During Paul Chryst's tenure at Wisconsin, the Badgers offense was defined by its bruising offensive line.
If Chryst is to have the same sort of success at Pitt, it will likely start with the big guys up front. Hopewell High School graduate Ryan Turnley seems to have gotten the message.
Turnley, a center who will be a senior next season, won the team's Ed Conway Award on offense this spring. The award is meant to recognize the player who improved most during spring practices.
"Coach Chryst came up to me before the spring and said, 'We're going to rely on you because you're one of the seniors, you've been here, you've played before and we need you to set the tone and show these guys how to work,'" Turnley said after Pitt's Blue-Gold spring game April 14. "I just went out every day and tried to work as hard as I could and it paid off."
Turnley will be expected to provide an anchor for the Pitt offensive line this season. Last year, he played in every game for the Panthers despite dealing with a nagging foot injury all year.
Now fully recovered, Turnley displayed improvement and leadership to his new coach over the spring.
"Ryan earned that award," Chryst said. "[The award] also puts a little bit of pressure on [him]. The bar is set high for him."
The biggest goal for the Panthers offensive line this coming season will certainly be doing a better job of protecting quarterback Tino Sunseri. Last season, Pitt ranked dead last in NCAA Division I out of 120 schools with 64 sacks allowed, averaging out to 4.92 per game. The next closest team, Miami (Ohio), gave up 47 sacks on the year (3.92 per game).
The stat may be somewhat deceiving because of growing pains as Pitt tried to implement Todd Graham's now-infamous "high-octane offense." But there's no argument that Sunseri definitely saw too much turf last season.
"[Our goal is] protecting the passer on a consistent basis, and not having four guys do it and one guy go free," Turnley said. "That's something that you have to have as an offensive line. You have to have all five guys, and I think that, on a more, consistent basis, we had five guys in unison."
As the center, Turnley is tasked with recognizing defensive coverages before and making sure everyone on the line knows his responsibilities. Sunseri said Turnley has come a long way over the course of the spring, and recalled a time when the center "couldn't even get a snap off."
"I think the one thing that Turnley does that a lot of people can't do is stuff at the line," Sunseri said. "He's really bright. He understands fronts, he understands defensive alignments. He makes sure we get all the calls out, makes sure everybody else gets lined up."
While pass protection needs the most improvement, run-blocking will likely be the biggest part of the offensive line's job description this season. Chryst's rushing attack at Wisconsin was one of the most dominant in the country. In 2010, the Badgers came within 4 yards of having three backs run for 1,000 yards or more.
Last year, Pitt ranked 74th in Division I with 1,824 rushing yards, a number that, again, is likely somewhat skewed because of Graham's pass-heavy offense.
The Panthers will have talent at running back to rush behind Turnley and the offensive line this season. Ray Graham should return from injury, fellow Hopewell standout Rushel Shell will join the team as a freshman and sophomore Isaac Bennett was one of the most impressive players in spring scrimmages.
"I think it's got a chance to be good," Chryst said of Pitt's rushing attack. "Obviously it starts with the line. I think the line made some improvements this spring."
According to Turnley, the biggest part of that development hasn't been a new coaching regime or dramatic change. To him, it's as simple as effort.
"Our offensive line, the guys we have practicing right now, we have a desire to get better. And that's why we did get a lot better this spring," he said. "A lot better."pittsports
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SWernerPG