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New Era in Oakland

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The 2010 Pitt Panthers season couldn’t be labeled as anything other than a disappointment. The Panthers were favored to win the Big East Conference title by a fair margin and seemed poised to make their first BCS Bowl appearance since 2004, but a series of near-misses prevented Pitt from reaching their goal.

Football can be a cruel game, too, and although the Panthers were still Big East co-champions, changes were made.

Head coach Dave Wannstedt was let go prior to the Panthers 27-10 BBVA Compass Bowl win over Kentucky. Wannstedt found success during his tenure coaching his alma mater, but never seemed to be fully embraced by the city or university. Despite winning more games in a three-period than anyone at Pitt since Jackie Sherrill three decades ago, Wannstedt’s team’s had a way of coming up short too often, and last year proved to be the final nail in his blue and gold coffin.

After a circus that included an arrest and several media mis-steps, Pitt turned to former Tulsa coach Todd Graham, whose “high-octane” spread offense propelled the Golden Hurricanes to three 10-win seasons in four years. Graham assistants Mike Norvell, Calvin Magee and Todd Dodge will play big roles implementing his new system.

Norvell is following Graham from Tulsa, maintaining his same position as receivers coach. Magee, who will co-coordinate the new spread offense, comes from the failed Rich Rodriguez Experiment at Michigan. Dodge also knows his way around the spread, having implemented it as head coach of North Texas.

The new offensive scheme will be missing several key contributors from the 2010 campaign. Leading rusher Dion Lewis departed for the NFL, as did leading receiver Jon Baldwin, a first-round draft pick. The running game shouldn’t take too much of a hit, as Ray Graham emerged as a legitimate back last year, rushing for 922 yards and 8 touchdowns while averaging an impressive 6.2 yards per carry.

The receiving corps could be a problem for the Panthers, however, as they adjust to a new offense. Mike Shanahan and Devin Street come in as the top two wide receivers, and while both had solid seasons last year, the duo will need to improve for the Panthers to be a contender in the Big East.

The same goes for quarterback Tino Sunseri, who will have to make the transition from Wannstedt’s  pro-style offense. The quarterback did show signs of encouragement, though, throwing for more than 400 yards in the Blue-Gold spring scrimmage.

The defensive side of the ball is also undergoing a big change, with Pitt adopting a “hybrid” 3-4 scheme. This particular version of the 3-4 calls for one of the defensive ends to play two positions, also dropping back to play outside linebacker. Graham has dubbed this the “Panther” position, and has reserved it for Brandon Lindsey, who looks to have a big year with the departure of Jabaal Sheard.

Also departing is safety Dom DeCicco, a force in the secondary last year. The rest of the defensive backs, particularly safeties Jarred Holley and Jason Hendricks, will be tasked with making up for DeCicco’s loss while improving their own games.

The Panthers have a favorable home schedule, with eight games at Heinz Field. However, they have an entirely new scheme on both sides of the football, and it will be up to the players to execute plays on the field and the coaching staff to recognize when adjustments are needed.

A bowl game again this season should be a certainty, but the Panther faithful may be growing weary of slightly above average play.

PANTHER PAWS
Offensive Gamebreaker RB Ray Graham, Jr. In limited playing time in 2010, Graham nearly amassed 1,000 yards rushing and figures to put up big stats as the new full-time back this season.
Defensive Gamebreaker DE Brandon Lindsey, Sr. Lindsey had 41 tackles, 17.5 for a loss last season, forced three fumbles and collected 10 sacks. He will be a key component in Todd Graham’s new 3-4 defensive scheme.
Top Newcomer CB Lafayette Pitts, Fr. One of the new staff's top recruits, Pitts was one of western Pennsylvania’s most highly touted prospects. The Woodland Hills product could eventually find a spot in a secondary that is sorely lacking a stud cornerback.
Benchmark New head coach Todd Graham If his players adapt to the new system he has implemented, the sky is the limit for the 2011 Panthers. If they struggle, the season could be lost come October.
2010 Record 8-5/5-2 Won BBVA Compass Bowl over Kentucky, 27-10
2011 Prediction 2nd, Big East

Key Losses: RB Dion Lewis, WR Jon Baldwin, OT Jason Pinkston, DE Jabaal Sheard, S Dom DeCicco, CB Ricky Gary, PK/P Dan Hutchins

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