NCF Nation: Mike Shanahan

Pitt routs USF, extends season

December, 1, 2012
12/01/12
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Lose two, win two.

It has been the formula for Pitt all season long, and in the end it was enough for the Panthers to extend their campaign into bowl season for the fifth straight year.

Pitt was efficient throughout the night in Tampa, Fla., and South Florida simply wasn't, a big reason for the 27-3 Panthers win. Paul Chryst's squad has come a long way from as ugly an 0-2 season-opening start as possible, and now he gets 15 more practices and one more game with his squad. It was an up-and-down first year, beating Rutgers and USF in the final two weeks of the season to get to 6-6.

The future may not be as bright for the Bulls, who turned it over four times, netted just 6 rushing yards and -- once again -- kicked a field goal late with the game well out of reach. The boo birds were out in full force inside Raymond James Stadium, capping a program-worst 3-9 campaign and a second straight 1-6 Big East record, with questions about third-year coach Skip Holtz's job status continuing to mount.

Pitt, meanwhile, jelled offensively, with fifth-year quarterback Tino Sunseri earning himself one more collegiate start by completing 19 of 25 passes for 211 yards and a touchdown. Ray Graham added 93 yards and two scores on the ground, and Mike Shanahan caught nine passes for 116 yards.

USF had just 55 yards of total offense entering the fourth quarter and finished with a program-worst 115 on the night, a fitting end to a lost season.

UConn surprises Pitt 24-17

November, 9, 2012
11/09/12
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Many of us thought a letdown could be in store for Pitt on Friday night after the Panthers dropped a triple-overtime heartbreaker to Notre Dame last week.

But nobody expected what actually happened against the Huskies.

Connecticut -- so hapless on offense for most of the season -- set the tone early on with dominant play up front and then held off a furious Pitt rally to end a four-game losing streak and win 24-17 and keep its bowl hopes alive. Pitt failed to show up in the first half, trailing 24-0 at halftime before deciding to make a game of it.

The Huskies (4-6, 1-4) helped them out, continuing their second-half scoring struggles. In five Big East games, UConn has a total of three second-half points. In this one, Jarred Holley intercepted Chandler Whitmer in the end zone with 4:57 to go and the Huskies up 24-10.

Pitt (4-6, 1-4) turned the mistake into a score when Tino Sunseri threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to Mike Shanahan with 2 minutes, 46 seconds remaining. But Whitmer made up for his earlier miscue with a huge third-down conversion on a pass to Shakim Phillips to ice the game.

Pitt now has to win out over Rutgers and South Florida to get back to a bowl game. Panthers fans have come to expect these types of games from the most enigmatic team in college football. One week, they lose to Youngstown State. Another week, they nearly upset the No. 3 team in the country.

On Friday night, it was just another bad loss to a team that was winless in Big East play going into the game. Consider:
  • UConn was one of the worst teams in the nation in total offense, scoring offense and rushing offense going into the game. The Huskies had gone four consecutive games without rushing for 100 TOTAL yards. But against the Panthers, they went over the century mark and Lyle McCombs had his first 100-yard game since Sept. 22 against Western Michigan.
  • The Huskies scored over 20 points for the first time since notching 24 on Sept. 29 against Buffalo.
  • UConn, maligned all season for the play of its offensive line, had perhaps its best game of the season in successfully controlling the line of scrimmage.

The Huskies also got an 80-yard punt return for a touchdown from Nick Williams in the first half to help build their 24-0 lead. Two huge players on the night for UConn: tight end Ryan Griffin, who tied a career-high with six receptions for 84 yards and a score; and linebacker Sio Moore, who was a one-man wrecking crew.

Pitt simply could not move the ball with any consistency, getting 48 total yards rushing. Sunseri ended up with over 300 yards passing, but it was too little, too late.
Devin Street is coming off a career best 140-yard receiving day in Pitt's 47-17 rout Saturday against Temple. The redshirt junior has team bests this season of 50 catches, 695 yards and four touchdowns.

Street brings the Panthers into Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday with the chance to knock off the nation's No. 3 team. Here, he talks about that opportunity, along with what has been working so well lately for Pitt's offense.

Note: Street spoke with ESPN.com on Wednesday. On Thursday, he and two other teammates were charged with simple assault and conspiracy in connection with an incident last month. All three will play Saturday at Notre Dame.

Saturday was a career day for you numbers-wise. What was clicking for you and how do you try to build off that this weekend?

Devin Street: Just comfortable with the offense. Little concepts. Definitely our offensive line protecting Tino [Sunseri] and giving him time. We had a great scheme going into Temple and attacked some of the holes in their defense, and I think we were pretty successful in the passing game.

That's three out of four weeks now that you've had at least 100 receiving yards. Is this as good as you've felt in your career?

[+] EnlargeDevin Street
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicAn inexperienced Pitt offense will be counting on receiver Devin Street for guidance in 2013.
DS: Yeah, I think so. I'm the most confident at this point. There's a lot of things thrown at me, different concepts, moving in the slot and everything like that. But the coaches are calling upon me and I just know in my mind I have to respond. But yeah, I'd say I definitely feel really comfortable right now.

When Tino Sunseri is playing the way he is, how much easier is it for you and everyone else?

DS: I think it is easier for everyone else. I think Tino's more confident in me, but he's also confident in the offense, which allows us to click. And he has targets to throw to, especially with Mike Shanahan, too, throwing to Ray [Graham] out of the backfield. I just think we're all really comfortable with the new system, and I think it's coming together.

Is that as good as the offense has performed? What's the next step this week?

DS: I think we definitely did some things well against Temple, but going back and watching the film I feel like we can improve on some things. I think we definitely are doing that this week, too, moving guys around to help, putting Mike at different spots and doing all different types of things. I think we can definitely do some different things, but at the same time I think we did a lot of things well against Temple.

It took longer than I imagine most fans and people outside the program probably wanted or imagined it would, but you guys are starting to click under a new coach right now. What has Paul Chryst done that has helped you guys ease into the flow and made the transition smooth?

DS: Just with any coach I think it's different coming in with a new concept. And going out there and playing it and seeing it during the game is going be hard to adjust. Things are coming along, coach Chryst has put an emphasis on the little things and concepts -- we just keep going over and going over. Concepts that we need to refine, to think, our go-tos. We don't have a bunch of plays but we have a lot of plays that we're getting good at, so I think he's just definitely harping on that.

Notre Dame's defense is one of the best country. What do you see in the secondary that makes them so effective?

DS: I think they're great athletic-wise. I think they have a great safety in Zeke Motta. He's a pretty good captain back there, doesn't let anything get behind him, can definitely come up and slow the run. I feel like their corners are definitely aggressive and athletic. I know they have a young corner [KeiVarae Russell], and he plays tremendously, like a veteran out there. I think they definitely do some things well. They're just a great group to complement their front three, who's tremendous.

What's the balance mentally for you guys as you go into a historic venue with the chance to ruin a team's national title hopes? How do you embrace that opportunity while sticking with the game plan?

DS: I think we had a taste of it going into Virginia Tech, so we kind of know what it's like. That was another big opportunity, ranked opponent. So I feel like we know what it's like. We're just going to go out here and prepare -- not get too high, not get too low, like we always do. Just go out against Notre Dame and give them all we got. We know we have to play assignment football and can't get outside our element and start doing anything we want. We know we have to stick to the gameplan and give it 110 percent against those guys.
Please, anything but last year's 15-12 contest.

When Notre Dame has the ball: Don't get cute, but don't be afraid to loosen the reins a little. No, Everett Golson has not finished a game inside Notre Dame Stadium that he has started, but he showed Saturday that with the right game plan and productive weapons around him, he can be more than just a game manager under center. Pitt's linebacker depth has taken a beating, as the Panthers last week lost Dan Mason and Manny Williams for the season, so running the ball should be no problem for an Irish squad that has eclipsed the 200-yard mark on the ground in each of its past two games.

When Pitt has the ball: Pitt is coming off a 47-point output against Temple. What does that mean? It means the Panthers are the seventh team this season to score 40 or more points in its game prior to facing Notre Dame. Those previous six teams? None eclipsed 17 points against the Irish. The Panthers must do everything in their power to establish some sort of threat on the ground with Ray Graham and Rushel Shell. Quarterback Tino Sunseri is playing the best ball of his career, and if Pitt can open things up, it has receivers in Devin Street and Mike Shanahan who are capable of making big plays. But those are big ifs.

Intangible: The word "trap" has not been thrown around much this week, probably because a simply awful Boston College team awaits one week later. Pitt is the closest thing to a threat of ruining a perfect record before the end-of-season USC trip, and I think the Irish realize that and won't let up.

Prediction: Notre Dame 31, Pitt 6. The Irish must leave little doubt in games such as this for the potential beauty pageant that might come at season's end.

Big East predictions: Week 9

October, 25, 2012
10/25/12
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Tuna and I went 4-1 last week, as we both incorrectly picked Cincinnati to beat Toledo. As we have all learned, upsets do happen in the Big East. Anybody on upset alert this week?

AA season record: 33-11 (.750)

Friday night

Cincinnati at No. 16 Louisville, 8 p.m., ESPN. The Bearcats have won four straight in the series, but they go into this one as the underdog. A little bit of luster may have been lost from this game because Cincinnati is coming off a loss, but both teams are undefeated in Big East play and have the longest-running rivalry in the Big East, so there is plenty on the line. I give the edge to Louisville based on the way Teddy Bridgewater is playing. I know Munchie Legaux believes he is the better quarterback, but Bridgewater is playing lights-out and will be able to hit some deep passes on this secondary. I also think Cincinnati will feel the loss of Walter Stewart even more in this game. The Bearcats are going to need to get after Bridgewater, and I wonder how effectively they can with Stewart out. Louisville has a much better offensive line than Toledo. Louisville 30, Cincinnati 21.

Matt's pick: Louisville 28, Cincinnati 24

Saturday

Temple at Pitt, noon, Big East Network/ESPN3. This is a matchup between two teams with similar styles: Both are going to try to control the line of scrimmage and just pound the football. Neither looked great last week, but Pitt comes in off a victory over Buffalo. I give the Panthers the edge because they have more balance on offense, and are better defensively. If given the opportunity, Tino Sunseri may be able to take advantage of the Temple secondary with his two good receivers, Devin Street and Mike Shanahan. Pitt 24, Temple 17.

Matt's pick: Pitt 21, Temple 10

Kent State at Rutgers, 3:30 p.m., Big East Network/ESPN3. You guys have already read about the challenges Kent State presents to Rutgers, particularly the fabulous Dri Archer. But the Golden Flashes have yet to play anybody as good as Rutgers this season. Their only loss came to Kentucky, and Kentucky is not exactly lighting up the SEC this year. Still, Rutgers will have to find a way to contain Archer and remain focused on the season ahead, despite taking a break from league play for the next several weeks. Rutgers 28, Kent State 13.

Matt's pick: Rutgers 21, Kent State 6

Syracuse at USF, 7 p.m., ESPN3. I was going to call this an upset alert, but then I saw USF was favored to win. I think the Orange looked outstanding last week and are playing much better defensively. It was good to see the run game get going as well, with Jerome Smith notching the first 100-yard game of the season for Syracuse. But USF has always presented problems for Syracuse and so has mobile B.J. Daniels. USF is 6-1 all time against the Orange, and showed major heart against Louisville. I give the Bulls the home-field edge and say they pull this one off. USF 23, Syracuse 20.

Matt's pick: Syracuse 27, USF 21
The most maligned quarterback in the Big East over the last few years has played like one of its best so far in 2012.

That is right, folks. Tino Sunseri is quietly having his best season yet.

All his stats are up across the board. Sunseri ranks No. 2 in the Big East in passing yards per game (291.7), has already matched his touchdown total from a year ago (10) and is completing a career-high 70.4 percent of his passes. But here is the stat that is most impressive of all: Sunseri leads the Big East in pass efficiency, with a rating of 163.5. That ranks him No. 8 in the nation. Consider last season, Sunseri had more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (10), and ranked No. 6 in the Big East in efficiency (124.1). That put him at No. 82 in the nation.

[+] EnlargePittsburgh quarterback Tino Sunseri
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicPittsburgh quarterback Tino Sunseri already has as many touchdowns this season (10) as he had all of last season.
Coach Paul Chryst, not one to dole out heaps of praise to any one player in particular, still sees room for improvement.

"I really think we can get better at the position," Chryst said. “I think he is making progress. I still think there are some very good plays he’s making, and when we are struggling, there are things that are correctable."

Pitt is 2-4 and has lacked any true consistency on offense. Sunseri is still getting sacked way too often, a product of the group in front of him and, at times, his inability to get rid of the football. Pitt had its opportunities late against Syracuse, getting into Orange territory twice in the fourth quarter.

On their final drive, the Panthers got down to the Syracuse 17, but Sunseri was sacked on back-to-back plays and the Panthers fell out of field goal range and lost 14-13. Last week against the Cardinals, Pitt jumped out to a quick lead, but fell behind. Its comeback bid in the fourth quarter also failed.

Still, there is no question that Sunseri has gotten much better, and the Pitt coaching staff is designing an offense to suit his strengths. It helps that receivers Mike Shanahan and Devin Street have played well, too. They rank as two of the top receivers in the Big East right now. Shanahan has 29 catches for 525 yards; Street has 39 catches for 514 yards. Each has three touchdown receptions.

"Guys around him are doing some things to help," Chryst said. "No one guy does it on his own, but hopefully we can get better each week. It helps the more we get to know him and he gets to know and be comfortable with the offense."

When asked to give an overall assessment of the way Sunseri has played, Chryst said, "I think it’s been solid. There’s some things we, he -- guys around him can do better and yet he’s been doing some good things we’ve got to build on."

What we learned in the Big East: Week 4

September, 23, 2012
9/23/12
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What did we learn in Week 4? Keep in mind, no do-overs allowed.

1. Rutgers is the real deal. Given the way Arkansas has imploded, the way the Scarlet Knights won Saturday night does not come as much of a surprise. But what was at least some sort of validation is that they played Arkansas at full strength -- with quarterback Tyler Wilson in the starting lineup -- and still won. Incredibly, it was Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova outplaying Wilson with the best game of his very young career, throwing for 397 yards and five touchdowns in the 35-26 victory. Headed into this game, the Rutgers passing game was really inconsistent and at times nonexistent. But on Saturday, Rutgers got the run and the pass working together. Jawan Jamison also went over 100 yards for the fourth time this season and Rutgers controlled the clock for nearly 40 minutes. The defense yielded some big plays (never say the name Cobi Hamilton in Piscataway) but also came up with big plays when they were needed. That was plainly evident when Duron Harmon intercepted Wilson with three minutes to go to preserve the victory. Rutgers now moves to 4-0 for the first time since 2006.

[+] EnlargeGary Nova
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireWith five TDs and 397 yards at Arkansas, Gary Nova erased doubts about Rutgers' passing game.
2. Everywhere else ... misery. The Big East went 2-4 in its games against FBS opponents on Saturday, including 0-2 against the MAC. To put it bluntly, that is simply unacceptable for a league that is constantly the butt of jokes around the country. You want to be taken seriously? You win the games you are supposed to win. It was incredible to see UConn, USF, Syracuse and Temple just fail to show up in their games. Everybody but Temple was favored to win. In those four losses, the Big East teams scored an average of 18.5 points. Syracuse, which went into its game against Minnesota as the No. 1 offense in the Big East, scored a season-low 10 points and had 350 yards of offense -- nearly 200 yards below its average. USF showed once again it could not stop anyone defensively. UConn could not even beat a Western Michigan team that played without starting quarterback Alex Carder for the final quarter. Temple had 13 first downs and went 3-of-12 on third down in a 24-13 loss to Penn State. I will say it again: Unacceptable.

3. But how about Louisville? Louisville has had two consecutive "meh" performances. The Cardinals did not look impressive in the second half against North Carolina on Sept. 15, and they did not look impressive at all in their 28-21 victory over Florida International on Saturday. Yes, they are 4-0 for the first time since 2006, and will remain ranked in the Top 25. Yes, they are a good team. Yes, they still won even when Teddy Bridgewater had a bad day by his standards (first two interceptions of the season, 17 incompletions). But let's just say it this way: Nobody in this league looks unbeatable. Not Louisville, not Rutgers. The first order of business should be figuring out how to play better defensively, particularly up front. Louisville has four total sacks in four games -- right at the bottom of the Big East. Second order of business: shoring up third-down defense. FIU converted 50 percent of the time on third down, right around what Louisville has allowed all season.

4. Pitt seems to have turned a corner. Given the poor performances at the bottom of the Big East this weekend, it is easy to say Pitt belongs in the top half of the power rankings -- this despite losing its opener to Youngstown State and getting blown out in Cincinnati. While I realize Gardner-Webb is not even a very good FCS team, the Panthers are on the right track headed into their bye week, and did not have any letdown following their win over Virginia Tech a week ago. Tino Sunseri had more than 300 yards passing, and he has found a nice groove with receiver Mike Shanahan. Ray Graham also has been extremely productive, with 362 yards in four games. Pitt has to be headed into Big East play with an enormous amount of confidence.

5. USF appears to be a bust. USF followed up its loss to Rutgers with an uninspiring performance in a loss to Ball State, and was plagued by all the familiar bugaboos of a team that has been highly undisciplined over the past several seasons. The Bulls went into the game as one of the most penalized teams in the nation, and they followed suit against Ball State, committing 11 penalties while also turning the ball over twice. USF had the game won, going ahead with four minutes to go. But the Bulls couldn't hold on. This was the preseason pick to finish No. 2 in the conference because of its big senior class. But now the Bulls are in danger of falling off a cliff, with Florida State coming to town Saturday.

Big East helmet stickers: Week 4

September, 23, 2012
9/23/12
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Time to give out a few helmet stickers for a job well done. Not many to give out after some pretty subpar performances in Week 4.

Gary Nova, QB, Rutgers. Holy Gary Nova, where have you been all season?! Nova had a career game in a 35-26 victory over Arkansas, setting marks for passing yards (397), passing touchdowns (5) and completions (25). His passing total ranks No. 3 on the school's all-time single-game list, behind Mike Teel (447 vs. Louisville, 2008) and Scott Erney (436 vs. Vanderbilt, 1988). His five touchdown passes tied for the third-best single-game performance in school history.

Tino Sunseri, QB, Pitt. Believe it, folks. Sunseri gets a helmet sticker for the second consecutive week after throwing for 344 yards in a 55-10 win over Gardner-Webb. That passing total is the second highest of his career. Sunseri now has 6,616 yards in career total offense to rank fifth all time at Pitt. He surpassed quarterback John Congemi (6,351 yards from 1983-86) and running back Tony Dorsett (6,526 from 1973-76) to reach fifth place.

Mike Shanahan, WR, Pitt. Shanahan had a career-high 144 receiving yards on five catches -- his second consecutive 100-yard game. Last week against Virginia Tech, Shanahan had the first 100-yard game of his career with 111 yards on five catches. His 77-yard touchdown reception against Gardner-Webb was a career long.
What's gotten into Pitt the past two weeks?

The Panthers rolled Saturday to their second straight runaway win, taking care of business against Gardner-Webb in a 55-10 home victory.

Yes, these were the Runnin' Bulldogs, an FCS team that Pitt was supposed to do this to. But the Panthers deserve credit for not letting their foot off the gas a week after their upset win over Virginia Tech, especially with a bye date coming up. They held Gardner-Webb to just 127 total yards of offense, the road team's only score coming off a 65-yard fumble return late in the third quarter.

Tino Sunseri turned in another strong performance, building off his efforts against the Hokies by completing 18-of-24 passes for 344 yards and three touchdowns. He did not throw an interception and was sacked just once. Two weeks ago, many were calling for Sunseri to lose his job, but he has answered defiantly since.

Mike Shanahan led Pitt's receivers with five catches for 144 yards and two scores.

Ray Graham looked like his old self early, rushing for a 78-yard touchdown late in the first quarter to break a scoreless tie. He finished the afternoon with 94 yards on eight carries and 23 yards on three catches, but he coughed up the ball deep in opponent territory in the third quarter, leading to Gardner-Webb's only score. Isaac Bennett and Rushel Shell contributed to a solid ground attack that averaged 6.2 yards per carry, with Bennett rushing for 52 yards and two scores on just six carries.

Again, the opponent will temper the excitement of Saturday's domination. But after a two-touchdown season-opening home loss to an FCS school and an embarrassing primetime performance at Cincinnati, Paul Chryst's squad really could not have bounced back any better, winning its past two games by a combined score of 90-27.

The Panthers will get Syracuse next in an Oct. 5 Friday night contest that will mark the schools' final meeting with each other as Big East members.

Pittsburgh stuns No. 13 Virginia Tech

September, 15, 2012
9/15/12
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How does a team go from looking so bad in two games to looking so good against the No. 13 team in the nation?

I am sure folks in Pittsburgh and Blacksburg are asking that very question after the Panthers pulled the shocker of the day Saturday. Pitt won 35-17 in stunning fashion, taking advantage of four first-half turnovers and some terrific play up front to win its first game of the season.

Consider: Pitt could not beat anybody up front on both its offensive and defensive lines in the first two games of the season.

Consider: Pitt lost to an FCS team.

Consider: Pitt had no takeaways going into this one.

But somehow, Virginia Tech had four turnovers on its first six possessions -- including a career-high three interceptions from Logan Thomas, who had one of the worst games of his career.

Virginia Tech -- not Pitt -- got no push from either of its lines. The Hokies allowed more than 500 total yards -- 305 in the first half alone. They gave up 221 total yards against Austin Peay and 288 in the season-opening win over Georgia Tech.

The Hokies failed to slow down Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri, who has played behind a very shaky offensive line for two seasons now. The hard truth is Virginia Tech had no business making Sunseri look like an All-American and its offensive line look like a stealth iron wall. This Virginia Tech defense was supposed to be even better than last year's version. Instead, it gave up more than 250 yards rushing -- including 157 to true freshman Rushel Shell, who showed exactly why he was one of the most highly coveted running backs in the nation.

Meanwhile, the Hokies found no running room at all, and could do no nothing to help Thomas, whose Heisman hopes are all but gone. Given the sluggishness of the offense, the defense was simply on the field way too long and was gassed at the end of the game. Missed tackles were a major issue, too.

As for Sunseri, give major credit to the much-maligned senior, who played perhaps the best game of his career. He made one bad decision -- an interception late in the game -- on a play where he turned his ankle. But Sunseri gamely came back on the next possession and led Pitt on a killer of a drive -- 15 plays, 88 yards in 7:44. It ended with a 6-yard touchdown pass from Sunseri to Mike Shanahan, essentially ending any hopes for a Virginia Tech comeback.

Virginia Tech had the nation's longest road winning streak at 13 games going into this game. But now the Hokies have lost at least once in the first five games of the season for the fifth time in six years.

Two Virginia Tech injuries to note: Starting cornerback Kyle Fuller left the game with a right shoulder bruise, and starting left guard David Wang was carted off the field with a sprained left ankle.

WACO, Texas -- Above the players' gate leaving the Allison Indoor Facility at Baylor reads just one request: "Finish Strong."

At his final public workout before the NFL draft, Robert Griffin III did exactly that.

Not only did he finish strong, he finished in style.

In a nod to Baylor's Sweet 16-bound hoops team, Griffin and his receivers donned matching neon yellow "Electricity" socks, identical to the ones worn by the hoops Bears.

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezRobert Griffin III completed 78 of 84 passes during Baylor's pro day Wednesday.
"Robert signed with adidas, so we all just wanted to come out here and look like Robert," receiver Kendall Wright said with a laugh.

Over the stadium stereo, Griffin played a hand-picked soundtrack including old-school tracks from the late Notorious B.I.G., simulating a familiar environment for Baylor's practices, which feature constant music while players are on the field.

"I don't think you'll hear 'Thriller' at any other pro days," Griffin said of the final track of the day, offering fitting background noise to the final pass of Griffin's workout, caught by Griffin from Wright, a former high school quarterback.

Every other passing workout during their four years together ended with the play they called "Baylor Magic." Why wouldn't the final one end the same way?

The final tally for Griffin?

With his (probable) future bosses, Redskins coach Mike Shanahan and owner Daniel Snyder, watching from the sidelines, Griffin completed 78 of 84 passes with four drops.

This coming the morning after dining with Redskins brass, along with Griffin's fiancée (a Denver Broncos fan who was wowed by meeting former Broncos coach Shanahan for the first time) and parents.

Griffin set out to craft a relaxed, normal atmosphere on Wednesday, and did that as best he could, with 130 media members peering at every throw and 70-plus NFL personnel looking on as well.

"We wanted it to not be so uptight like the combine can be," said Griffin, who paused between throws for congratulatory hip bumps with teammates and bobbed his head to the music between throws, too. "We wanted it to be loose."

Griffin's work is done. It's a near certainty that his future destination is the nation's capital (which he has visited three times, including a National Prayer Breakfast last month).

The relief was clear, and after catching the final pass of the day, he celebrated by pretending the football was a bomb that exploded on the final touchdown, blowing over Griffin and his receivers.

Any NFL-aspiring quarterback has to get through his pro day, but for Griffin, his true work was done long before today's pomp and circumstance, which was a four-hour celebration of Baylor football (and adidas).

"I didn't have anything to prove at pro day, and that's why it was so easy. It's not stressful when you don't feel like you have to prove anything," Griffin said. "The game tape speaks for itself, and it does for a lot of people. Your game tape is going to tell everybody who you are. Today is just coming out and confirming it."

Griffin's game tape added up and told the country he was the best player in college football for the 2011 season. Some people voted and gave Griffin a trophy -- most call it the Heisman -- to commemorate that accomplishment.

Now, he'll move to the next stage of his career, where he most definitely has plenty to prove.

"Everybody's going to say, 'I'll come and work hard. I'll be dedicated,'" he said. "But I mean it when I say it. I won't just come in there and be flamboyant and act like I'm the man, I'm the leader. You have to earn respect from players. I'll do it from the inside out, from the players and the organization to the fans. All the players will get recognition for what we do, not just myself. I'm looking forward to going out there and having fun ... and my definition of fun is winning."

Offensive production: Receiver

March, 19, 2012
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The best receivers from the Big East last season are gone. Mohamed Sanu, to the NFL. Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin, to the Big 12.

Much like the quarterback position, the title of best receiver in the Big East is there for the taking in 2012.

Here is a quick glance at who returns as the most productive wideout in the league:

[+] EnlargeAlec Lemon
Richard Mackson/US PresswireAlec Lemon is the Big East's top returning receiver.
Alec Lemon, Syracuse. If you saw my earlier post, then you also know Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib returns as the most productive at his position as well.

Lemon had a career year in 2011, with 68 receptions for 834 yards and six touchdowns. All three stats are tops among returning receivers in the league. Who else returns among the top 10 statistical receivers in 2011?
Yes, that means only three of the top 10 receivers in the league return to their respective teams.

This is among the most wide-open positions headed into spring practice. Not because there is inexperience. In fact, a lot of veteran players return, guys such as Mike Shanahan, Sterling Griffin, Michaelee Harris. Marcus Sales is back for the Orange as well.

But as noted above, many of these players now have the opportunity to become the best in the league. Players we have waited on to blossom perhaps have opportunities now -- players such as Mark Harrison and Brandon Coleman at Rutgers, for example.

I will have more on the receivers as a whole in my spring video series looking at positions across the Big East later week, including players I believe have a great opportunity to emerge this season.
It is time to evaluate the receiver position in the Big East. For the postseason rankings, I am going to include tight ends as well. Before the season started, I did them separately, but it makes more sense to do them together.

This is a position group that has a clear-cut 1-2. To me, the rest are pretty interchangeable, as no other group really stood out to me this season.

1. West Virginia. Slam dunk to have the Mountaineers on top, given the way Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey performed this season. Each had 1,000-yard seasons -- the first time in school history two players hit that mark. Bailey led the Big East with 12 receiving touchdowns, and was No. 1 in receiving yards per game. Austin was third in receiving yards per game and second in receptions per game. Add in Ivan McCartney, also ranked among the top-10 receivers in the Big East and that says it all. Preseason ranking: No. 2.

[+] EnlargeWest Virginia's Stedman Bailey
Kim Klement/US PRESSWIREWest Virginia's Stedman Bailey led the Big East in touchdowns and yards receiving per game.
2. Rutgers. Mohamed Sanu had an unbelievable season for Rutgers with a school and Big East record 115 receptions. He dominated at receiver, leading the league in receptions per game and finishing second in receiving yards per game. That domination meant his teammates did not get as many opportunities -- Brandon Coleman only had 17 receptions; Mark Harrison 14, Quron Pratt had 32. But when you have an unstoppable force like Sanu, you keep going to him. Preseason ranking: No. 1.

3. Syracuse. When you think of the Orange, you don't necessarily think of high-profile receivers. But Alec Lemon and Nick Provo teamed to have outstanding seasons this year. Both posted career years, Provo made the Big East first team and Lemon made the second team. The two combined for 119 catches and 13 touchdowns. Depth wasn't great, but the performance of Lemon and Provo make up for that and vaults Syracuse here. Preseason ranking: No. 5.

4. Cincinnati. I thought the Bearcats receivers had a down year. D.J. Woods didn't really live up to his potential, and Anthony McClung led the team with 683 yards. That is the fewest yards for the team's leading receiver since 2006. What really sticks out: when Zach Collaros got hurt, the receivers as a whole never really stepped up the way they should have to help Munchie Legaux. Preseason ranking: No. 3.

5. Louisville. The Cardinals did get much better play out of their receivers, and were helped with the impact freshman DeVante Parker and Eli Rogers made. They didn't have anybody with eye-popping numbers, but they did have consistent enough performances out of this group. Preseason ranking: 7.

6. USF. The Bulls were really hurt by injuries at this position, and never really had a go-to guy emerge. Sterling Griffin was en route to a good season before he got hurt; A.J. Love got hurt as well. That left the position in the hands of many young, inexperienced guys. I thought Deonte Welch really had a nice second half. He was their best receiver when Griffin was out. Preseason ranking: 6.

7. UConn. Considering the way the Huskies struggled in the pass game, Kashif Moore, Isiah Moore and Ryan Griffin all put together solid seasons for UConn. Both Moores ranked in the top 10 in the Big East in receiving, and Griffin was the second-best tight end behind Nick Provo. Depth was lacking at the position -- as only five players caught double-digit passes, and only three are true wide receivers. Preseason ranking: 8.

8. Pitt. The Panthers got their tight ends and running backs involved heavily in the pass game, probably because there was depth lacking at the actual receiver position. Devin Street put together a solid season, with 754 yards receiving, and Mike Shanahan was decent. But otherwise, big plays were lacking. Passing game woes obviously had an impact. Preseason ranking: 4.

Big East recruiting needs

January, 23, 2012
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National signing day is inching ever closer, so it is time to take a look at the biggest recruiting needs for every team in the Big East.

Cincinnati

Defensive line. Cincinnati loses a host of seniors from this position, including Co-Defensive Player of the Year Derek Wolfe, John Hughes, Monte Taylor, and Rob Trigg. Factor in the key contributors for 2012 will be seniors in Dan Giordano, Brandon Mills and Walter Stewart and it is time to reload at this position.

Receiver. There is some promising young talent on the roster, but several guys are going to be leaving in the next few years. The Bearcats really need a guy who can stretch the field and make some big plays to join Anthony McClung and Alex Chisum.

Secondary. The Bearcats are going to take a hit at this position after 2012, losing a ton of seniors-to-be, including Cam Cheatham, Drew Frey, Dominique Battle and Reuben Johnson. Senior safety Wesley Richardson is already gone. The lone four-star commitment the Bearcats have is from a safety, Marcus Foster.

UConn

Quarterback. This need has been addressed in this recruiting cycle, with junior college transfer Chandler Whitmer and Casey Cochran already enrolled in school.

Tight end. With the impending departure of Ryan Griffin and John Delahunt, the Huskies could use another young player to be groomed to take over. Tight end is a critical part of the UConn offense.

Offensive line. UConn is losing its two best linemen in Moe Petrus and Mike Ryan. Of the 16 linemen currently listed on the roster, seven are juniors or seniors. Linemen generally take a redshirt season, so it never hurts to sign more to be able to restock.

Louisville

Linebacker. The Cardinals are losing Dexter Heyman and have a lot of juniors and seniors on their roster at this position. It is no surprise, then, that three of the top players coming in are linebackers -- Keith Brown and James Burgess are already enrolled; four-star recruit Nick Dawson has given a commitment.

Offensive line. Louisville has young players here, but not much depth, as evidenced this season when several true freshmen were forced to play much earlier than anticipated. It never hurts to build depth here, and the Cardinals have gotten a huge commit from four-star guard Abraham Garcia out of Miami.

Running back. This was an area the Cardinals struggled in this season, having to move quarterback Dominique Brown to the position. Victor Anderson is gone, and this team could really used another back to carry the load.

Pitt

Quarterback. This one is pretty self explanatory if you watched Tino Sunseri play. Mark Myers and Trey Anderson are also on the roster, but the Panthers are in definite need here -- which is why so many fans are looking forward to commit Chad Voytik coming to town.

Linebacker. This has been an area of inconsistency for the Panthers, who lose their best player in Max Gruder. There are some young players with talent in Todd Thomas and Ejuan Price, but this position could definitely use an upgrade.

Receiver. The play of the offense was disappointing this season, and that includes the receivers. Pitt could use some players to stretch the field. Ronald Jones was a start this season. But when you consider that Cameron Saddler, Mike Shanahan and Devin Street will all be upperclassmen in 2012, this is a definite area of need.

Rutgers

Receiver. Mohamed Sanu is gone, and Mark Harrison is a senior to be. There is plenty of young talent, but there is a reason Rutgers has commitments from four athletes. This gives the Scarlet Knights the flexibility to try them at receiver or running back, another area of need.

Running back. Once Savon Huggins got hurt this year, Rutgers had Jawan Jamison and Jeremy Deering at running back and that was about it. Depth has to be developed here.

Offensive line. Strides have absolutely been made at this position, but coach Greg Schiano likes to reiterate that the Scarlet Knights aren't going to pull themselves out of the hole they were in overnight. They need another solid draft class at this position to keep building.

USF

Secondary. Injuries and inconsistent play this season showed the Bulls really lacked some depth and need some immediate help in this area, which is why they signed junior college cornerbacks Fidel Montgomery and Josh Brown. One of their top four-star commitments is cornerback Chris Bivins.

Quarterback. Beyond B.J. Daniels, a senior in 2012, the Bulls have Bobby Eveld and Matt Floyd as the two heirs to take over. Eveld has been less than impressive, and we don't know much about Floyd. The Bulls would be served to get another quarterback in as they prepare for the future.

Running back. Darrell Scott is gone, and the Bulls are really in need of a game breaker at this position. Demetris Murray is going to be a senior, and nobody else really has stepped up at the position. Depth has to be built here, because USF goes into spring practice with four running backs on the roster.

Syracuse

Defensive line. The Orange are losing Chandler Jones and Mikhail Marinovich and could really used some difference-makers up front who can help get after the quarterback. Depth is an issue here. One of their big commitments so far has been defensive end Josh Manley out of Georgia.

Secondary. This was one of the weakest parts of the team and now the Orange lose Phillip Thomas and Kevyn Scott, and there was a lack of depth when injuries hit this position in 2011. Brooklyn prep safety Wayne Morgan would be a huge get to add to this unit.

Receiver. Alec Lemon is a senior, Van Chew is gone and who knows what happens with Marcus Sales. The bottom line is the Orange are in major need of a game-changer to turn 15-yard passes into 40-yard receptions.

West Virginia

Quarterback. Geno Smith is a rising senior and after him it is crickets in the form of one player behind him in Paul Millard. So consider this need majorly filled with Ford Childress, ranked No. 139 on the ESPNU 150.

Offensive line. The most inconsistent part of the team in 2011, West Virginia has a major need here. The Mountaineers struggled so badly here they started converted defensive lineman Curtis Feigt late in the season. Don Barclay is gone, and Joe Madsen, Jeff Braun and Josh Jenkins are all upperclassmen.

Defensive line. Julian Miller, Josh Taylor and Bruce Irvin are gone, and there are depth concerns here. West Virginia has four commitments from defensive linemen already.

Two NFL MVPs chat about Luck

December, 31, 2011
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Stanford head coach David Shaw knows quarterbacks. For nine years in the NFL, he studied them, analyzed them and broke down every tangible mechanic and intangible characteristic trait there is.

So when he says he's never seen anyone like Andrew Luck -- specifically, a college quarterback with the intelligence to read defenses the way he does and call plays -- you have to consider him a credible source.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
AP Photo/Paul Connors"I applaud him for being able to do it," former NFL quarterback Brian Sipe says of Andrew Luck calling plays for Stanford, "and for the coaches who are willing to give him that responsibility."
But he's also biased. Like any good coach, he sticks up for his guy. Pumps him up. Some have even accused Shaw of over-inflating his future No. 1 draft pick.

So to get unbiased sources, I looked to a pair of former NFL MVP quarterbacks from two different eras -- Steve Young and Brian Sipe -- for their take on Luck and the significance of a college football player calling his own plays. Young, a Hall of Famer, spent years carving up defenses just up the road from Palo Alto with the San Francisco 49ers.

And he knows a little something about the Stanford offense. It derives from the Bill Walsh offense Young ran with San Francisco. It's not identical, but as a Walsh disciple, Shaw kept many of the same principles.

Much is made about what Luck does pre-snap. He has a playbook of 250 plays each week in his mental Rolodex and he can pull from anything at any time. That's an awful lot to heap on a college kid. And the fact that Luck does it with amazing results is tangible, empiric evidence of his football IQ and NFL potential.

“What I appreciate is what [offensive coordinator] Pep Hamilton has done for Andrew, continuing what Jim Harbaugh did. They have really prepared him like a pro,” said Young, a two-time NFL MVP. “They do pro game plans with pro verbiage and pro schemes. They can’t push some of the other kids as much, because they don’t have the experience. But they find ways to keep Andrew motivated. Calling his own plays, creating his own plays, putting more responsibility on him keeps him focused and sharp.”

Sipe, now the quarterbacks coach with San Diego State, played during a transitional era -- spanning a time when all quarterbacks called their own plays to a time when none of them did. Sipe was one of the last to still make the calls in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage.

“[Luck] is obviously very intelligent and we know it can be done,” said the 1980 NFL MVP. “What’s shocking to me is that there is a coaching staff out there comfortable enough to relinquish that kind of responsibility. If we prepare these kids right, they know what we’re trying to do and they should be able to do it. But at the same time, they don’t have the luxury of all the information and data in front of them. I understand why coaches prefer to call their own plays from the sidelines and the press box. I applaud them for having that confidence in him.”

That confidence comes from trust. Shaw said he knew early on he’d be able to take this leap with Luck -- and when Luck announced he was returning for another year and Shaw was promoted from offensive coordinator, the two clicked.

“As soon as I got the job, the first thing I said was 'Andrew, we’re going back to the no-huddle,' and there was a big smile on his face,” Shaw recalled. “He and I have both loved the idea from the beginning, and he’s so good at it. It took a little bit of time, but he’s a rare quarterback that can handle this.”

Luck said they tinkered with the idea early in his career, but not until he proved he was ready to handle the extra responsibility did they start integrating his play calling into the game plan.

“Experience is a big part of it, and showing the coaches that you can execute their plan on the field,” Luck said. “As a player, obviously it’s great to know your coaches trust you. To go out there and make the call and know they are behind you, that’s special.”

Sipe said he enjoyed being able to call his own plays -- though he understands the game has evolved.

“As a quarterback, I felt like I had a feel for the game that could only come from being out on the field and being in the huddle with the guys and being close to it,” Sipe said. “But at the same time I recognize the benefit of having data at your fingertips and hearing from everybody else. When you’re out there, you are on your own and have to process it all … you have to think like an offensive coordinator, and I applaud him for being able to do it and for the coaches who are willing to give him that responsibility.”

Chances are, Luck won’t be calling his own plays at the next level. Young said the pro game has changed so much that quarterbacks actually calling their own plays could be detrimental.

“I think it’s almost foolish -- like you’re not a real man if you don’t call your own plays,” Young said, the second part tongue in cheek. “Good play-callers like Marty Mornhinweg or Mike Holmgren or Mike Shanahan, the all-timer -- in some ways the last thing you want to be doing is taking them out of the mix. I had free range to call whatever I wanted. But I liked calling their combinations. I think it’s overrated a little bit in the pro game. Drew Brees could call his own plays. But Sean Payton can put together great combinations. I don’t see it as a badge of honor.

“But in college, the way Stanford uses it for Andrew, I think it’s really great. It’s the perfect way to keep him active and keep him sharp.”

It's when pulling those combinations together, Shaw said, that Luck is at his best.

"That's a big part of understanding the situations -- what do we need on second-and-5 as opposed to second-and-10," Shaw said. "He gets it. We don't give him any guidelines. We put it in his hands and he gets it naturally.

"We wanted to make sure we were continually challenging him. Let's give him options. Let's make sure he always has something to study. Andrew has taken it to the next level."

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