Hope many of you can make it out to FanFest. They are usually laid back, entertaining affairs. Think of it as the light appetizer before college football kicks off in a week, followed by an evening home-opener next Saturday. It should be a good evening.
As much excitement as most of us feel for the new season, the new style, the new players. It’s tempered by that bit of unknown. The unknown cuts both ways. It can fuel the excitement as you can project whatever you want. The offense being wide-open and constantly driving to be wildly successful. Then an attacking defense that puts teams back on their heels and forces opposing offenses into hurried mistakes.
On the other hand it is worrying about the O-line (as uusal). Can Ryan Turnley handle being the center for the season? Is the empty hole, lack of a true center ready to play going to doom the offense? Will Tino Sunseri truly thrive in the new offense the way everyone keeps saying? Will he show the consistency in game situations that he appears to have demonstrated in practices?
How will the defense really do as they change from a 4-3 to a 3-4 with elements of the 3-3-5? Are the linebackers going to get exposed again this year? Will the corners really improve? The change in defense was a point made in a highly entertaining Big East preview:
Then to sound really authoritative, move to the defense and question the move to a 3-4, which while taking advantage of Brandon Lindsey in the rush end spot will also take some adjustment on everyone else’s part. (See Alabama and Georgia’s early struggles in moving to the alignment, particularly on third down situations.) The combination could make for some seriously entertaining if inefficient football: an offense running wind sprints down the field, only then yielding to a defense that alternates between haymaker shots on quarterbacks and some growing pains in a new scheme. (Read: busted plays and some very uneven likely points-allowed totals.)
You will want to read the whole thing. It has pie-charts.
Then there are all the players who may see their first action in Pitt uniforms. Zeise has the rundown on freshmen, transfers and JUCOs who could be playing and their potential impact. Not all of them will see the field. Some will redshirt. Some will have no impact. But it seems certain that Pitt will have more new faces get opportunities to play than in recent years.
Another unknown is the special teams. Specifically, Kicker Kevin Harper. All accounts seem incredibly positive.
But here we are on the eve of this season and Harper looks like a guy whose light finally went on – as his position coach, Randall McCray, said to me today – and he really seems like a guy who is going to have a big year. He has been booming kicks from 55 yards and beyond and he has been consistently making kicks from 45 yards and in — those shorter kicks were what he struggled with — and in this offense, as he told me today, they are all about scoring points so he is going to get plenty of opportunities to shine.
Then there was this money line from Harper —
“We’re playing to win and score points as opposed to playing not to lose….” Harper said.
Wow. That is all I will say about that line – and I offer it without any editorial comment about it.
Now, I will write about Harper for Saturday’s paper but the thing that really impressed me is that he really has matured greatly and does seem to finally “get it”. And based on my experience covering college football, when a player with a lot of talent “gets it” and the light does go on, well, that’s when he has a breakout year.
Yes, even the kicker has piled on Wannstedt. Whether merely perception or reality, the “playing not to lose” mentality was conventional wisdom with Pitt under Wannstedt.
Now, that is not to say that the last staff did not play to win, but the number one complaint I used to field from fans was that the Panthers were too conservative, particularly on defense but also on offense.
I don’t think that is going to be a problem this year as they are going to attack.
More unknown remains at linebacker spots.
2. Inside linebacker up for grabs. Coach Todd Graham maintains that Shane Gordon, Tristan Roberts and Max Gruder are all starters. But only two will be in the lineup each week. It appears Gordon and Roberts may be interchangeable, depending on who the Panthers play. Redshirt freshman Todd Thomas will start at spur linebacker and has impressed the coaches with the way he practiced during fall camp.
Max Gruder should be better in this system, because more often now, he gets to go forward rather than worry about having to break into coverage from the middle. Todd Thomas will handle much more of that, and with Thomas’ speed (former safety/wide receiver) should be better in coverage. Gruder frustrated many fans last year because he was so weak in pass coverage, but to some extent that was because he was being asked to do too much and put in situations that were not to his strengths.
Thomas says he is now more prepared than ever after a year of prep school and injuries kept him out of the line-up (at WR) last year. He is one of the players with the potential to thrive in this defensive scheme. And also get burned at times.
But who cares about the boring old defense. Even if it is an attacking and potentially exciting, playmaking defense. It’s all about the offense in the Big East. At least that is the meme as the two programs that should be the standard bearers for the conference made the coaching changes that emphasize the offense.
Not to be outdone, Pittsburgh used its Mike Haywood mulligan to snap up Tulsa’s Todd Graham, who oversaw three top-10 offenses in the course of the best four-year run in school history. Graham was accompanied by his passing game coordinator at Tulsa, Mike Norvell, and quickly added longtime Rich Rodriguez hand Calvin McGee — coordinator of the prolific West Virginia attacks that wreaked havoc on the conference in the middle of the last decade, and of the No. 1 total offense in the Big Ten last year at Michigan — to oversee the running game.
By March, the conservative, nondescript offenses favored by Dave Wannstedt and Bill Stewart were left spinning in the wake of relentlessly up-tempo spread philosophies that refuse to slow down for anyone. If their arrival doesn’t actually make the Big East any better in the big picture, at least it’s a selling point.
How bad was offense in the Big East? Bad. Really, bad.
The entire conference conspired last year to redefine “low octane.” The highest-scoring attack in the conference, Cincinnati, ranked 57th nationally at 27.1 points per game, behind 34 teams from the other “Big Six” leagues. No other Big East teamed finished in the top 60 — that is, in the top half of the country — in terms of yards or points. UConn represented the conference in the Fiesta Bowl after averaging fewer yards per conference game than all but eight other offenses in the entire country. Seven of those eight finished at least six games below .500. (The only one that didn’t: UConn’s conference mate, Syracuse, which went to a bowl game after averaging all of 16.6 points in Big East play.)
And no, it wasn’t that the defenses were that good. Aside from Pitt limiting Kentucky to only 10 points, the Big East defenses allowed opposing teams in the bowls to: 48 (UConn), 28 (Louisville), 34 (Syracuse), 26 (USF) and 23 (WVU).
And more offense in the Big East is definitely the theme.
The Big East was the only AQ conference that failed to have at least one team average 30 or more points a game. The Big Ten, Pac-10 and ACC each had four; the SEC and Big 12 each had seven.
You saw what solid defense did for the Big East last season. Not much. The league was not highly regarded on a national level, and it certainly did not help matters that its BCS representative went 8-4 during the regular season.
“It’s going to be interesting,” Graham said. “I think there are some very good defenses in this league but if you look at the Big 12 defensive statistics, overall team defense, that number has gone way up. With the modern game, with the spread offense involved, there’s two things you have to focus on: one is scoring defense. Total defense doesn’t matter anymore. The other one is explosive plays — that’s not giving them up.
“When you have an offense like ours, if we snap the ball 82 times, we’ll score 35 plus points. I do think you’ll see the statistics affected in the league, but how quickly that happens is going to depend on how we get these systems implemented.”
I assume the answer to “how quickly” is “high octane.”