Tino Sunseri has had his good games this season, and he's had his bad games. He deserves good marks because in the first game of the season that really mattered for anything--the conference opener at Syracuse game this past week--he set career marks with 281 yards and four touchdown passes.
Sunseri's worst game was Miami, while against Utah and Florida International, his play was a non-factor. He took some strides against both New Hampshire and Notre Dame, but completely shined at Syracuse. Now, he gets an opportunity to shed that first-year starter label, with a half-season under his belt.
STRENGTHS: Spreading the ball around. Sunseri threw to eight different receivers on Saturday, and is getting a timing pattern down with his receivers more and more.
AREAS OF IMPROVEMENT: Deep ball. Both Sunseri and offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. have also said this in recent weeks. He had the perfect situation this past week--after building a 21-7 lead, taking the pressure off Jon Baldwin, Sunseri had the opportunity to get Baldwin the deep ball in one-on-one coverage. Think of the deep passes that he missed on Saturday. Think of the numbers he would have had, if he connected on those passes.
PROGNOSIS: Sunseri looks to be on track. There's not many better ways a starting quarterback can kickoff Big East play, than with a win like that in a place like the Carrier Dome. Would anyone have known that was his first ever start in a Big East game?
The numbers and the production of Dion Lewis is far from what it was in 2009. Through six games, Lewis has 284 yards, an average of 3.8 yards a carry and three rushing scores. Through the same number of games a year ago, Lewis had 738 yards, and average of 5.6 yards a carry, with seven rushing touchdowns. Ray Graham, on the other hand, has slown a lot of flashiness this year. Graham is third in the Big East with 117 yards rushing a game, is averaging 8.3 yards a carry, and has rushed for five scores.
Both players have played in a total of four games, with Graham sitting out the Utah game, and Lewis sitting out the Florida International game.
The last two games have been more promising for the running game, even though neither back has crossed the century mark. Through the last two games, Dion Lewis has rushed for 141 yards on 27 carries (5.2 avg) with a touchdown. Graham, coming off a 277-yard performance against Florida International, has rushed for 97 yards on 19 carries (5.1 avg) with a touchdown catch.
STRENGTHS: Much like the other things that went well for Pitt, the way both Graham and Lewis produced during the win at Syracuse, is the formula for how Dave Wannstedt would like them to produce. If Lewis does what he did Saturday, pound the ball up the middle and gain first downs, and if Graham can continue to gain yards after contact and make people miss, that's all that the Pitt coaching staff wants out of them. A lot of that will even be dependent on if Pitt throws the ball successfully like they did at Syracuse.
AREAS OF IMPROVEMENT: As long as both players are healthy, they have enough experience and playmaking ability to give the Panthers what the offense needs. Graham missed the opener at Utah, Lewis missed the Florida International game. Both players responded, after returning from sitting out due to an injury. Graham put together three straight 100-yard games after sitting out the opener, while Lewis has looked his best in the last two games.
PROGNOSIS: Though Graham has a better shot mathematically at getting the fourth consecutive 1,000-yard season for a Pitt running back, the number of carries he's gotten since the Florida International game may prevent him from doing so. As long as Lewis and Graham play to their strengths, Wannstedt will be pleased with how ever many yards he gets. Pitt is averaging 152 yards a game with this setup, and will probably finish the season in that range.
Jon Baldwin hasn't had the All-America type season that most expected he would. The junior receiver has come up with big plays at times this season. He hasn't done it all season. He came up with long touchdown plays at Utah, against New Hampshire and against Notre Dame, but hasn't done it every week. He's proven he can be a game-breaker. It's a matter of why Pitt hasn't gone to him more often.
Mike Shanahan has proved to be more than just a second option to Jon Baldwin. The sophomore has tied or led the team in receptions in four of six games this year.
Devin Street has surpassed Cameron Saddler to become the team's third receiver. Though it's based on the formations, Street has started each of the last two games, and has come up with at least three receptions in each of the last three games.
STRENGTHS: Depth. Going back to training camp, this group of Pitt receivers--based on its size and athleticism alone--has the ideal mix of playmakers. Baldwin has made plays his whole career. The coaching staff would like to see more of that through the finals six games. Shanahan might be just as athletic as Baldwin. Street, all of a sudden, is the "small" receiver between the three, at 6-4, 190. Saddler still comes out in certain packages. Past that it's Greg Cross and Ed Tinker, but those two are used in strictly a reserve role. With Baldwin, Shanahan and Street, there's enough ways to mix it up in the passing game.
AREAS OF IMPROVEMENT: Taking advantage of the receiver's strengths. We started to see a little more of that in the win over Syracuse. Mike Shanahan can be more than a second option. Devin Street isn't a possession-type receiver, but can make plays and can get extra yards after the catch. The coaching staff can call their games in two different ways now. They can give a heavy dose of Baldwin, or they can give a heavy dose of Street and Shanahan. In either case, they have the ability to keep opposing defenses second-guessing the whole time. It's up to the receivers to make those plays, and take the pressure off each other.
PROGNOSIS: Baldwin's best game is ahead of him. Though he had a pretty good performance at Notre Dame--arguably his best of the season, Pitt still lost. At some point, he will have to win Pitt a game this year. Shanahan and Street--just six games into their careers as starters--look like they're confident enough to be starters. We knew back in training camp that the other receivers had the ability. Now, instead of just waiting for Baldwin to get shut off, Shanahan and Street can go out make plays. There are no excuses anymore (i.e. youth, inexperience). Now that all three have proven the ability to get involved, the passing game should open up even more.
For the majority of the season, we've seen Mike Cruz and Brock DeCicco. Coming into the season, replacing Dorin Dickerson's production from a year ago looked like the biggest thing, in replacing the tight ends. Half a season through, it's more noticeable how good a blocker Nate Byham was when he was here.
STRENGTHS: Cruz' strength is catching passes, and he has shown that in spurts this season. DeCicco will eventually be in that role, but for now he is being used more as a blocker. As the run game has improved over the last few games, the increased reps from DeCicco might have a little to do with that.
AREAS OF IMPROVEMENT: Blocking in the run game. Though they're making steady progress, neither Cruz or DeCicco can bring to the run game with Byham did last year. This position will get a nice boost a year from now when Hubie Graham is able to play. Andrew Devlin has been primarily a special teams player, and Justin Verbitsky is strictly a reserve player. For as much as Cruz and DeCicco are used, it's clear the coaching staff doesn't have any confidence in any of the others, as a third tight end would help out in short-yardage situations.
PROGNOSIS: With the loss of two seniors in Byham and Dickerson, replacing them with a sophomore in Mike Cruz and a freshman in Brock DeCicco, Wannstedt knew he'd be facing some growing pains. It wasn't until Byham was gone that we truly saw how valuable he was in the run game. Cruz and DeCicco are on the right track. Cruz has been more active in some short-yardage receptions in the last two games, and DeCicco had a big block last week at Notre Dame--which freed up Dion Lewis for a big gain. If these two continue to progress, Pitt's offense will be fine. The unit will get a big boost next year from the addition of Graham, combined with the growing pains that Cruz and DeCicco fight through this year.
The unit that had the most questions entering the season, looks to be answering them now. After all the talk and the waiting through spring football and in training camp with Greg Gaskins as the new starter for John Malecki at right guard, Dave Wannstedt made a switch after three games. He moved Lucas Nix to right guard, and made Jordan Gibbs the starter at right tackle.
In its first three games, Pitt averaged 126.3 yards on the ground, while the passing game produced three touchdown passes and four interceptions. Since the switch, Pitt has averaged 177 yards a game on the ground, while Tino Sunseri has completed 59-of-86 (68.6%) for 722 yards with six touchdown passes and just one interception. On top of that, the line has allowed four sacks in the last three games, after allowing nine sacks in its first three games.
STRENGTHS: The left side of the line and Lucas Nix. Chris Jacobson has progressed with each game since the switch, and Alex Karabin hasn't been as much of a liability with Nix next to him. Pinkston--of any of Pitt's all-conference caliber players on offense, has lived up to the hype the most.
AREAS OF IMPROVEMENT: The depth is getting better. The Jordan Gibbs experiment was just that--an experiment. If it didn't work out, what other options would Pitt have? Though Gibbs is still improving, and Nix is still learning some of the intricacies of playing guard, the offensive line is on the right track. The numbers that the offense has produced since the switch provide the evidence.
The depth situation is getting better by the day, as reserves like Ryan Turnley and Jack Lippert have played significant reps on the line in four of six games this season. Even though the line has to replace Pinkston, they may have another option in Jordan Gibbs. Gibbs has played some reserve left tackle, including last week against Syracuse. With Lippert and Turnley gaining more experienced--and looking like the next guys in line--throw in Nix and Jacobson, and you have almost have a better situation on the line entering 2010 than you did 2011.
PROGNOSIS: Does the offensive line seem like a weakness anymore? Everything from here on in, and even in to next year, rests on the shoulders of Nix and Gibbs. The running game is improved, Sunseri has more time to throw--and now knows what to do with that extra time to throw. Most importantly, the line across the board is much more physical, which is what this football team relies on.