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Oct. 24, 2011

Coach Todd Graham

Connecticut Preview Press Conference

October 24, 2011


Opening Statements:

“These ten days have been very invaluable to us and we had an opportunity to really go back and focus on the fundamentals as a football team. We really tried to assess and adapt some things that we think we can do better. We have been very consistent defensively. We had a tough loss last week with losing Jason Hendricks and he will be out the remainder of the regular season with a shoulder injury. If we have the opportunity to go to a bowl game then he would be available to play for us. Defensively I am very pleased and I think they have been improving every week. We’re not playing great but we’re playing good. We had to refocus on the fundamentals this past week. Andrew Taglianetti will be the starting bandit. I have felt very consistent in our secondary and I am proud of Max Gruder with how he has been playing. I can’t say enough good things about Jarred Holley, Antwuan Reed and Hendricks in how they have been playing. Brandon Ifill has also done great for us in the nickel-package position. Each of those guys has been very consistent. Max continues to play hard and Greg Williams came off his best game last week. The last ten days defensively have been productive. We will have Todd Thomas back and he is looking good so we are excited about that. Kevin Adams has developed at the spur position just in time because Taglianetti will have to play at the bandit position. I feel really good and I believe that is the strength of our football team. I really challenged these guys on defense by asking them to take it to a different level.

“Offensively, it has also been a refocus on the fundamentals as well as adapting some things. We’re hopeful and it is a game-day decision on Lucas Nix. I really won’t know until Wednesday night whether he will be able to play or not. Either way we have to be ready to play. We have improved some things that need to be corrected fundamentally and we have had some quality practices. We have a better understanding of what we need to do to execute and be successful. The main thing offensively is to take care of the football and eliminate the negative yardage plays. Our guys need to get back to where they were a couple of weeks ago. I have a lot of confidence in the improvements we have made fundamentally. Special teams has been a positive coming off a week where we scored two touchdowns on special teams. Special teams are another strength of ours that we need to continue to build upon.

“We have UConn, the defending Big East champions, from last year who went to the Fiesta Bowl coming up this Wednesday night — a team that exemplifies character and mental toughness. Connecticut finds a way to win and it’s not flashy. I have tremendous respect for Coach Paul Pasqualoni. I can tell he is a person who emphasizes character and discipline.  I think the strength of their team is obviously their defense and how they play. They are going to be another team that is very sound in special teams. UConn will make sure they don’t do things offensively to beat themselves. They find ways to win and if you look at what they did last year as a football team it tells you a lot about their character. They started out last season 0-2 and then won five straight games for the Big East championship to get to the Fiesta Bowl. We have a lot of respect for this team. We know we have to play the full 60 minutes and take care of the football.

“This week again is all about us and we really focus on discipline. This is going to be big for us. You have to bring it every single week and there is not a team on your schedule that can’t beat you. Our guys have had a great attitude and are focused. These seniors can see they have five regular-season games left and this is a special group. We have a single focus and that is going in and beating UConn. How we are going to accomplish that is with discipline and a focus on fundamentals.

“We’re excited to have a couple of our greats in attendance this Wednesday, including Hugh Green who is one of the best defensive players, if not the best, who has ever played at Pitt. Hugh Green is a three time All-American who will be our honorary captain this Wednesday and will lead our guys on to the field. We might even put some shoulder pads and a helmet on him to let him go at it a bit. We are excited to have him and back and am so appreciative to guys like Hugh, Tony Dorsett and Coach Majors who are willing to come back and be part of helping us. These guys have great wisdom to share with our players. Also, Mark May is doing our game (for ESPN) and we’re excited to have back one of our best offensive linemen in the history of our program.

“We’re excited about the returning players and this Wednesday. These ten days have gone by really quickly. I am excited to see what we’re going to do and how these guys are going to respond. I have a lot of confidence our players are going to respond the right way. Somehow, some way, let’s figure out a way to beat UConn and then move on to the next one.”     

How have the players responded to this unusual week?

“We keep things on a regular schedule with Saturday being a Tuesday and Sunday being a Wednesday for them. We try to stay on as much of a normal routine as we can. I think our players have responded well to this past week. I like their attitudes and how they have been approaching practices. I told them today as you get to this part of the season, it’s about the choices you make and it’s based on self-discipline. You have choices as a player and being a winner or champion is a choice that you make. When you’re on that field you have a choice to execute every single play the way your coach tells you and to do it with a great passion and to do it with a hard-edge mentality, the Pitt way. I don’t think this week has been anything but a positive for our players. I am excited about it being on national television and I am hoping they respond just like they did last time.”

On Buddy Jackson’s involvement in the defensive schemes: 

“Buddy Jackson played all of our third-downs last week and has done a solid job for us coming in and covering down the slots. He will do that again this week along with Brandon Ifill and Kevin Adams who have been doing a great job for us. Todd Thomas will also be back this week to play. Todd and Kevin play the same position on nickel and Buddy will play something similar to a third corner.”

On Juantez Hollins and the offensive line:

“Juantez Hollins has been doing a good job. He is a young player and still learning. We moved him into the guard position and we think that will help him. The left tackle position is tough to play in, and he has had trouble on the edge with getting beat with speed on the outside. He is still young but he is getting better. He is going to be a great player for us but a lot of it is youth. Usually when you’re young, you have to learn to work at the level that you need to be at to be a solid player. He has done a good job so far and has unbelievable potential.”

On UConn:

“Connecticut is very sound defensively. They mix up their deep coverages, they play man free and cover two so you will see a lot of that from them on Wednesday. You will also see a lot of five-man pressures from them. UConn is going to do what they do and they are going to do it well. They are very disciplined about what they’re doing, and they want to win the football game with their defense. UConn’s defense has made turnovers, fumble recoveries for touchdowns, interceptions and have made similar plays that have been very opportunistic for them as a team. They are attack-oriented and are going to come in and try to stop number one (Ray Graham).

“UConn is working a two quarterback system that is a little bit different. They are very similar to last year in the overall makeup of their team and very disciplined. They are defense oriented and a field position type team. There are some differences this year in the schematic of things with how they line up and their pressures. They have a very similar style to last year’s strategy. Coach Pasqualoni is similar to how UConn has done things in the past regarding discipline and character.”

On the challenges encountered by Pitt with the new system:

“I don’t think there is any need to make excuses. We have lost some close games. Overall, we have been inconsistent in executing offensively, but there have also been a lot of things that have been positive. It’s just like anything, the more you do something then the better you get at it. It’s tough when you come to a new situation to not do things the way you have done them in the past. Even as coaches, I think we tried to do too much offensively. I have had a little time to go back and assess it these past ten days. The key is to be adaptive to your skills and talents of the players and what they can do. What happens when you’re doing a new scheme is that there is some uncertainty, which makes people play slower and causes more mental mistakes. I have done this three times. We went from the wishbone (at Rice) to the spread offense. We started the season 0-4 and then ended up winning the last seven of eight games. It is similar to last year when I was sitting at 4-3 and then won the last six games straight. It’s really not about how you start but it’s how you finish.

“Every day we practice this system, we get more comfortable with it. The number one thing is to be disciplined. We probably tried to do too much in the beginning and we have had some challenges along the way. At this point, we have been inconsistent and we have to become consistent. In order to do that you have to be fundamentally sound and be disciplined. We are not far off and we believe this is the time to do it. College football is all about putting yourself in the position to win a championship in November and that’s what we’re trying to do.”     

On Tino Sunseri:

“Tino Sunseri has felt very confident through this whole season in his abilities to execute our system. He has had a great ten days. We have worked hard with him to make sure he understands what we’re trying to accomplish and to adapt some things to help him execute what we’re doing. He continues to have a great attitude, he works hard and I have a lot of confidence that he will play well.”

On adapting schemes:

 “There are certain plays we have that we don’t need to try and run. There are advanced plays that we have where there are a lot of moving parts. Right now we have about 14 different protection plays but what we need to focus on is being able to execute at least two of them. We have different people all of the time and it looks good on paper, but we need to get where we can execute something. We need to work on the base principle of our offense and the base principle of our offense is fast tempo. The whole idea of it is to run the ball and we actually call it the run and gun. We are going to run the ball, set up the pass and then pass the ball so it’s quick hitting passes. We have some advanced plays that we were running when we were mastering our protections, mastering our check downs and our third looks that we need to shy away from. Instead, we need to really focus on our rhythm passing game. I do think there are some things we have done in the last week that will really help us in that regard. It’s really about focusing on fundamentals. We take the plays that fit our players and that is how we adapt it. It’s important to be decisive and when you see a player not being decisive that is not on purpose but it is because he is unsure. The mistakes I have seen on tape are things I believe we can correct. Our defensive guys have had as big of an adjustment as our offense. It has been as big of an adjustment but the difference is the experience of the veterans that we have on defense. These players are much more mature mentally and have been able to make an easier transition, but we have adapted some things defensively too. We went back and took a look at everything and I think we made some important changes in these past ten days.”     

On Mark Myers:

“Mark Myers had a great week of practice. Trey Anderson has an injury to his wrist so he has not been able to rep this week. Mark has had a great week of preparation and will be going in as our number two guy. If something happened then he would be the next guy off the bench. Mark will be the backup and we will go with Tino as our number one guy. Trey was more a read zone run guy and had a different skill set. Trey has to deal with his wrist so right now he can’t do a whole lot. He has not been able to throw the ball due to his wrist injury. Trey broke his hand last year and played through it so this is something that came up within the last week. He has had problems with it and the doctors really want us to rest it. He has not thrown any this week and he might not for a couple weeks. I am really proud of Mark and how he has responded this week so he will remain our backup quarterback.” 

Meet the Press: Todd Graham Previews the Connecticut Game

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