Fast-Pace Catches On

From the shock value of the first day, through two weeks Pitt players have adjusted

Pitt is just a day away from completing two weeks of spring drills. On that first day, though the early morning "Tour of Duty" conditioning regime was designed to get them used to the flow of practices, and the tempo that new head coach Todd Graham wanted them to compete at, players were caught off guard a little bit when they took to the field for the first day of spring practice.

"All the receivers came up to me after practice, I started laughing," receivers coach Mike Norvell said after that first workout. "I said, ‘You all thought I was lying to you.' They said, ‘No coach, we just thought you embellished a little bit."

The players felt prepared through conditioning, but nothing could have prepared them for that first practice. Now that they've completed five of the 15 spring practices, they're adjusting well to the tempo, especially on offense.

"I was impressed with how the guys compete," head coach Todd Graham said. "Guys continued to get better. I thought Tino had his best day (Tuesday). I thought he stepped up and played well. Right now, we're trying to teach tempo. Once we get tempo, we'll refine it as we go."

For Sunseri, that includes being able to adjust on the fly. Instead of huddling after each play, he finds himself and the rest of the offense getting used to the no-huddle, and the quick pace at which plays are called—even for a practice.

"You could go in the huddle, kind of gather your thoughts on the field (in the previous system)," Sunseri said. "(In the new system), you have to be able to read off of each other. You gotta keep it moving. You can't talk to anybody. You can't make those adjustments in the huddle. So, whenever you're on the field, you have to keep rolling, so whenever you get to the sideline, you can make those adjustments. You gotta keep moving, you gotta keep pressing, you gotta understand what's going on, on the field, make those adjustments on the fly. That's what we're doing better in practice every day."

Even players like Devin Street who are put in position to make big plays in the passing game have to pick up the pace. Playing receiver, being fast is a given. Though Street was excited at the idea of playing in a more receiver-friendly offense, he has learned through the first two weeks in order to earn the big play, it comes with a price. That price is simply playing at that faster tempo.

"It's real exciting, but at the same time it's exhausting," receiver Devin Street said. "You gotta be conditioned. Just thinking of a chance to make a big play every play, and come back each time, it's just a dream come true, especially for a wide receiver.

"That's the biggest adjustment, the tempo. Coming in, we knew there was going to be a tempo, but you know, it's an insanity tempo. It's running. It's just a great thing because teams are not going to be ready for it."

Running back Ray Graham also plays at a position where speed is a given. One of the benefits for him, being that the running back position is thin, is that he gets to take additional reps that he's not used to taking. As he grooms himself to be the featured running back, the fast tempo has many benefits for him such as an accelerated path to better learning the system, with a silver lining of being able to make even more big plays when his number is called.

"I'm accepting that challenge," Graham said. "Coach (Graham) is asking a lot of me, and I'm stepping up to the challenge, and I want it to be like that. I step on the field, I want the reps. I take the reps so I can feel more comfortable with the offense."

As for where the energy comes from, Graham credits the coaching staff for setting that tempo with each rep.

"It's crazy, it's not just the energy from us, the coaches have it every day," Graham added. "What you see out there is what you get. That's what helps us out a lot. When we're down and tired, they pick us up. They bring us up, and I think that's the biggest key."

An added example is the coaching staff experimenting with different personnel groupings, taking the spring to see how certain players will work in certain situations. One of those is the fact that Pitt has used three different centers with the first group—Brandon Sacco, Greg Gaskins and Zenel Demhasaj. The chemistry between the center and quarterback is one of the most important communications anywhere on the field. Though it's a challenge, Sunseri is able to adapt to taking the snap from different centers over these first two weeks because of the tempo that is established every day.

"You gotta get comfortable and get acquainted with each (center)," Sunseri added. "That's a good thing. When you keep rotating the centers, it keeps you on your toes, make sure you know where the snap is going to be, and be able to locate that. They keep on rotating guys. That's fine with us. We just have to be able to make sure we get the snap and do our job."

The coaches have also rotated the quarterbacks a little bit, even giving Anthony Gonzalez a chance to take reps with the second-team in last Thursday's practice. Mark Myers has taken the rest of the second-team snaps through two weeks. Part of it benefits the quarterbacks from taking a lot of reps, but also allows the receivers and other positions to adjust to having someone different throwing them the ball.

"Mark has come a long way," Street added. "Mark is a lot more athletic than I thought. With this spread type of offense, running around, I think they're just adjusting great. They're very smart, both of them. Sometimes he'll tell me where to go.

"I think it's great for them. Tino's doing great. He's unbelievable; his reads, his arm. That defense is tough. I think he's making great reads. He's coming along with the offense as everyone else is."

Even for Myers, who is also learning the offense this spring after redshirting under the previous staff, he has an appreciation for the tempo as well.

"The first day of practice was chaotic," Myers said. "Everyone was just running around. Since things have been going on this last week, it's calmed down a little bit. Everyone's getting to know the offense a lot better. We're moving the ball up and down the field. We're doing pretty well."

Gonzalez, though he hasn't taken as many second-team reps as Myers, agrees.

"The energy is definitely there," Gonzalez said. "This is a fast-paced offense. Every day, we're just pushing the tempo each day. It's our job. We're football players. We have to do what we're supposed to do. Even though it might be hard, we just have to push through."

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