Pittsburgh Panthers Football: 12 Players Who Are Key to 2011 Season
The Dave Wannstedt era came to an end at the University of Pittsburgh this winter.
Under head coach Wannstedt, the Panthers were a team perpetually on the verge of BCS bowl contention. Unfortunately, Wannstedt was never able to deliver a BCS bowl berth during his six years in Pittsburgh.
During his tenure, Wannstedt revitalized the program's recruiting. In the past, top recruits from talent-rich western Pennsylvania would not have considered Pitt a top choice.
Not anymore. The Panthers have been raking in talent from the Steel City and its surrounding high schools. These players give new head coach Todd Graham a chance to succeed immediately.
With Texas Christian University set to join the Big East in 2012, this may be Pitt's best chance at securing a BCS berth for a while. Dave Wannstedt assembled a talented group of players, but he could never capitalize on their potential.
It will be up to new coach Todd Graham to get the most out of these 12 players. If he does, a Big East title will be well within reach for the Panthers.
Kevin Harper, K
Kevin Harper is charged with replacing the departed Dan Hutchins. With Hutchins, the Panthers had a solid kicker the past two seasons.
Playing in the wind tunnel that is Heinz Field, the Panthers need a dependable kicker with nerves of steel. Harper has experience as the team's kickoff specialist last season. This season, he will need to step into the role of full-time field goal kicker.
If Pitt's offense stalls like it did at times last season, the Panthers will need a solid kicker to fall back on. Harper has a strong leg, but he needs experience kicking at Heinz Field.
Devin Street, WR
In his freshman season, Devin Street flashed big play potential. He took a screen pass 79 yards against Syracuse.
At 6'4 with plenty of speed to burn, Street could feast on smaller cornerbacks in the Big East, where defense is not always the strongest. He has dealt with a head injury during the preseason, but should be ready to play in the opener against the Buffalo Bulls.
Pitt needs to replace Jon Baldwin's big play potential. Street has the ability and the size to fill the shoes of the Chiefs first round pick. With new head coach Todd Graham installing a wide open scheme, Street will have plenty of opportunities to catch the ball.
Shane Gordon, ILB
The inside linebacker position was the biggest concern for the Pitt Panthers coaching staff going into the season. The defense is set at outside linebacker, but inside was a different story.
Sophomore Shane Gordon beat out senior Tristan Roberts for the chance to start alongside Max Gruner, another senior. Of the three, Gordon has the most raw athletic ability. That ability has not translated to the field yet.
If Gordon is able to put it all together, the Panthers will benefit from his playmaking ability. He needs to learn the nuances of the position. If he struggles, Roberts may take over.
The Panthers defense would benefit more from Gordon's athleticism than from Roberts' experience, but if he cannot combine savvy with athleticism, Gordon could find himself on the sidelines watching.
Ryan Turnley, C
With the Panthers installing a no-huddle spread offense, the center position becomes very important. The offensive line needs a center who can relay blocking assignments to his teammates and deliver reliable shotgun snaps.
In Ryan Turnley, Todd Graham finds himself with a rookie center. If Turnley is not able to handle his duties as the leader of the line or deliver accurate shotgun snaps, the new offense that has Pitt fans so excited will fail.
K'Waun Williams, CB
The Big East is a passing league. With teams like West Virginia and Cincinnati throwing the ball all over the place, to contend, a defense needs a shutdown corner.
K'Waun Williams will have to be the Panthers shutdown corner if their defense is going to shut down opponents.
The new, aggressive defensive scheme brought in by Todd Graham will require corners to be able to play man-to-man. Williams has the athletic tools and has worked hard on the practice field. If he can translate that work to strong gameday performances, he will be an important part of the Pitt defense.
Jarred Holley, S
There will be times when K'Waun Williams will need safety help over the top. He has a capable partner in Jarred Holley.
Holley was a third team All-Big East selection in 2010 and was named to the preseason first team this year. The safety has had a big impact in his first two seasons in Pittsburgh. Now, he needs to step up and be the leader of the secondary for the Panthers.
Ronald Jones, WR/RET
Ronald Jones was a lightly recruited two-star prospect when he signed with the Panthers. Fast forward to August and Jones may be a key player for Pitt.
Jones has impressed in scrimmages with his return ability and will be the starting punt returner against Buffalo on Saturday. His open-field ability will also get him on the field as a receiver.
Ronald Jones was not the most heralded of Pittsburgh's 2011 signees, but he could have an instant impact.
Juantez Hollins, LT
The offensive line appears to be the weakest link in the Pittsburgh Panthers offense. There was an open competition for most of the offensive line spots.
After a great deal of shuffling and competition, Juantez Hollins won the ever important left tackle spot. Hollins secured the spot largely due to his run blocking ability and his hard work in training camp.
Running the ball has always been an important part of the offensive scheme at Pitt, but with the team's wealth of talent at the receiver position, the pass is becoming more important. Hollins must be able to protect the blind side as well as the opens holes.
Aaron Donald, DT
Aaron Donald was an All-State recruit coming out of high school, and in his freshman season of 2010, he saw playing time in all 13 games. The Panthers are expecting him to do more than just step on the field this year.
Donald has a unique blend of power and explosiveness that will come in handy on the defensive line. Coach Todd Graham has big expectations for his sophomore defensive tackle. Aaron Donald needs to be a run-stopping force for the Pitt Panthers this season. This would help alleviate concerns about the linebacking corps.
Ray Graham, RB
Splitting time with Dion Lewis in 2010, Ray Graham was still able to pick up close to 1,000 yards on the ground. This season he will be the full-time feature back.
Head coach Todd Graham wants to open up the passing attack this season in Pittsburgh, but he will still lean heavily on Ray Graham. Graham is a powerful runner between the tackles, but he can also catch the ball out of the backfield.
Ray Graham will be one of the biggest offensive weapons this season for the Panthers. If he is not able to handle the feature back role, the offense will struggle to score.
Tino Sunseri, QB
Tino Sunseri has the ability to handle increased responsibility this season. He is made to run the spread offense. He has a quick release, is accurate, and moves well in the pocket.
How well he makes the transition from Wannstedt's conservative offense to Graham's wide open no huddle will be one of the biggest keys for Pitt's BCS aspirations. The transition from one system to another can be difficult for quarterbacks, but Sunseri is a coach's son, and has been around the game his whole life.
Sunseri was unjustly criticized at times last season, but he did put up good numbers in his first full season as the starter. He was held back by his coach. With a more passer-friendly scheme in place, he could blossom into one of the best quarterbacks in the Big East.
Brandon Lindsey, OLB
Brandon Lindsey is the most exciting pro prospect on the Pitt Panthers roster this season. He emerged last season when Greg Romeus went down with an injury.
Last season, Lindsey had ten sacks playing primarily with his hand on the ground at defensive end. This season, he will move to a hybrid rush end in the mold of James Harrison.
This move will make even better use of the former high school running back's impressive speed. Lindsey should improve on his sack numbers from a year ago and live in the nightmares of Big East quarterbacks.