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University of Pittsburgh Football Preview

Graham Takes High-Octane Offense to Pitt

August 25, 2011
By JIM ELLIOTT , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

PITTSBURGH - Pitt fans, brand-new coach Todd Graham wants to break the mold.

That close-to-the vest, pro-style offense you became used to - or tried to, anyway - is a thing of the past. Graham's bringing in his ''high-octane'' point-a-minute offense that produced big numbers at Tulsa, his last stop, and quick turnarounds, like at Rice, another previous stop.

Season-ticket packages are going for as little as $116 at Heinz Field, but if the team plays the way Graham is promising, fans may be asking for a discount midway through the season because they're only using the edge. The plan is to snap the ball every 15 seconds, play every down with an explosive force and a high tempo, to duplicate what Tulsa did in his four seasons in which his teams won 10 games three times.

Last season, Tulsa rolled up 505.6 yards per game ranking fifth nationally, nearly doubling what Dave Wannstedt's Pitt team produced. He likes his defense to play the same way, relying on fast players to make big plays and swing momentum.

Graham's record is 43-23 and includes four bowls in five seasons.

In other words, his systems work.

"I'm here along with my staff to win a championship,'' Graham said. ''The expectations are high because we knew coming here that Pittsburgh is known as the City of Champions and that our main goal would be to win a championship. We have yet to win a game but we expected all along to come here and get a championship.

''My expectations of course are to win every single game. This is the best place I have ever worked because of the great staff and people that surround me. Every day I come to work, there is not one person who is not excited about this new program and who does not have a good attitude. There are going to be a lot of close football games but we are working toward a championship and I am excited about that.''

It'll be interesting to see if it happens at Pitt, a program that has been known to recruit top-notch athletes but has had a hard time getting that to translate into big-time success on the field.

Pitt returns 13 starters from last season's 8-5 squad that earned a 27-10 victory against Kentucky in the BBVA Compass Bowl, and Graham, hired late in the game, had little time to secure Wannstedt's recruits and grab a few of his own.

It'll be up to, in part, second-year starter at quarterback Tino Sunseri to make the offense go. Sunseri completed 65 percent of his passes (223 of 346) for 2,572 yards with 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions last year.

''As the quarterback, especially in this system in my opinion, is the most difficult position but I have great confidence in him,'' said Graham, whose goal is to run 80 offensive plays per game.

The backups are redshirt freshmen Mark Myers and Anthony Gonzalez.

Junior Ray Graham, a complementary player the last two seasons, has his chance to shine at running back as Dion Lewis opted for the NFL Draft and was selected in the fifth round by the Philadelphia Eagles, joining former Panthers star LeSean McCoy in that backfield.

Graham rushed for 922 yards last year, averaging 6.2 yards on 148 carries, earning him a spot on this year's Maxwell and Doak Walker Awards Watch Lists.

Also Zach Brown, a fifth-year senior who became eligible immediately after graduating from Wisconsin (where he was a three-year letterwinner), is in the mix as he offers more power running than Ray Graham, along with Desmond Brown, a junior walk-on, and newcomers Malcom Crockett, Corey Davis, and Isaac Bennett.

Fullback Henry Hynoski signed as a rookie free-agent with the New York Giants, with junior walk-on Kris Wildman, redshirt freshman walk-on Randy Morris and redshirt freshman Derrick Burns all looking to take his place.

Sophomore Brock DeCicco and redshirt freshman Brendan Carozzoni were locked in a battle at tight end. DeCicco had only two receptions last season, but both went for touchdowns. Junior Hubie Graham, a transfer from Illinois, is the H-Back.

The receiver position has always been a strong one at Pitt, with Jon Baldwin joining the latest list of first-round NFL Draft picks (Kansas City).

Three veterans are back in Devin Street (25 catches for 318 yards), junior Mike Shanahan (43 catches for 589 yards), and junior Cameron Saddler.

Along the offensive line, three experienced players return in seniors Chris Jacobson (converted to center), Jordan Gibbs and Lucas Nix (tackles). They've started a combined 49 games in their careers.

Other players in the mix for line spots are senior Greg Gaskins, sophomore Cory King, junior Ryan Turnley, sophomore Ryan Schlieper, and redshirt freshmen Matt Rotheram, Shane Johnson and Arthur Doakes.

On defense in Pitt's 3-4 scheme, senior Brandon Lindsey is one of the country's most active defenders. A returning All-Big East performer, he had 51 tackles and led the team with 17.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. He'll move back and play the ''Panther'' (linebacker) postion while Greg Williams (64 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss last year) and Todd Thomas will play the ''Spur.''

''We will move players around a lot,'' Coach Graham said. ''We basically want to get guys in different positions and have them be able to play about three techniques. The main focus is speed no matter what position. Brandon will be the main guy who impacts the quarterback. We'll move him around and make sure he adapts comfortably to what he's doing. He's pretty excited about standing up and he is a really good athlete.''

Sophomore Eric Williams, senior Tristan Roberts, K'Waun Williams, Shane Gordon and senior Max Gruder are the other names you'll figure to hear most.

Gruder had 84 tackles last year, and is an All-Big East pick on a few of the preseason lists.

Along the line, Greg Romeus (a seventh-round pick of the New Orleans Saints) and Jabaal Sheard (a second-round pick of the Cleveland Browns) departed, leaving seniors Chas Alecxih and Myles Caragein along the interior.

Alecxih had 57 tackles and 7.5 sacks last seasons.

Caragein, a nose tackle, had 30 tackles and two sacks last season.

The names to remember in the Panthers secondary are Antwuan Reed, Buddy Jackson, Jason Hendricks, and Jarred Holley.

Reed had 40 tackles, six pass breakups and an interception. Jackson is a three-year letterman and Holley was an All-Big East selection after a season in which he had five interceptions and 45 tackles.

Special teams were a strong point for Pitt last season with Dan Hutchins averaging a Big East-best 44.8 yards per punt and hitting on 18 of 25 field goals.

Junior Kevin Harper looks to take over the field goals and sophomore walk-on Matt Yuoklic was the leader of the pack of punters.