomas
Rob Foldy/USA TODAY SportsQB Logan Thomas and the Virginia Tech offense will face a stiff test from Alabama in Week 1.
1. Virginia Tech’s offense. Hands down, no other group in the conference is facing more doubt, especially going up against Alabama’s defense in the season opener. The Hokies were No. 81 in the country in scoring offense last year at 25.08 points per game. Quarterback Logan Thomas returns and has made strides under first-year coordinator Scot Loeffler, but questions remain with a young supporting cast.

2. Clemson’s secondary. This is one group that has remained a concern for coach Dabo Swinney through the summer, and rightfully so, especially with Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray coming to town on Saturday. Only Duke (29) and Maryland (24) gave up more passing touchdowns in the league last season than Clemson (23).

3. Miami defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio. The Canes’ defense was one of the worst in the country in 2012, ranking No. 116 in total defense and No. 82 in scoring defense. And ranking No. 113 in the country in sacks was well below Miami’s standards. With all four starters returning on the defensive line and such high hopes for the Canes this fall, the pressure to show major improvement is on.

4. Florida State’s staff: Despite the loss of 11 players to the NFL draft, Florida State still abounds with talent, but there are six new assistants on staff tasked with developing it. All of these hires will eventually be a reflection on coach Jimbo Fisher. The Noles will start 2013 with a new defensive coordinator in Jeremy Pruitt, new running backs coach, new quarterbacks coach, new tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator, new defensive ends coach and a new linebackers coach.

5. UNC’s offensive line: Two redshirt freshmen will be in the lineup when the Tar Heels open on Thursday night against South Carolina, which will have arguably the best defensive line in the SEC. While James Hurst has received plenty of preseason hype, he’s going to need some help, especially with so much inexperience around him. How UNC fares without Jonathan Cooper will help determine how it will do without Giovani Bernard, too.

6. Wake Forest running back Josh Harris: He has been plagued by injuries his whole career, and his durability has become a question both inside the program and out. Harris also struggled academically but received a waiver from the NCAA so he is eligible to play. The Deacs could use a big season from Harris to get their running game going.

7. Pitt’s running backs: It went downhill when Rushel Shell decided to transfer. Now, the lead candidate to replace him, Isaac Bennett, has spent most of the summer with an injured knee. Pitt is missing its top two rushers from last fall -- and now the next two in line are question marks heading into the season. The situation is in limbo as the Panthers get set to make their ACC debut against Florida State on Monday, as freshman James Conner was also injured. Malcolm Crockett, who had 12 carries last year, could be the solution.

8. Duke’s defense: This has been the Blue Devils’ Achilles' heel, and it has to improve if Duke is to make back-to-back bowl appearances. It’s a veteran group, and last year was the second season in the 4-2-5 scheme. Still, Duke ranked No. 107 in the country in scoring defense in 2012, No. 105 in total defense and No. 101 in rushing defense. The only way to go is up.

9. Virginia coach Mike London: One year after being named the ACC’s Coach of the Year and taking the team to the Chick-fil-A Bowl, London led the Cavaliers to a 4-8 finish last fall. London made sweeping changes to his staff, including the hires of new coordinators. There have been some critics who have questioned whether the program is still heading in the right direction, but those within the program insist it is. Now is the time to prove it.

10. Maryland coach Randy Edsall: He’s won a total of six games in the past two seasons, and this fall, he has healthy quarterbacks to work with and more playmakers on offense, including one of the best in the country in receiver Stefon Diggs. Maryland also has a favorable schedule -- much more forgiving than the one it'll face next season as members of the Big Ten. There’s no reason Maryland fans shouldn't expect at least six wins.
You want to find a good quarterback in the ACC? Plenty of places to look.

A solid receiver? Plenty of places to look.

A game-changing running back? Well, let's just say this is not a position of strength for the ACC headed into 2013.

Both 1,000-yard rushers from a year ago are gone. So are five of the top 10 rushers in the league. Now factor in recent developments from the offseason:

  • Virginia Tech back Michael Holmes was kicked out of school following his arrest after the spring game.
  • Pitt Rushel Shell decided to transfer, to hated rival West Virginia no less.
  • Maryland back Wes Brown has been suspended for the season after an offseason arrest.
  • Wake Forest leading rusher Josh Harris is not with the team while the Deacs wait for an answer from the NCAA on his eligibility.
  • NC State running back Shadrach Thornton was suspended one game after being charged with misdemeanor assault on a female following a June 6 arrest.
[+] EnlargeRushel Shell
Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports Running back Rushel Shell left Pitt for rival West Virginia.
Holmes and Brown were expected to be significant contributors this year; Shell and Harris were expected to start; Thornton led the Wolfpack in rushing last year.

So let us take stock of who remains. Essentially, the ACC has one big-time headliner in Duke Johnson at Miami, and several teams with talent and depth.

Take Florida State. The Noles have a great duo in James Wilder Jr. and Devonta Freeman. Syracuse has a 1,000-yard rusher returning in Jerome Smith, plus more depth than nearly everyone in the league. Duke has its top six rushers back from a year ago.

Still, the league overall has improving to do in this important category. In 2012, the ACC had the fewest 1,000-yard rushers of the five biggest conferences. It also only had two teams ranked in the Top 30 in rushing offense (Georgia Tech and Florida State), tied with the SEC for fewest among the top five conferences.

But here is the big distinction between the two. The SEC only had one team ranked in the bottom 30 in rushing offense last season: Arkansas. The ACC had a whopping six -- Virginia, Duke, NC State, Maryland, Wake Forest, Boston College -- the most among the power five.

Will fortunes improve this season? Let us take a look at one key statistic that could have some bearing. I broke down how many returning carries there are per team headed into 2013.

DUKE

  • Top returners: Jela Duncan, Josh Snead
  • Percent carries returning: 87 percent
  • What it means: Duke has perhaps the best opportunity of any team in the league to boost its rushing numbers this year, with its top six rushers back, a more mobile quarterback in Anthony Boone and four starters returning on the offensive line.
SYRACUSE

  • Top returners: Jerome Smith, Prince-Tyson Gulley
  • Percent carries returning: 82 percent
  • What it means: Syracuse has had a 1,000-yard rusher in five straight seasons, and has pretty terrific depth going into the season. It is a pretty safe bet the Orange will make it six straight 1,000-yard rushers.
BOSTON COLLEGE

  • Top returners: Andre Williams, Dave Dudeck
  • Percent carries returning: 75 percent
  • What it means: Though the Eagles don’t have much in the way of depth, they do have experienced players returning in Williams and Dudeck. Given the way Steve Addazio likes to run the football, expect to see the Eagles much better than No. 115 in the nation in rushing.
VIRGINIA TECH

  • Top returners: Logan Thomas, J.C. Coleman
  • Percent returning carries: 70 percent
  • What it means: Even though this was a weak spot for the Hokies, they do return their top rushers even with Holmes gone. Thomas led the team in carries and rushing last season. Virginia Tech wants to change that this year.
GEORGIA TECH

  • Top returners: Zach Laskey, David Sims
  • Percent returning carries: 68 percent
  • What it means: Tevin Washington and Orwin Smith take nearly all the missing carries (176), meaning the Jackets have plenty of experienced players and depth to fill all their running back spots. Shouldn’t be a drop-off here.
NC STATE

  • Top returners: Shadrach Thornton, Tony Creecy
  • Percent carries returning: 63 percent
  • What it means: Once he returns from suspension, Thornton will carry the load with Creecy, the way they did last season. Given the emphasis Dave Doeren puts on the run in his offense -- Northern Illinois ranked No. 12 in rushing offense last season -- the Wolfpack should not be in the bottom 30 again.
CLEMSON

  • Top returners: Tajh Boyd, Rod McDowell
  • Percent returning carries: 62 percent
  • What it means: Interesting stat here, considering the Tigers lose 1,000-yard rusher Andre Ellington. He is one of the biggest losses this team has to replace on offense. Having Boyd run as much as he does certainly helps these numbers, but there’s no question Clemson has to find a way to replace Ellington’s production.
MIAMI

  • Top returners: Duke Johnson, Eduardo Clements
  • Percent returning carries: 59 percent
  • What it means: Miami loses Mike James, but that just means Johnson moves into a starting role and will get more carries. If he continues the work he did last season, Johnson should be the leading rusher in the ACC this season.
WAKE FOREST

  • Top returner: Deandre Martin
  • Percent returning carries: 57 percent
  • What it means: Wake Forest is still waiting to see whether Harris will be eligible this season. There are serious concerns about this position right now, as coach Jim Grobe has said he still hasn’t seen anybody step up and prove they can be an every-down back.
NORTH CAROLINA

  • Top returners: A.J. Blue, Romar Morris
  • Percent returning carries: 56 percent
  • What it means: The prevailing storyline in Chapel Hill has centered around replacing Giovani Bernard, the other 1,000-yard rusher in the ACC last season. Blue and Morris combined for 151 carries a year ago, so there might not be as big a drop-off in total production as some might anticipate. Each averaged more than 5 yards per carry.
MARYLAND

  • Top returners: Brandon Ross, Albert Reid
  • Percent returning carries: 48 percent
  • What it means: The Terps lost significant carries from Brown (90) and Justus Pickett (69). I also did not count Shawn Petty’s 58 carries, because he went back to defense. Overall, Maryland feels good about Ross and Reid being able to carry the load, but questions still remain about whether this group can be consistent.
FLORIDA STATE

  • Top returners: James Wilder Jr., Devonta Freeman
  • Percent Returning carries:45 percent
  • What it means: This one is the most misleading among all ACC teams, because the Noles do return two terrific talents and expect contributions from a third in Mario Pender. Those lost carries are from Lonnie Pryor and EJ Manuel, along with Chris Thompson (who was out for the second half of the season anyway). Florida State should continue to be an excellent running team.
VIRGINIA

  • Top returners: Kevin Parks, Khalek Shepherd
  • Percent carries returning: 44 percent
  • What it means: UVa lost carries from Clifton Richardson, Perry Jones and Phillip Sims, but the Hoos believe they will be better running the ball this season -- especially if Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell is as good as advertised. He could be a breakout star.
PITT

  • Top returners: Isaac Bennett, Malcolm Crockett
  • Percent returning carries: 9 percent
  • What it means: I thought this number would be low with Shell and Ray Graham gone. But this is actually worse than anticipated. Pitt has little in the way of experienced players or depth at running back, and we are talking about a team that relies heavily on the run.
With half of the conference playing spring games this weekend, here’s a look at what to watch if you’re keeping an eye on the ACC as spring ball comes to a close:

CLEMSON

When: 4 p.m. ET on Saturday (ESPN3)

What to watch:
  • Quarterbacks of the future. You know Tajh Boyd is good. Expect Cole Stoudt and Chad Kelly to take most of the snaps. Boyd played just four snaps in the last scrimmage. Let's see his backups.
  • The tight ends. Clemson tight ends Dwayne Allen and Brandon Ford have been the first team All-ACC tight ends the past two years. Clemson tight ends have 118 receptions and 21 touchdowns the past two years, perhaps the most underrated area in Chad Morris’ offense. So who moves in there this year? Sam Cooper is the most experienced, but freshman Jordan Leggett has been impressive this spring.
  • How much better is the defense? All eyes will be on Brent Venables' group to see how much progress it has made this spring. If the D gets better, it could be a special season in Death Valley.
FLORIDA STATE

When: 2 p.m. Saturday, (ESPN3)

What to watch:
  • The quarterbacks. It's been one of the hottest topics this spring in the ACC and arguably the biggest position battle in the conference. Check out Clint Trickett, Jacob Coker and Jameis Winston as they all battle to replace starter EJ Manuel.
  • The defensive line. The competition is on to replace Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine. Mario Edwards Jr. is ready to jump in, along with Giorgio Newberry.
  • Don't forget the kicker. It's big at FSU. The Noles have to replace Dustin Hopkins, the ACC's all-time leading scorer and the NCAA's all-time kick scorer. It's your chance to see Roberto Aguayo, who was one of the nation's top kickers coming out of high school.
MARYLAND

When: 7 p.m. on Friday in Byrd Stadium

Parking/admission: Free

What to watch:
  • The running backs. Both Brandon Ross and Albert Reid have had strong springs and will be competing for playing time come the fall.
  • The receivers. This group should be a strong point for the team this year, as Stefon Diggs, Deon Long and Nigel King are a talented trio.
  • New faces on defense. The Terps have to replace six starters on defense, including some of their best leaders in Joe Vellano and A.J. Francis.
DUKE

When: 4 p.m. ET on Saturday (ESPN3) in Wallace Wade Stadium

Parking/admission: Free

What to watch:
  • Booooooone. Anthony Boone takes over at quarterback, and there have been rave reviews about him from within the program all spring. He's got a strong arm and is mobile.
  • New faces at safety. Some big names are gone, as Duke has to replace graduates Jordon Byas and Walt Canty, and Brandon Braxton, who moved back to receiver. Jeremy Cash, eligible now after transferring from Ohio State and sitting out last fall, headlines the group that includes sophomore Dwayne Norman (60 tackles in 2012 as true freshman) and redshirt freshman Corbin McCarthy.
  • Front and center: There is one hole to fill on the offensive line and Matt Skura takes over at center for Brian Moore.
MIAMI

When: 3 p.m. ET at Sun Life Stadium (ESPN3)

Gates open: 12:30 p.m.

Parking/admission: Free

What to watch:
  • Defensive improvement. Is there any? The Canes were one of the worst in the country last year, but they return every starter up front.
  • The No. 2 QB. Who is it? Gray Crow started the last scrimmage as the backup to Stephen Morris and completed 8 of 13 passes for 73 yards, with a touchdown and interception. Ryan Williams, who entered the spring as the expected No. 2, completed only six of his 12 passes with a touchdown and an interception. The coaches will be watching these guys closely on Saturday, so should you.
  • Running back Dallas Crawford. You know Duke Johnson. It's time to get to know this guy. Those within the program have said Crawford has had a great spring and could be a rising star this fall. He scored two touchdowns in a scrimmage in Naples earlier this month.
NORTH CAROLINA

When: 3 p.m. ET on Saturday at Kenan Stadium (ESPN3)

Admission: Free

Parking: $5/vehicle

What to watch:
  • Gio's replacement(s). A.J. Blue and Romar Morris have been working to ease the loss of leading rusher Giovani Bernard. Can they be as effective as he was, how much progress have they made and who will replace Bernard in the return game?
  • The O-line. Former guard Jonathan Cooper should be a first-round draft pick later this month, and it won't matter how good Blue and Morris are if they can't find anyone to help block for them. A total of three starters have to be replaced on the offensive line.
  • Replacing big names on D. Cooper and Bernard aren't the only big names that will be missing. The defense is going to miss tackle Sylvester Williams, who could be another first-round draft pick, and linebacker Kevin Reddick (85 tackles, 8.5 for loss). How does the D look without them?
PITTSBURGH

When: 7 p.m. ET on Friday at Bethel Park High School (ESPN3)

Gates open: 5:30 p.m.

Admission: Free

What to watch:
  • The quarterbacks. Fifth-year senior Tom Savage has taken most of the reps with the first team, and redshirt freshman Chad Voytik appears to be the backup, but coach Paul Chryst has yet to name a starter.
  • The running backs. Earlier this month, it was announced that Rushel Shell has decided to transfer. Since then, the bulk of the carries have gone to junior Isaac Bennett, sophomore Malcolm Crockett and senior Desmond Brown. How they fare will go a long way in determining how Pitt fares in its first season in the ACC.
  • The offensive line. It's been problematic for the Panthers in each of the past two seasons, and Pitt now has to break in two new starters in Gabe Roberts and Adam Bisnowaty.
Some of you might remember the contender-pretender series we did recently.

We thought Pitt was a contender. Until now.

Running back Rushel Shell, who was expected to be the Panthers' starting running back this fall, has decided to transfer, the school confirmed on Tuesday.

“Rushel and I met on Tuesday morning and he informed me of his final decision to transfer," coach Paul Chryst said in a prepared statement. "I wish him only the best moving forward. Out of respect for Rushel, his family and his privacy, this will be my final comment on the matter.”

This is a huge loss to the program as it enters its first season in the ACC’s Coastal Division.

Expectations were high for Shell heading into this season, as he entered this spring as the leading candidate to replace Ray Graham, one of the most productive running backs in school history. As a true freshman, Shell was the team’s second-leading rusher with 641 yards and four touchdowns on 141 carries (4.5 avg.). He ran for 157 yards in a 35-17 upset of No. 13 Virginia Tech.

Shell’s decision to transfer isn’t much of a surprise, as there were multiple reports that he had been considering it. Last week, Pittsburgh announced that Shell was taking some time away from football to “work through some challenges,” according to Chryst. His decision to transfer leaves the position lacking experience.

The bulk of the carries will now go to junior Isaac Bennett, sophomore Malcolm Crockett and senior Desmond Brown. Bennett has the most career production with 378 yards and five touchdowns on 87 carries (4.3 avg.). Crockett had 50 yards on 12 carries (4.2 avg.) as a redshirt freshman last season, and Brown’s contributions came on special teams.

Chryst said Bennett and Crockett both have their strengths.

“They’re different,” he said, according to the team's practice report. “They both have similarities. They both run hard. They like the game. Malcolm … can continue to learn to tempo his runs. Sometimes he has just one speed. They seem to have different styles.

“All that matters is playing their strengths,” Chryst said. “There are guys who are strong in a lot of areas. You can play to each player’s strength.”

Crockett said he has been waiting for this opportunity.

“When a man goes down, the next one has to step up,” he said, according to the team's practice report. “It’s something I’ve been preparing for. I know my time will come. It’s here, so every rep, every second I’m just going hard to the fullest. Eventually, I’m going to try to start.”

Crockett and Bennett are already having fun with their new roles. Crockett said he’s the faster of the two and would win a race against Bennett.

“Let him believe what he wants to believe,” Bennett said with a laugh. “He’s fast, not faster than me.”

One of them is going to have to make their move into the starting lineup -- quickly.
Pitt running back Rushel Shell, who was expected to be the Panthers' starting running back this fall, is taking time away from football, according to a statement released today from coach Paul Chryst.

“Like many college freshmen, Rushel is working through some challenges right now," Chryst said. "As it is for all members of our team, my most important concern is his personal well-being. Rushel and his family have our full support. We are giving him time away from football to work through this situation, but he very much remains a part of our family on a daily basis. We want to be sensitive and respectful of Rushel, and I would ask others to do the same.”

There have been several reports that Shell is considering transferring, but hasn't formally requested the paperwork to do so.

Expectations are high for Shell heading into this season, as Pitt is looking for a replacement for Ray Graham, one of the most productive running backs in school history. Graham finished his four-year career with 3,271 rushing yards, second only to Tony Dorsett.

Shell entered this spring as the leading candidate to step in for Graham, but Chryst has been looking for more consistency from him. Shell was less productive in the final five games of the season than he was through the first seven. As a true freshman, Shell was the team’s second-leading rusher with 641 yards and four touchdowns on 141 carries (4.5 avg.). In a 35-17 upset of No. 13 Virginia Tech, he ran for 157 yards.

His commitment to the team will be critical for Pitt's offensive success this fall, but there are others waiting for their shot.

Junior Isaac Bennett, sophomore Malcolm Crockett and senior Desmond Brown all have some experience, but Bennett has the most career production with 378 yards and five touchdowns on 87 carries (4.3 avg.). Crockett had 50 yards on 12 carries (4.2 avg.) as a redshirt freshman last season, and Brown’s contributions came on special teams.
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.

[+] EnlargeTino Sunseri
Charles LeClaire/US PresswireOffensive coordinator Joe Rudolph says QB Tino Sunseri should be effective in Pittsburgh's new offensive system this season.
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.

Pittsburgh recruiting analysis

February, 3, 2011
2/03/11
12:00
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PITTSBURGH PANTHERS

The class

2011 signees: 20

Top prospects: Outside linebacker Nicholas Grigsby has the speed and range to make plays, though not the bulk yet. Malcolm Crockett has good size and strength for a running back. Sam Collura looks like a strong blocking tight end, though at 6-foot-3 he has less than ideal height for the position.

Needs met: Pitt is changing from a somewhat conservative pro-style offense into a more wide-open, speed-based attack under new coach Todd Graham. So the Panthers needed players to fit that mold. It's no surprise they got five players currently listed at running back, since Ray Graham is the only experienced tailback on the roster and those players can easily move to other positions. Graham also added some speed at wide receiver and defensive back, while Grigsby could help shore up the linebacking unit.

Analysis: Last summer, Pitt had the top class in the Big East and one of the top 25 in America. But after Dave Wannstedt was forced to resign, the class fell apart, and several players ended up going elsewhere, with a few landing at rival Rutgers. Graham wasn't hired until January after the Mike Haywood fiasco, so he was operating with one hand behind his back. Given all the problems, he did a good job in piecing a respectable class together, though this doesn't match the star-studded recruiting classes of years past for Pitt, at least on paper.

What Graham said: "It has been challenging, but that is what makes this business so great. The foundation of our program is to bring men of great character into the program. But, when you start talking about personnel, our philosophy is one that is very unique so we're not real concerned about rankings, we're not real concerned about what everybody else is doing. We're concerned about our unique philosophy and our unique approach. We look for character, work ethic, discipline, and those are the characteristics you are going to find in this class."

ESPN recruiting grade: C

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