What lies ahead for 2012 Pitt Panthers football

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Pitt's upperclassmen will open this season with their third head coach in the past three years, sixth if you count the two interim bowl game coaches and Mike Haywood's one-week stint.

More than anything else, new coach Paul Chryst will be charged with restoring a sense of stability to a program in its final year in the Big East.

So far, he seems to have made all the right moves. The return to a pro-style offense after last year's ill-fated experiment with the spread has resonated with Pitt's blue-collar fan base, and Chryst's no-nonsense demeanor seems to have been well-received.

Wisconsin certainly put up impressive offensive numbers during Chryst's seven years as the Badgers' offensive coordinator, but this will mark his first job as a head coach at any level. No matter how successful a coach is as an assistant, there's always a transition to becoming the man in charge.

Chryst worked with most of his staff, including offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph and defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable, during his time at Wisconsin. That cohesiveness should help the staff deliver a clear, consistent message to the players.

In the end, though, it's still up to the players to once again adjust to a new system and set of coaches.

The top question for most Pitt fans right now is will Graham will be ready to go for the Panthers' opener against Youngstown State. The more important question, though, will be his status for the second game, a Big East contest against Cincinnati.

Graham tore his ACL in his right knee Oct. 26 against Connecticut. Up to that point last season, he had 958 yards and nine touchdowns through eight games, an average of 119.8 yards per game.

Graham has been in a red or green no-contact jersey for virtually all of fall camp and has sat out a number of practices entirely. He returned to live action for the first time Wednesday, but only had four carries before returning to the green jersey.

Graham and Chryst say they're taking his recovery one day at a time and haven't determined if he will be available Sept. 1.

It may be a bit much to think that Graham will be able to return to his pre-injury form as soon as he steps on the field. It usually takes several games (maybe even a full season) for a running back to totally get over all the mental hurdles and totally trust his leg again.

That doesn't mean, though, that Graham can't be a very productive back in Chryst's offense once he returns.

With spring star Isaac Bennett and freshman Rushel Shell -- who looks poised to play this season -- also in the backfield, Graham won't have to carry the load himself.

The unsung heroes of the offense generally provided the power for Chryst's run-based offense at Wisconsin. The Panthers have plenty of talented running backs, but without the big guys up front creating holes, they won't have the space to make things happen.

Of the five starters, only center Ryan Turnley started every game last season. Chris Jacobson is back at left guard after suffering a season-ending injury in the third game last season. The other three starters -- left tackle Cory King, right guard Ryan Schlieper and right tackle Matt Rotheram -- have a combined 15 career starts between them.

If those five can stay healthy, though, the Panthers should be all right. The bigger issue is depth at the position. None of the players beyond those five have any sort of significant experience, and if one of the starters goes down there's a good chance freshmen Adam Bisnowaty or Gabe Roberts could be forced into action.


First Published August 27, 2012 4:00 AM


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