Notre Dame Football: Pre-Spring Opponent Preview: Pittsburgh
As spring practices commence around the nation, I’ll be looking at each of Notre Dame’s 12 opponents in the 2012 season and addressing some key questions and potential breakout players.
This installment features the Pittsburgh Panthers and new coach Paul Chryst. The Panthers had a 6-6 regular season in 2011 before head coach Todd Graham bolted for Arizona State prior to the Panthers' bowl game, and after only one season in the Steel City.
The Panthers take the field for the first time on March 15, with their spring game coming on April 14.
On Friday, we’ll look at Navy, the first opponent the Irish will face when they open the season in Ireland.
Date: November 3
Location: Notre Dame Stadium (Notre Dame, IN)
Last Meeting: Notre Dame 15, Pittsburgh 12 (2011)
Last Meeting at Notre Dame: Notre Dame 23, Pittsburgh 17 (2010)
Current Streak: Notre Dame: 2
Record: 6-7 (4-3 Big East)
Bowl: BBVA Compass Bowl (lost to SMU 28-6)
Leading Passer: Tino Sunseri (Jr.)—247-for-385, 2,616 yards, 10 TD, 11 INT
Leading Rusher: Ray Graham (Jr.)—164 rushes, 958 yards, 9 TD
Leading Receiver: Devin Street (So.)—53 catches, 754 yards, 2 TD
Tino Sunseri was never a good fit in Todd Graham’s spread offense. In a season of lows, the mismatch was never more evident than a midseason loss to Utah, in which Sunseri through for only 38 yards.
New coach Paul Chryst could be no more different than Graham, bringing his power running, pro-style attack that helped lead Wisconsin to consecutive Rose Bowl appearances. Sunseri doesn’t have the physical tools of Russell Wilson, but his experience and pedigree provides Chryst a good starting point.
Sunseri redshirted during Matt Cavanagh’s final season as the Panthers offensive coordinator, then played two years in Frank Cignetti’s system, and last season under Graham. The coaching change will be beneficial, but the coordinator instability throughout the fifth-year senior’s career may be too much to recover from in just one year.
The program that produced Pro Football Hall of Fame running backs Tony Dorsett and Curtis Martin experienced a resurgence at the position over the past few years, with LeSean McCoy and Dion Lewis both having outstanding careers with the Panthers.
Ray Graham was next in line after Lewis departed after the 2010 season, and was on his way to a fantastic season when a serious knee injury ended his season after eight games. Despite missing five full games and most of a sixth, Graham finished just 42 yards shy of a 1,000-yard season.
Graham is expected to be ready for the fall, but will likely not be at full speed for fall camp. A pair of sophomores, Isaac Bennett and Corey Davis, will compete for the backup role. Bennett received more playing time as a freshman, with 58 carries and a pair of touchdowns.
The Panthers may not use as many three and four-wide sets under Chryst, but the receiving corps heads into the new season in good shape.
The two leading pass catchers last season, Devin Street and Mike Shanahan, are tall receivers who fit what Chryst is looking for on the outside.
Shanahan is more of a possession receiver, lacking top-level speed. Street is the best all-around receiver on the roster, with good size, speed and range.
Cameron Saddler, who was injured in the same game as Ray Graham, is the team’s fastest receiver and should be the No. 3 receiver. He is most effective working out of the slot.
Todd Graham opted to use an H-back more often than a true tight end. Hubie Graham, a transfer from Illinois, played that role a year ago, but now will likely transition into more of a classic tight end under Chryst. Like most of the Panthers recruited by Dave Wannstedt’s staff, he’ll be a better fit in Chryst’s system.
Chryst’s Wisconsin teams were known for their dominant offensive lines, but his first unit at Pittsburgh will be a challenge. Three starters depart, including both tackles. Left guard Ryan Schlieper returns, while fifth-year senior center Ryan Turnley will be the anchor of the line.
Penn State transfer Tom Ricketts is a candidate for one of the open tackle positions, as is massive 360-pound Arthur Doakes, built in the same mold as many of the offensive linemen Chryst coached at Wisconsin.
The open guard position vacated by Louis Nix will likely go to Cory King, a 325-pound junior. With no game experience returning at either tackle position, the line is the biggest question mark on the Panthers' offense.
The Panthers switched to a 3-4 alignment under new coordinator Keith Patterson last season. Myles Caragein admirably filled the crucial nose tackle role, freeing up space for ends Aaron Donald and Chas Alecxih to combine for 15.5 sacks.
Pitt is likely to revert to a four-linemen scheme as they ran under Wannstedt, but both Caragein and Alecxih depart next year. Donald will likely fit best at end in a 4-3 alignment. Sophomore LaQuentin Smith should move to end after backing up the departed Brandon Lindsey at outside linebacker last season.
Reserve tackles Khaynin Mosley-Smith and Tyrone Ezell are next in line to start in the middle of the line. Mosley-Smith had seven tackles last season in limited action.
It is imperative for Donald to have another stellar season for the line to come close to matching last year’s production.
The Panthers lost a pair of standout inside linebackers with the departure of Greg Williams and emotional leader Max Gruder. A second team All-Big East performer, Gruder was the team’s leading tackler a year ago with 116.
Pittsburgh native Ejuan Price played well at times last year as a freshman, but now must take on a much larger role as the leading candidate for the vital middle linebacker position. Price originally committed to Ohio State before choosing to stay close to home.
Todd Thomas returns as a quality strongside linebacker, but the weak side is a mess. Four-star recruit Deaysean Rippy won’t arrive until the summer, but he could be asked to step in immediately. Keeping Smith at linebacker rather than transitioning to end is also an option.
The Panthers received some good news when All-Big East free safety Jarred Holley opted to return for his senior season. With five of seven starters up front leaving, the secondary will have to be the strength of new coordinator Dave Huxtable.
Antwuan Reed was one of the best cornerbacks in the Big East last year, but he must be replaced. K’Waun Williams will return on the other side, and his backup of a year ago, sophomore Lloyd Carrington, is the likely candidate to take over for Reed.
Andrew Taglianetti returns at strong safety to form an elite duo with Holley. The pass defense must improve on its No. 71 ranking in the FBS a year ago, and must force more turnovers. No player last season had multiple interceptions. That must change with the pass rush likely to struggle more this year without Alecxih and Lindsey.
Kevin Harper had a successful junior season, converting 21 of his 31 attempts, including four of five in a win over Syracuse that locked up a bowl bid for the Panthers. He’ll return for his final year and gives the Panthers an experienced and effective kicker.
Punter Matt Yoklic also returns after finishing second in the Big East a year ago. The Panthers hope to not have a repeat of 2011, when Yoklic punted at least eight times in three games.
Sophomore Ronald Jones will again handle punt returns. Jones averaged a mediocre 6.6 yards per return last season. Jones and Davis will likely share kickoff return duties after the departure of Buddy Jackson, last year’s leading returner.
Todd Graham was never a good fit in Pittsburgh, both culturally and philosophically. Playing one year with a spread offense and a 3-4 defense now feels like a waste with a return to the style used by Wannstedt.
Suring up the offensive line is a major key for the Panthers, as the skill positions are in good shape if Ray Graham can return healthy from his knee injury. Defensively, it could be a struggle with only five returning starters and a change in scheme. The defense kept the Panthers in many games last year, including the narrow loss to Notre Dame.
The Irish would prefer to play Pittsburgh early with all of the turnover, but instead must wait until November. The program is in good hands with Chryst and could contend for the Big East title thanks to a favorable schedule, but this feels like a transition year for the Panthers.