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Panthers Prepare to Open Spring Football Drills

Aaron Donald had 11 sacks last year.

Aaron Donald had 11 sacks last year.

March 14, 2012

LINK: 2012 Pitt Spring Prospectus

 

Paul Chryst will oversee his first set of spring drills as head football coach at the University of Pittsburgh beginning March 15.

   As offensive coordinator at Wisconsin, Chryst established a reputation for building powerful and prolific units that produced Big Ten titles each of the past two seasons. Chryst and his staff will be looking to replicate that championship formula at Pittsburgh. The process will commence this spring in the form of 15 practices, concluding on April 14. 

   Pitt returns 53 lettermen from last season's 6-7 team. That total includes 14 starters, including eight on offense, four on defense and two specialists.

   The following is a position-by-position look at the Panthers for 2012 spring drills.

OFFENSE

Quarterbacks

   Tino Sunseri enters his senior season having started every game the past two years (26 games). As a junior, Sunseri completed 64% of his passes (247 of 385) for 2,616 yards, while throwing 10 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. For his career, Sunseri has passed for 5,302 yards (sixth all-time at Pitt) with 28 TDs against 20 INTs.


 

 

   Competition will come from a pair of sophomore lettermen, Trey Anderson and Mark Myers. Anderson was the primary backup to Sunseri for most of last season. In four appearances, he completed 12-of-33 passes for 55 yards and threw three interceptions. Myers, who played in four games last year, completed 1-of-4 passes for five yards. 

   Another sophomore letterman, Anthony Gonzalez, will also get a look at quarterback during the spring. Gonzalez played in 10 games last year, contributing as an H-Back and occasional Wildcat quarterback. His only pass attempt was an incompletion but he did average 4.5 yards per rush (36 yards on eight carries). Gonzalez was an all-state dual-threat QB at Pennsylvania's Liberty High School.

   Junior E.J. Banks worked at cornerback last year after transferring from Notre Dame. Banks will begin the spring working at quarterback, a position he last played at nearby Montour High, where he was a 1,000-yard passer each of his final three seasons. Also in the mix at QB will be redshirt freshman walk-on Ron Vega.

Running Backs

   Ray Graham was playing at an All-America pace as a junior in 2011 before being sidelined by a right knee injury. Through seven games, Graham was the country's second-leading rusher (134.1 yards/game) and meriting Doak Walker Award consideration. In Pitt's eighth game of the year, against Connecticut, he was injured on the opening series and ultimately underwent season-ending surgery. Graham finished with 958 yards and nine TDs on 164 carries (5.8 avg.). Despite his abbreviated season, league coaches still voted him first team All-Big East. 

   Graham will be limited during the spring as he continues his rehabilitation. Competing for tailback repetitions in his absence will be a pair of sophomore lettermen, Isaac Bennett and Corey Davis. Bennett pulled off his redshirt following Graham's injury and rushed for 237 yards and two touchdowns on 58 carries (4.1 avg.) over the final five contests of the season. Davis had 48 yards on 17 carries, while also contributing as a kick returner.

   Malcolm Crockett enters his first active season following a freshman redshirt. Additionally, senior Desmond Brown enters his second year as a walk-on and will vie for reps.

   At fullback, sophomore Mark Giubilato returns after lettering at that position last season. He will be pushed by senior Kris Wildman and sophomores Derrick Burns, Randy Morris and Adam Lazenga.

Wide Receivers

   Eight lettermen return at receiver, including last season's top two pass catchers in junior Devin Street and senior Mike Shanahan. Street posted team highs with 53 catches for 754 yards (14.2 avg.) and added two touchdowns. Shanahan had 39 catches for 493 yards (12.6 avg.) and four scores.   

   Other returning lettermen include seniors Cameron Saddler (19 receptions for 207 yards and a TD in seven starts last year) and Joshua Brinson, junior Ed Tinker, and sophomores Ronald Jones (17 catches for 143 yards), Darius Patton (six catches for 25 yards) and Salath Williams. Also back are sophomores Kevin Weatherspoon and Brett Zuck.

   New to active duty are sophomore Brendon Felder, who sat out last year following a transfer from North Carolina, and redshirt freshmen Justin Jackson and Will Rossi. Also, speedy sophomore Brandon Ifill, who lettered at safety last year, will begin the spring at wide receiver, a position he excelled at while starring at nearby Penn Hills High School. 

Tight Ends

   Senior Hubie Graham leads an experienced group of tight ends. The 2011 season marked Graham's first active year at Pitt following a transfer from Illinois. He emerged as a productive part of the offense with 28 receptions for 325 yards (11.6 avg.) and three touchdowns. Graham was also an asset in the run game as a blocker.

   Pitt boasts quality tight end depth with the return of sophomores Brendan Carozzoni and Drew Carswell. Carozzoni played in 12 games, making two starts, and had four catches for 43 yards.  Carswell contributed at both H-Back and wide receiver last season, compiling 13 catches for 140 yards (10.8 avg.) and a touchdown.

Offensive Line

   This unit was devastated by injuries in 2011, forcing the Panthers to shuffle eight different starting lineup combinations during the course of the season.

   At center, senior Ryan Turnley returns after starting all 13 games a year ago. Turnley's play was a bright spot and should pay dividends for the unit's cohesiveness this season. Providing depth at center will be redshirt freshmen Artie Rowell and Andrew Consevage.

   The offensive front received a boost when guard Chris Jacobson was awarded a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. One of Pitt's most experienced and skilled linemen, Jacobson suffered a season-ending left knee injury in the season's third game at Iowa last year. He had made 17 consecutive starts at left guard before the injury. Jacobson's return gives Pitt an immediate infusion of talent and leadership on the offensive front.

   In Jacobson's absence last season, two underclassmen guards, Ryan Schlieper and Cory King, gained invaluable on-the-job experience. Schlieper started the final eight games of season, while King made five starts. Now juniors, the two will vie for the starting assignment at right guard. Competition will also come from sophomores Arthur Doakes, Shane Johnson and Brandon Sacco.

   Pitt returns two players at tackle with starting experience, junior Juantez Hollins and sophomore Matt Rotheram. Senior Justin Virbitsky will move to tackle full-time after lettering as a reserve tight end last season. New to the mix will be two players entering their first active seasons at Pitt, sophomore Tom Ricketts, who sat out last year following a transfer from Penn State, and junior Zenel Demhasaj, a 2011 JUCO transfer who redshirted.

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

   Pitt will utilize four down linemen in 2012 after deploying a 3-4 scheme last year. The interior front will feature excellent size and experience. Junior Aaron Donald was an All-Big East performer last season after compiling 16 tackles for loss and 11 sacks. Donald played every position on the defensive front last year but is expected to work at tackle this spring. Joining Donald inside will be a pair of returning lettermen vying for starting roles in junior Tyrone Ezell and sophomore Khaynin Mosley-Smith. Additionally, junior Jack Lippert will compete at tackle after previously lettering as a reserve offensive lineman.

   Pitt will be relatively less experienced at defensive end with senior letterman Shayne Hale being the lone upperclassman at this position. Sophomores T.J. Clemmings and Bryan Murphy are coming off redshirt seasons. Both lettered as true frosh in 2010. Sophomore LaQuentin Smith will move to end after lettering as a reserve linebacker last season. Additionally, Devin Cook enters his first active season following a freshman redshirt. 

Linebackers

   Pitt will look to replace three departed seniors from last year's linebacker unit, including All-Big East performer Max Gruder, who led the Panthers in tackles.

   Competition at middle linebacker will revolve around three lettermen: senior Manny Williams, junior Dan Mason and sophomore Ejuan Price. Mason is eyeing a return to healthy form after spending all of last season rehabilitating from a 2010 knee injury. Price earned five starts as a true frosh last year, collecting 27 tackles and four sacks. Junior Emanuel Rackard and redshirt freshman Jeff Meier will also vie for repetitions in the middle this spring.

   At Sam linebacker sophomore Todd Thomas will be a leading candidate after contributing in a prominent role last season. The athletic Thomas compiled 47 tackles, four TFLs and an interception despite missing three contests due to injury. He will be pushed by senior and three-year letterman Joe Trebitz, as well as junior Carl Fleming, a top reserve last season. Sophomore Eric Williams, limited to three contests last year due to injury, will also look to be a factor at Sam.

   Leading the competition at Will linebacker will be junior Shane Gordon, who has played in every game the past two seasons, making three starts. Also vying for time will be four redshirt freshmen entering their first active seasons: Nicholas Grigsby, Jason Frimpong, Keegan Buck and Michael Theys.

Secondary

   Pitt returns starters at three positions in the secondary, making this an area of strength and experience for the defensive unit.

   Senior Jarred Holley is a two-time All-Big East performer at free safety and could be poised for national accolades this year. Holley ranked second on the team with 67 tackles a year ago and has nine career interceptions. Depth and competition at the free will come from senior Marco Pecora, sophomore Ray Vinopal (a 2011 transfer from Michigan) and redshirt freshman Roderick Ryles.

   The Panthers boast excellent depth at strong safety with the return of senior Andrew Taglianetti (49 tackles, one INT, two fumble recoveries) and junior Jason Hendricks (36 tackles, one INT). Hendricks started the opening seven games of the year before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. Taglianetti subsequently moved into the starting lineup and was a key contributor to Pitt's strong defensive play the final month of the season. Also competing at the strong spot will be redshirt freshman Steve Williams

   Junior cornerback K'Waun Williams is poised for an All-Big East season after starting every game a year ago. Williams was very active, compiling 64 tackles, six PBUs, three forced fumbles and an interception. Sophomore Lloyd Carrington lettered as a true frosh last year and could be ready to seize the corner spot opposite Williams. 

   Intriguing prospects entering their first active seasons at Pitt include sophomore Cullen Christian (2011 Michigan transfer) and redshirt freshman Lafayette Pitts. Sophomores Joe Lopez and Patrick Fisher are also in the mix at corner.

SPECIAL TEAMS

   Both starting specialists are back for 2012. Senior placekicker Kevin Harper posted a team-high 95 points last year, converting 21-of-31 field goals (68%) and 32-of-33 extra points (97%). Harper ranked 11th nationally in field goals per game (1.62 avg.). Boasting a big leg, he tied the Heinz Field record for longest field goal (pro or college) with a 52-yarder against Cincinnati.

   Junior Matt Yoklic averaged 41.2 yards per punt to rank second in the Big East. Yoklic finished the year in a flurry, placing 18 punts inside the 20-yard line over the final six regular-season contests.

   Sophomore Drake Greer is capable of contributing at either placekicker or punter. Junior Kevin Barthelemy handled long snapping for punts and field goals last year. Redshirt freshman David Murphy also returns at long snapper.