NCF Nation: Todd Thomas

Pittsburgh Panthers season preview

August, 15, 2014
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Pittsburgh Panthers:

Key returners: QB Chad Voytik, RB James Conner, RB Isaac Bennett, WR Tyler Boyd, TE J.P. Holtz, LT Adam Bisnowaty, C Artie Rowell, RG Matt Rotheram, RT T.J. Clemmings, DE David Durham, LB Anthony Gonzalez, LB Todd Thomas, CB Lafayette Pitts, S Ray Vinopal

Key losses: QB Tom Savage, WR Devin Street, DT Aaron Donald, LB Shane Gordon, CB K'Waun Williams, S Jason Hendricks

[+] EnlargeTyler Boyd
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsPittsburgh wide receiver Tyler Boyd looks to build on a freshman All-America season.
Most important 2014 games: Sept. 20 versus Iowa, Oct. 16 versus Virginia Tech, Nov. 1 versus Duke, Nov. 15 at North Carolina, Nov. 29 at Miami

Projected win percentage (from Stats & Info): 63.5 percent.

Over/under Vegas odds: 7.5 wins.

Instant impact newcomers: Avonte Maddox and Phillipie Motley are a pair of freshman cornerbacks who will likely be counted on heavily to provide some needed depth at the position, as Titus Howard's season-long suspension leaves Pitt with just two returners with any experience at the position (Pitts and Trenton Coles). Both Maddox (5-foot-10, 170 pounds) and Motley (5-foot-9, 165 pounds) arrived this summer as ESPN three-star prospects, and the learning curve will likely be accelerated as the Panthers search for more bodies in coverage.

High point from 2013: A 28-21 win over Notre Dame on Nov. 9 buried the Fighting Irish's remaining BCS bowl hopes and, at least partially, erased some of the sting from Pitt's consecutive three-point losses to them in 2011 and 2012. It's more useful, however, to look back at the 30-27 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl win over MAC champion Bowling Green, as youngsters Voytik, Conner and Boyd all stepped up in a big way, something each hopes is a sign of things to come for 2014.

Low point from 2013: A 24-21 loss at Navy on Oct. 26 marked the first of a two-game slide (Pitt lost at Georgia Tech a week later), threatening to keep the Panthers out of postseason play before they pulled off the upset the following month over the Irish. Still, Pitt dropped three contests in a four-game stretch surrounding the loss to the Midshipmen, with its only win during that stretch coming against Old Dominion.

Best-case scenario for 2014: Voytik builds off his late-game experience from the Pizza Bowl and gives Pitt a dynamic threat under center, the experienced-but-shaky offensive line jells, Boyd continues his ascent and the defense makes big strides. Pitt takes advantage of a rather friendly schedule, makes a run at 10 wins and emerges as the champion of a Coastal division that is simply begging someone to step up.

Worst-case scenario for 2014: The offensive line continues to struggle, leaving Voytik vulnerable and the offense out of flux. The front seven fails to make up for the loss of Donald, allowing opponents time to test a green secondary. The Panthers win four games, taking a step back after consecutive bowl seasons in Paul Chryst's first two years. The youth on this team, however, is probably still enough to keep the future promising.

They said it: "I feel fortunate to be at Pittsburgh. You talk about a school with unbelievable football tradition and a city that absolutely -- it's a great sports town but a heck of a football city. High school football is big on Fridays. Obviously the Steelers are big on Sunday. We want to be a team that reflects the city and reflects the university and the tradition of a great university. I want the ex-players to be proud of Pitt and Pitt football, and I know they certainly are proud of it. But that's where we want to go, and that's what I mean, we're not where we want to be. But I sure appreciate and enjoy going through and facing that challenge with this group of guys, and for every challenge there's an opportunity." -- Chryst, on how he defines Pitt football

Pitt names Tom Savage starting QB

August, 14, 2013
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Tom Savage has been named the starting quarterback at Pitt, coach Paul Chryst told reporters after practice on Wednesday.

Savage, who is in his final season of eligibility after transferring twice, beat Chad Voytik for the starting job and will start against Florida State on Labor Day in what will be the Panthers’ first game as members of the ACC.

“Tom is going to be our starting quarterback,” Chryst told reporters. “We like what he’s done to this point. It’s a reflection of where Tom’s at. I still think Chad is making really good progress, but I feel really good and confident with Tom, and certainly like the direction Chad is going.”

Savage started his career at Rutgers in 2009, but transferred to Arizona in 2011. He then transferred to Pitt after one year, and has sat out each of the past two seasons because of NCAA transfer rules. Still, he was the most experienced quarterback left on Pitt’s roster. As a true freshman at Rutgers, Savage completed 149-of-285 passes (52 percent) for 2,211 yards with 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

“Obviously I was excited, but I’d be a fool to take it anymore than that, especially with what’s happened to me in the past,” Savage said in his post-practice interview on Wednesday. “I can’t become complacent with it. It’s a privilege, but I have to keep working, and I have a lot of room to improve.”

A school spokesman also confirmed that linebacker Todd Thomas has rejoined the team and practiced on Wednesday. Last week, Thomas told Chryst he no longer wanted to be a part of the team after he was bumped to the second string on the depth chart.
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.

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.

Big East all-freshman team

December, 16, 2011
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Earlier this week, I listed a few of my top freshmen in the Big East. Now I present my Big East All-Freshman team. True freshmen and redshirt freshmen are included. Some positions were much easier to fill than others. Here is my team:

Offense

QB: Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville

RB: Lyle McCombs, UConn

RB: Dustin Garrison, West Virginia

WR: Michaelee Harris, Louisville

WR: Deonte Welch, USF

WR: DeVante Parker, Louisville

OL: Kaleb Johnson, Rutgers

OL: Quinterrius Eatmon, USF

OL: Jake Smith, Louisville

OL: John Miller, Louisville

OL: Eric Lefeld, Cincinnati

Defense

DL: B.J. Dubose, Louisville

DL: Elkino Watson, USF

DL: Jamaine Brooks, Louisville

LB: Yawin Smallwood, UConn

LB: Dyshawn Davis, Syracuse

LB: Todd Thomas, Pitt

LB: Jewone Snow, West Virginia

DB: Ty-Meer Brown, UConn

DB: Calvin Pryor, Louisville

DB: Andrew Johnson, Louisville

DB: Byron Jones, UConn

Specialists

K: Tony Miliano, Cincinnati

P: Jonathan Fisher, Syracuse

KR: Jeremiah Kobena, Syracuse

The toughest choices for me were at running back and receiver. I went back and forth between Garrison and Rutgers redshirt freshman Jawan Jamison. Their yardage and touchdown totals are virtually identical, but Garrison has a much better yards per carry average and was a more explosive player this season. Receiver was probably the toughest because of the three freshmen receivers for Louisville. I had Eli Rogers on this list at various points, but went with Parker because of his six touchdown receptions.

You also see only three down linemen. There were simply not many impact freshmen defensive linemen in the league this year. The same goes for cornerback (which is why I went with three safeties) and tight end. Those were the three weakest positions for freshmen in the league. Receiver, running back and linebacker were the strongest.

Pregame: USF at Pitt

September, 29, 2011
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PITTSBURGH -- Kickoff is closing in between No. 16 USF and Pitt on a cool, breezy night at Heinz Field. Here are a few keys to the game.

For USF

1. Establish the run game. Pitt would love nothing more than to test the new-found confidence B.J. Daniels is playing with in his first road game since the opener at Notre Dame. Darrell Scott has shown some nice flashes, but it is one thing to have a big game against Florida A&M. It is quite another to have a big game on the road against a Big East opponent as solid as Pitt.

2. Harass Tino Sunseri. This is something that nearly everybody has had success doing early on in the season, a big reason why Pitt has given up 19 sacks. Sunseri has not looked comfortable running this offense, and USF needs to keep it that way. The Bulls have played decently well on the defensive line, and should have an advantage against a Pitt offensive line that has struggled at times.

3. Keep testing the Pitt linebackers. Pitt actually played its best game on defense last season, but the Panthers have shown problems covering underneath routes in the pass game. USF could take advantage of this with its fast receivers that have the potential to get big plays in the pass game.

For Pitt

1. Get to B.J. Daniels. Pitt has played well up front, and that has to continue against a Bulls team that has done essentially whatever it has wanted in the past three games. Much has been made of the way Daniels has played through the first three games of the season, but we will see how he responds if Pitt knocks him down a few times and keeps the pressure on. Todd Thomas and Ejuan Price are going to be huge in the contain game, should Daniels be able to escape the pocket when the pressure closes in.

2. Get Sunseri comfortable. That means getting a little more help from his teammates. Better play from the offensive line. More consistent play from the receivers. More of a reliance on Ray Graham. Sunseri has not been able to shoulder the entire offensive load thus far.

3. Get Graham going. Graham slowed down a bit in his past two games, but there is no question he has got to help the Pitt offense get going with some big plays.

Pressure is on Pitt pass defense

September, 22, 2011
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Pitt has had breakdowns in its pass coverage that have really hurt the Panthers in all three of their games.

Now they face another quick-strike offense in Notre Dame on Saturday, putting the pressure once again on the linebackers and defensive backs to step up and make something happen. Many of the problems have come on underneath routes against the linebackers, who have been slow to cover and react.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Lindsey
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallBrandon Lindsey is switching positions as Pittsburgh tries to shore up its pass defense.
That has Pitt ranked next-to-last in the nation in pass defense, giving up an average of 336 yards a game. The Panthers have moved around their starting linebackers -- true freshman Ejuan Price is now starting at Panther, while Tristan Roberts has replaced Shane Gordon and Todd Thomas is starting over Greg Williams.

Brandon Lindsey, who the Panthers wanted to play linebacker, is now back at defensive end because he is more effective lining up with his hand on the ground.

Defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said it is a matter of finding the right players to fit into the 3-4 scheme as they get adjusted to the new defense.

“We’re constantly evaluating what we're doing, making sure what we’re doing fits the talent and skill level,” Patterson said in a phone interview. “We’re not asking young men to do something they're not capable of doing. You can sit here and go against your own offensive personnel but until you get out there in a game situation, you don't know how certain people are going to react, you don't know how well they match up with other people's personnel.

“Through three games, we’re able to evaluate that and maybe get guys in different positions better suited for their talents and ability.”

Buffalo and Maine play more of a quick-style offense than Iowa, so the breakdowns in each game were different. The Hawkeyes were able to erase a 24-3 deficit in large part because quarterback James Vandenberg passed for 162 yards in the fourth quarter.

Coach Todd Graham said there were 12 errors by the pass defense in that quarter. Iowa was aided by good starting field position on several of its drives, and the Pitt offense simply could not sustain a drive to get the defense off the field. Still, Pitt could not make a play on defense when it needed to despite dominating the game for three quarters.

Finishing the fourth quarter has been a theme. The Panthers have given up 41 fourth-quarter points -- 35 in the past two games.

“What's been really strange about this season is how we've been so dominant in certain parts of every game and then all of a sudden, it's almost like I don't know. It's been hard to explain,” Patterson said. “I haven't been a part of that.

Another problem that has plagued the defense has been a lack of turnovers. Pitt only has two on the season -- both interceptions. Patterson counted three dropped interceptions against the Hawkeyes.

Notre Dame has turned the ball over 13 times this season, so creating more is a huge point of emphasis. But above all else, coaches have harped on their players to finish.

“We shut teams out in the first quarter and have not been able to finish,” Graham said. “We’ve made a lot mental mistakes in the fourth quarter. A lot of those have come off blitzes and things like that. We’re trying to execute a new system. We’ll keep working hard to eliminate the errors.”

Big East practice report

August, 12, 2011
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Taking a look at practice around the league ...

Cincinnati: Coach Butch Jones continued to put an emphasis on his kicking competition Thursday. At the end of practice, he had transfer Shane Popham kick for the defense and Tony Miliano kick for the offense. The losing side had to run an extra gasser. Popham was 4-of-5 from between 35 and 38 yards to win relief for the defense. "We will continue to do that," Jones said. "We have to continue to raise their blood pressure. It’s going to be critical, and kicking is pressure situations. So we will continue to manufacture as much pressure situations as we can."

Connecticut: The Huskies hold media day today, with plenty of live coverage on the school's website.

Louisville: The Cardinals held their first two-a-day practice Thursday. In the first practice, they worked on goal-line situations. The defense stuffed the offense on the first go-around. But on the second, the offense scored four straight times. One included a touchdown pass from Teddy Bridgewater to Josh Chichester.

Pitt: Coach Todd Graham is pleased with freshmen Juan Price and Todd Thomas at linebacker. He also was happy with kicker Kevin Harper, who made all of his field goals during practice, including a 55-yarder. Tight end Brock DeCicco was not at practice and is considering a transfer. DeCicco is worried he isn't a good fit in the new spread offense.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights will hold their first scrimmage Saturday but won't be at full strength, especially at running back. Jawan Jamison (hamstring) won't participate, and coach Greg Schiano didn't know if Jeremy Deering (head) would be available. Defensive end Manny Abreu (head) also will be held out. Rutgers only has three healthy tailbacks on the roster right now.

Syracuse: Injuries have hit the Orange particularly hard.

USF: Quarterback B.J. Daniels returned to practice but was held out of team drills during the second half of the day. Still, it was a relief to have him back and he showed no signs of favoring his leg. Also Thursday, Lou Holtz was at practice, decked out in Bulls gear, to cheer on and support his son, coach Skip Holtz. Lou Holtz addressed the team afterward and had this evaluation: “They’re a much-improved football team from what I’ve seen,” he said. “More experienced, more confidence, better fundamentally, and they’re very quick and they work hard.”

West Virginia: Defensive tackle Julian Miller turned his ankle and was in a red, non-contact jersey and walking boot. Coach Dana Holgorsen said Miller was "day-to-day." Same for Darwin Cook, who has a strained muscle. Holgorsen also anticipates playing 12 true freshmen this year.

Ejuan Price joins Pittsburgh

June, 21, 2011
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Former Ohio State signee Ejuan Price joined Pittsburgh on Tuesday and is eligible to play for the Panthers this fall.

The Woodland Hills (Pa.) linebacker originally signed with the Buckeyes in February but recently asked for and was granted his release from Ohio State. ESPN ranked Price the No. 12 linebacker prospect in the nation in the class of 2011.

“Ejuan Price is an outstanding addition to our freshman class,” coach Todd Graham said in a statement. “He comes from a tremendous football program in Woodland Hills. Ejuan is an explosive player who has great leadership abilities. He will fit in well with our defensive schemes and philosophies.”

The 6-foot, 235-pound Price was selected All-State Class AAAA by the Pennsylvania Sports Writers and played both as a tight end and linebacker. He had a hard time deciding between Ohio State and Pittsburgh back in February. The turmoil at Ohio State was a big factor in his decision to ask for his release.

It stands to reason Price will be given every opportunity to be a contributor this season. There is uncertainty at the linebacker position headed into the fall. Pittsburgh is switching to a 3-4 and experimented with different lineups there this spring. Dan Mason is still recovering from a brutal knee injury and Todd Thomas also missed the spring with an injury. There is talent at the position with the return of Max Gruder, Greg Williams and Tristan Roberts. Adding Price into the mix is a bonus.

Hope and concern: Pittsburgh

May, 23, 2011
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Time to get back at it in the hope and concern series, where we look at the top reasons for optimism and pessimism for each Big East team's 2011 season. What things should new Pittsburgh coach Todd Graham be hopeful and concerned about? Let's take a look.

Biggest reason for hope: Increased scoring

Pitt wasn't exactly a plodder last year, averaging more than 26 points per game and reaching 40 points three times. Yet there was usually a feeling that the offense could have done more with weapons like Dion Lewis, Ray Graham and Jon Baldwin. One thing Todd Graham promises to do is ratchet up the pace and the points. Tulsa led the nation in total offense in 2007 and 2008 and finished fifth in 2010. It might take a couple of years for Graham to assemble the kind of players he wants to run his spread at peak efficiency, but expect the Panthers to put a lot of pressure on opposing defenses this year.

Biggest reason for concern: The back end

While the offense should produce and Graham loves the depth and talent along the defensive line, there are questions elsewhere. The linebacking corps did not play well at times this year, especially in pass coverage. Are guys like Tristan Roberts and Max Gruder quick enough? Will Greg Williams be more fundamentally sound? Or can younger players like Shane Gordon and Todd Thomas step up? At cornerback, the Panthers exited the spring with a pair of new starters in K'Waun Williams and Buddy Jackson. Williams is talented but largely unproven, while Jackson has been an enigma his entire career. Safety is in good hands at one spot with Jared Holley, but the Panthers have to replace all-league performer Dom DeCicco. Pittsburgh could be vulnerable to good passing teams.
PITTSBURGH -- A few quick thoughts and observations from what I got to see of Pitt's spring practice on Tuesday:
  • I was looking forward to seeing just how high-octane this offense was, to use Todd Graham's description. While the usual drills and other periods were held at the same tempo as a lot of practices I've seen, when Pitt went to an 11-on-11 drill it was pedal to the metal. The offense was sprinting to the line of scrimmage and snapping the ball in under 10 seconds. That doesn't mean it was effective. There was a bad shotgun snap from Chris Jacobson and another one mishandled by backup quarterback Anthony Gonzalez. Throw in an incomplete deep ball, and the short team period looked a little disjointed. But fast.
  • In the past couple of years, Pitt was always what Dick Vitale would call an "All-Airport" team. That is, they looked awfully good in their uniforms. The Panthers don't look quite as physically imposing this spring, but perhaps that's just because guys like Jon Baldwin, Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard are not longer around. This team still has plenty of talent, though depth looks like it could be an issue.
  • Tino Sunseri has pretty clearly established his hold on the starting quarterback job as the incumbent. He had a little trouble hooking up with receivers on deep balls while I was watching, but the coaching staff loves his poise and experience. Remember that Graham has won with quarterbacks who weren't necessarily physical specimens but who were really smart. Sunseri, as a coach's kid and with a year under his belt, fits that bill.
  • Gonzalez got the first backup QB snaps on Tuesday, though he didn't throw as much as Mark Myers in some other drills. It's hard not to like Myers' skills; he's tall and throws a very tight spiral. Is he the right quarterback for this system? That's a good question, considering he looks like a prototypical pro-style signalcaller, which is one reason why he signed with Pitt.
  • Receiver Cam Saddler was back on the field after missing some time with a leg injury. The 5-foot-7 speedster has got to love this offensive system after not really getting used much by Dave Wannstedt. He's the kind of waterbug Graham found success with at Tulsa. Devin Street and Mike Shanahan look terrific as the top two wideouts. Pitt just has to find more guys behind them.
  • The first-string offensive line, for what it's worth, saw Lucas Nix and Jordan Gibbs at tackle, Greg Gaskins and Cory King at guard and Jacobson at center. Gaskins struggled last year when he was first given a chance to start but now he's a senior. After Gaskins made a nice block in a lineman drill, offensive line coach Spencer Leftwich yelled, "If you do that, you can play here."
  • As usual in these settings, it's hard to tell a whole lot about the defense when there's not much hitting. But Graham raves about his defensive line, saying tackle Chas Alecxih in particular has had a huge spring. He also says cornerback K'Waun Williams "can be special." Some currently injured players like Brandon Lindsey, Antwuan Reed and Todd Thomas will help when they're healthy.

Pitt finalizes class of 24 signees

February, 3, 2010
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It was a relatively stress-free signing day for Dave Wannstedt and his staff.

Pitt, which had wrapped up most of its 2010 recruiting weeks ago, signed all 24 of its commitments today, the school announced.

"We had an outstanding season on the field this fall and that momentum carried over to our coaches’ recruiting efforts,” Wannstedt said. “Prospects are recognizing the national emergence of our program and they want to be part of that."

Pitt will likely be ranked at or near the top of the class rankings in the Big East. Some of the headliners include the Pennsylvania all-staters like defensive lineman Aaron Donald, quarterback Anthony Gonzalez and receiver Kevin Weatherspoon, plus top New Jersey prospect and defensive lineman T.J. Clemmings, as well as prep school standout Todd Thomas.

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