Todd Dodge has won state championships in Texas' largest classification, and is coming to Pitt following a tenure as head coach at North Texas. Going from head coach to position coach—coaching quarterbacks, and the position he is a natural for—this is a great fit for Dodge. However, coming to Pitt and being faced with the challenges he has in year one may be on the same level with his previous two stops as a head coach.
First of all, the position takes a significant hit, depth-wise from where it was a year ago. Two—regardless of scheme—it all boils down to Dodge in guiding Tino Sunseri to go from a 16 touchdown, 9 interception performance a year ago, to the type of numbers that G.J. Kinne produced in this type of offense at Tulsa—31 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. Sunseri is eager to learn, but a lot falls on Dodge's shoulders. Dodge must also get Mark Myers ready to step into a game situation as if he were called upon today. With Anthony Gonzalez being suspended indefinitely, it's down to just Sunseri and Myers.
Not so much the challenges Patterson has as co-defensive coordinator (or just calling the plays). He's done that before. Patterson's challenge will be in restoring a linebacker position that showed it's true colors in the spring—and that is a position that is pretty thin, and can get thinner in a hurry with one or two more injuries. You can also throw Randall McCray in conjunction with Patterson. Evidenced by the fact that Patterson has a tall order at hand in working with this particular group of linebackers, McCray was moved from safeties coach back in May to specializing with the outside linebackers. This was something he started taking over with in late spring, and something that head coach Todd Graham decided to make official in early May, two weeks after the end of spring practice.
On top of that, the position overall is bottom-heavy in terms for the biggest number and biggest upside come from the freshmen and sophomore classes. Outside of Max Gruder as a senior linebacker, there's a lot of question marks with the upperclassmen. Tristan Roberts had a solid spring, but will he hold off other guys like Greg Williams now that Williams will be healthy for training camp. Right there lies another question mark—can Williams make an impact in his last go-round? Then, there are junior linebackers such as Manny Williams and Joe Trebitz who have played special teams for the majority of their careers—will they continue to play in those roles, or do they make a move on the depth chart this year? Williams must also stay healthy after missing most of 2010 with a knee injury.
Brandon Lindsey makes the move from down lineman to a standing defensive end, or outside linebacker—however you want to classify him. He's listed as an outside linebacker on the official Pitt roster, and has his own pressure placed on him. Can he repeat the production he had in a breakout junior year where he led the team with 10.5 sacks, and can he now do it from a standing position?
The younger crop of players has a lot of upside, but less on the experience side—or at least the experience that a junior or senior would have. Pitt has a great line of sophomore linebackers in Carl Fleming, Shane Gordon and Bryan Murphy. Behind them, a combined line of true freshmen and redshirt freshmen such as Todd Thomas, Ejuan Price, Nicholas Grigsby and LaQuentin Smith provide even more hope and optimism.
Patterson certainly has a lot to work with here, but which route for him is going to be easier or more successful—fine tuning the older players into becoming more serviceable, or coaching up an athletic group of youngsters to overtake the position?
Though Gibson, like McCray, is already taking on a new title—going from coaching the corners when he was hired to coaching the entire group of defensive backs—something he's done in the past, and something he did through spring practices.
Gibson has similar challenges that Patterson has, but what's different for Gibson is the superstar ability he has with safety Jarred Holley, and the potential superstar ability he was with K'Waun Williams at corner. With those two, he has enough to build a secondary around. It will be the rest of the players-- utilizing them and getting them to step up and make plays for the defense that will be challenging.
Patterson had called Williams a No.1 corner in the spring. He didn't say he has flat out won that top job yet, but based on how the corners lined up and performed in the spring, it looks like Williams has an excellent chance to lock up one of those starting corner spots. The other spot will be a battle between seniors Buddy Jackson and Antwuan Reed. Jackson had the great spring, while Reed was the incumbent starter who had to sit out the spring due to the lingering effects of a concussion suffered at the end of the 2010 season.
At safety, Gibson must deal with having to replace three-year starter Dom DeCicco at safety. Luckily, Pitt returns Andrew Taglianetti and Jason Hendricks—both of whom have starting experience. Redshirt freshman Brandon Ifill can also get in the mix.
The only reason Norvell will be listed here, is that from an outsider's perspective, the receiver group has to replace a first-round pick in Jon Baldwin. Pitt fans who know the team well, know that there are enough other players such as Mike Shanahan, Cameron Saddler and Devin Street coming back. In a new spread system, all three and perhaps more--scheme combined with their natural abilities--have the opportunity to be productive.
Where Norvell might face a challenge is with getting the new guys--Darius Patton, Ronald Jones and Justin Jackson--into their roles at a deep position. In the spring, walk-on Jake Delmonico surpassed Kevin Weatherspoon on the depth chart. Getting guys like Weatherspoon and Salath Williams on track are minor tasks, but challenges the receiver position faces.