Todd Graham as constantly talked about Tino Sunseri progressing this spring, and has praised the returning starter for his experience. Graham also talks about the quarterback being the most important position on the field. With that much of an eye on the quarterback position, and as much as the focus has been on the quarterback, Sunseri is worthy of being the team's most improved player based on having to learn a whole new system from the one he started all 13 games in last year.
Everything falls on the shoulders of the quarterback in this new offense. With Sunseri taking every snap of the entire spring with the first-team—one of the few players to do so at any position—he's demonstrated the best understanding of the new system at the team's most important position.
Behind a returning starter, and in the same class as the quarterback with the strongest arm on the team in Mark Myers, Gonzalez is in a daily battle to get reps. Yet, in six of the practices, including this past Saturday's scrimmage, Gonzalez has lined up as the team's second-team quarterback.
His most recent turn with the second-team offense was the result of an injured thumb to Myers, but Gonzalez has proven to move the ball when he's in there. He completed all of his passes on the second-team's first series on Tuesday. He also was the first offensive player to score points in Saturday's scrimmage, taking it in on a run in a dominant performance by the defense Saturday.
Gonzalez is comfortable with the offense, but it's his throwing that he's worked on the most, and improved. It will be interesting to see where he's at by the fall.
By the time Chris Jacobson was moved to center, he was the fourth Pitt player to work there on the first-team. Once he was moved there, head coach Todd Graham liked it right away, and has stuck with Jacobson every day for the last three weeks of practice.
Jacobson already caught the eye of the coaches during conditioning from the time Graham and his staff came in to the start of spring drills. His ability to meet their vision of what they want in a center and improve each day, is worthy of being a candidate for the offense's most improved player.
Perhaps co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson summed it up best last week, by saying that Hargrove was just flat out solid. The defensive line has been the unit most consistent and most talented throughout the spring. It's also the unit with the most depth, having as many as eight bodies who could see the field in 2011, and that's not including the hybrid Panther position, which at times may look like a 4-3 defensive end.
Hargrove began spring with the first-team at defensive end. In the second practice, he was replaced by Donald, who filled in at end, which made sense. The end, or five technique, can be similar to a tackle in a 4-3 scheme depending on where they're lined up. For the last seven practices, Hargrove has been with that first-team at defensive end, and it's not because Donald has had a down spring. Donald, as has each of the defensive linemen, earned constant praise from the coaching staff throughout. Hargrove saw a significant jump in playing time in 2010. He played in a total of seven games in his first two years. As a junior, he played in ten games, making his first start in the BBVA Compass Bowl against Kentucky where he registered his first career sack.
On a defensive line that already includes returning starters Myles Caragein and Chas Alecxih, it's been Hargrove's play that has not caused any concern for the losses of Jabaal Sheard or Greg Romeus. His constant improvement throughout spring, working his way back into the first group, staying there ahead of other guys like Donald and T.J. Clemmings breathing down his neck, shows that he's not only improved, but flat out solid as Patterson admits.
Patterson and Graham have talked about Roberts on several occasions as being another solid player. Patterson even indicated on Thursday, that while the previous system required a lot of responsibilities on the linebackers, the new system is designed to make things easier on the linebackers.
That has showed, as Roberts has been with the first-team at linebacker for all 14 practices heading into Saturday's Blue-Gold game. In addition to that, the play of Roberts has been big considering the fact that Max Gruder has missed nearly half of spring practices and Dan Mason has been out rehabbing from his knee injury suffered in the Miami game in September. If the system is truly easier for the linebackers to understand, Roberts' experience gives him an edge. He's also been the glue that's kept the inside linebacker spots intact, and the defense playing well.
Gordon will likely start the spring game alongside Roberts on the inside. He too has drawn a lot of praise, and might have the most raw abilities out of him, Gruder and Roberts regardless of experience. Gordon is in a unique position because with the graduation of Gruder, Roberts and Williams looming, the experience he has gained this spring combined with Mason's absence is crucial to the success of the defense. His goal for the fall will be to push Gruder and Roberts for a starting spot. Based on the experience he's picked up with the first group this spring, he's giving the coaches something to think about heading into August.
Buddy Jackson always seems to have a good spring. Much like Roberts at linebacker, some understanding of the previous system has kept him from making an impact on the defense earlier in his career. He will definitely be in the mix at corner in the fall. With Antwuan Reed out all of spring, recovering from a concussion suffered prior to the bowl game against Kentucky, Jackson >is making a case to be the starting corner opposite K'Waun Williams, who Graham proclaimed last week was a number-one corner.
Jackson has earned enough confidence from the coaching staff to be placed with the first-team as a kick returner. He responded to that by returning a kick 90 yards for a touchdown in the following scrimmage two weeks ago.
Jackson progressed enough last year, and was key on punt coverage teams. It's his last chance to make an impact on the starting lineup. He too has given the coaches something to think about heading into August, based on his improvement and his steadiness with the first-team, working out at first-team corner in all 14 practices this spring.
Murphy was asked to make a position switch, moving from a down lineman, to the hybrid Panther position, where he is playing more like an outside linebacker. He's been one of the most impressive defensive players overall, impacting the quarterback—one of Graham's most important defensive principles, if not the most important.
Murphy is also filling in for Brandon Lindsey, who the Panther position is tailor-made for. Lindsey led the team in sacks last year, yet with Murphy in there, the defense hasn't missed a beat. He could push Lindsey for that starting spot at the Panther, based on him taking all first-team reps at the Panther this spring.
Hale was moved from the five technique to the Panther after the first week of practice, and has remained with the second-team, behind Murphy. Graham has said there can never be enough Panthers.
The move has rejuvenated Hale. Graham has seen a lot more confidence from Hale this spring. It might be tough to push either Lindsey or Murphy at that Panther position, but Hale is just as excited about being back at linebacker as the coaches are to have him there. He's also increased his chances of seeing the field, as the coaching staff hasn't ruled out putting him at both the Panther or in the five technique.
Panther Digest Predictions for 2011 Conway Award:
OFFENSE: Tino Sunseri
DEFENSE: Tristan Roberts