May 10, 2011

PITTSBURGH -- At first glance, Pitt's mid-April practice on the city's South Side mirrored that of any other year. Quarterbacks launched posts into a five-by-five sideline net. Running backs raced through high-step ropes and tackling dummies. Linemen bulldozed padded sleds. Every five minutes, an air horn sounded and players dutifully sprinted around the massive indoor complex. It was spring football at its finest, a scene full of renewed vigor and replicated on campuses nationwide.

But in Pittsburgh it felt different. For the first time in months, there was a palpable sense of hope.

"I just couldn't be happier with where we are as a football team," said new coach Todd Graham. "I think these guys are really close."

Perhaps no team had a more disappointing 2010 than the Panthers. Entering the season with BCS aspirations, they stumbled to a 7-5 regular season, settling for a BBVA Compass Bowl berth. Offensive standouts running back Dion Lewis and wideout Jonathan Baldwin underwhelmed, then bolted for the NFL. Coach Dave Wannstedt was forced out, ending a tumultuous and ultimately unfulfilling six-year stay at his alma mater. From a purely football standpoint, 2010 was entirely forgettable.

That wasn't the worst of it. On Dec. 31, hours before the start of the New Year, newly hired coach Mike Haywood, formerly of Miami (Ohio), was arrested on felony charges of domestic violence, prompting his immediate dismissal. Pitt fell from disappointment to disgrace.

"Our football program needed to go in a different direction," said Pittsburgh AD Steve Pederson. "Those events are pretty hard to explain."

After all of the turmoil, the team has seemingly emerged stronger this spring. The credit, in large part, goes to Graham.

The former Tulsa coach is a stocky, upbeat leader big on coach-speak and bigger on discipline. Hired in the wake of the Haywood debacle, he's made it his mission to revamp the identity of the program.

On offense, he quickly switched from a pro-style to a spread approach, moving quarterback Tino Sunseri out of the shotgun and using multiple three- and four-receiver looks. The running game now features mostly belly options, relying on Ray Graham -- who rushed for 922 yards and nine touchdowns as Lewis' backup in 2010 -- to make a variety of zone reads after the handoff. Graham has also implemented a breakneck, no-huddle pace to bolster the team's average of just over 65 offensive plays per game, 97th in the nation. Though growing pains are expected, the prospect of a high-powered attack has set the faithful abuzz.

"When I go see my grandparents, I'm asking them how their health is, they're asking me how the high-octane offense is going," said Sunseri. "Everyone's excited."

There's reason to be. Graham's up-tempo approach was dominant at Tulsa, as the Golden Hurricane led the NCAA in total offense in 2007 and 2008, when Auburn's Gus Malzahn was offensive coordinator. Last season, they averaged 505.62 yards and 41.38 points, fifth and sixth in the FBS, respectively. That type of production is sorely needed on a Pittsburgh squad that mustered only 367 yards per game in 2010, just 72nd nationally.

Graham has also overhauled the defense, going from the 4-3 to the 3-4. In the new formation, three defensive lineman set up in the trenches while a fourth, "The Panther," assumes an upright, off-the-line role. He then serves as a lineman-linebacker hybrid, with the ability to rush the quarterback or drop back in coverage. The linebackers and secondary can vary blitz packages to attack opponents from a number of angles, a tactic seldom used in the Wannstedt era.

"We're gonna get after the quarterback," said second-team All-Big East safety Jarred Holley. "A lot of guys are liking the new scheme."

At one point during practice, Graham watched from a distance as the first-team offense scrimmaged the first-team defense. Sunseri stood in the shotgun, three receivers at his disposal, Ray Graham at his side. Defensive end Justin Hargrove shifted a gap and crouched outside the left tackle. The message was clear: These aren't the same old Panthers.

Of course, Pitt's playbook isn't the only thing that needs remaking. There's also the task of restoring the program's dubious off-field image. In addition to the Haywood incident, the Panthers were found to have 22 players charged with crimes last season, the most of any school among SI's preseason Top 25. It's a reputation Graham doesn't take lightly.

"We've gotta take the good and make them great, and the great and make them outstanding," Graham said. "We're striving for perfection. We'll tolerate excellence."

After a year flush with misfortune, a spring full of such unbridled optimism may be just what the Panthers need. In 2011, it might also serve as a harbinger of things to come.

The Big East appears weak and wide open once again, with South Florida juggling quarterbacks B.J. Daniels and Bobby Eveld, West Virginia testing a partnership between incumbent coach Bill Stewart and coach-in-waiting Dana Holgorsen and TCU still a year removed from its conference debut. While early nonconference tests at Iowa and against Notre Dame will be challenging, Graham's rebuilt, under-the-radar squad could make a run at the Big East's guaranteed BCS bid.

"We're gonna approach this season and expect to win a Big East championship," said Sunseri. "That's how we feel in our locker room. We can play with anybody and we can beat anybody."

OLB Brandon Lindsey: Absent from the spring game due to injury, Lindsey should be the biggest benefactor of the new Nitro 3-4 system. He paced the team with 10 sacks and 18 tackles for loss in 2010, and could rack up even higher totals in an upright, off-the-line role that maximizes his athleticism. "Brandon's a freak of a player," said Holley. "I think his impact will create a lot of turnovers for our defense."

WR Devin Street: Mired behind Jonathan Baldwin on the depth chart last season, the wiry 6-foot-4 Street should emerge as Pitt's go-to deep threat in 2011. With 4.47 speed, he has the ability to blow by defenders, and should be able to create increased separation in the team's three and four receiver sets. He showed a glimpse of that potential in the spring game, hauling in eight passes for 81 yards and a touchdown.

QB Anthony Gonzalez: Tino Sunseri will enter as the starter after throwing for 2,572 yards and 16 touchdowns last year, but don't be surprised if the freshman Gonzalez earns a significant share of snaps. He's repeatedly impressed Graham this spring and is far more mobile than Sunseri. He's raw, but his comfort level out of the pocket is perfectly tailored for the spread.

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