By: chalifour.eric | 5/19/12, 11:48 AM EDT
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Big East PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Paul Chryst, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Joe Rudolph | DEF. COORDINATOR: Dave Huxtable
First-year coach Paul Chryst has implemented the Keep It Simple approach with his offense. And who can blame him? He is the fourth Panthers coach in the past three seasons. His traditional pro style is a departure from predecessor Todd Graham’s no-huddle, spread-and-go scheme, which was ineffective during his one-and-done 6–7 campaign. Chryst earned a reputation as an innovator as the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin the previous six seasons, fielding a unit that averaged 44.1 points and 470 yards per game last season.
The challenge for Chryst is finding consistency at quarterback. Returning starter Tino Sunseri struggled last year, managing only 10 touchdowns to 11 interceptions, while being sacked an FBS-high 60 times. It was believed that Sunseri’s job was up for grabs in the spring, but backup Mark Myers, highly regarded as a prep, never emerged. Freshman Chad Voytik, a U.S. Army All-American, could give Chryst options this fall.
At running back, senior Ray Graham could ease the burden if he returns fully from ACL surgery. He was the nation’s second-leading rusher before sustaining the injury in Week 8. Rushel Shell, a top-5 tailback recruit, could have an instant impact.
The receivers are led by upperclassmen Devin Street (53 catches) and Mike Shanahan (39). The offensive line returns an experienced guard and center in Chris Jacobson and Ryan Turnley, respectively, but the tackle spots are precarious.
This unit is in the midst of a makeover, with only five starters returning as the Panthers undergo a conversion to a 4-3. Junior tackle Aaron Donald is the linchpin, and arguably Pittsburgh’s best player. An emotional leader coming off an 11-sack season, Donald must set the tone for a program in transition. Donald will demand double-teams, which should create space for sophomore ends Bryan Murphy and T.J. Clemmings, the latter of whom is looking to live up to his billing as the top defensive line recruit out of New Jersey in 2010.
The success of the front four is vital, because the linebacking corps features some new faces. An intriguing storyline is the progress of junior middle linebacker Dan Mason, a bone-jarring hitter who missed last season with a knee injury.
The secondary is a position of strength, with four starters back, notably two-time All-Big East pick Jarred Holley at free safety and blossoming cornerback K’Waun Williams.
Senior kicker Kevin Harper looks to improve on his 21-of-31 (68 percent) field goal mark. Matt Yoklic ranked second in the Big East at 41.2 yards per punt. Speedy Ronald Jones, a Wildcat quarterback and receiver, could impact the return game.
One word: stability. That is what the Pittsburgh program covets. It has been a tumultuous year-and-a-half, with the firing of Dave Wannstedt, the hiring and firing of Michael Haywood after 16 days due to a domestic violence charge, the one-year tenure of Todd Graham, who bolted for Arizona State, and now the Paul Chryst era. Unlike the smooth-talking Graham, Chryst is more of a blue-collar Pittsburgh-style guy. He has done a solid job of restoring faith among the fan base, but his biggest challenge will be re-focusing a group of players who have witnessed a revolving door of coaches. Pittsburgh, in its final year in the Big East before moving to the ACC, could compete for a league title, but Panthers fans would probably take stability over winning in Chryst’s first year as a head coach.