Pitt will kick off its 2012 spring practices later this week, adding to what has once again been a short offseason for the Panthers.
Pitt took the field against SMU in the BBVA Compass Bowl just eight weeks ago. Prior to facing SMU that day, it had been five weeks since their previous game.
Up first for Paul Chryst is a look at his quarterback position, and this is what he will have to work with this spring:
2010 – 223-346 (64.5%) 2,572 yards, 16 TD, 9 INT
2011 – 247-385 (64.3%) 2,616 yards, 10 TD, 11 INT
CAREER (including 2009 numbers) – 480-748 (64.2%) 5,302 yards 28 TD, 20 INT
2011 – 1-4, 5 yards, 4 games played
2011 – 12-33 (36.4%), 55 yards, 0 TD, 3 INT, 4 games played
2011 – 8 rushes, 36 yards (4.5 avg), 1 TD; 9 receptions, 58 yards (6.4 avg.)
2011 – was cleared to play in 2011 after transferring in from Notre Dame, enrolling at Pitt, then technically walking on to the football team. He initially came as a defensive back, but gravitated to quarterback—a position he played in high school.
WHAT'S GOING ON?
Well, for starters, whoever does the best in spring football will hardly have the job locked up. They'll have a leg up for the start of training camp, but it will hardly determine who ends up starting the September 1 opener against Youngstown State.
It's also a chance for Paul Chryst to really showcase his abilities in working with quarterbacks. His last two quarterbacks—Scott Tolzien and Russell Wilson—both had at least 70 percent completion percentages. Both combined for nine total interceptions for the entire 2010 and 2011 seasons combined. That right there is where Chryst can have a direct effect on the Pitt passing game, and that's what this position needs the most—a way to eliminate those mistakes, specifically the number of interceptions.
Asked if he's met with Tino Sunseri, or what he thinks of what he's seen on Sunseri's previous games—Chryst only added the following in a meeting with some local media members just a few weeks ago:
"I've watched enough of Tino to get a feel for him a little bit," Chryst said. "I got a sense (of Tino), but I wouldn't share it right now. I like it. I think he likes the game. There's nothing I see, and, ‘Oh, there's a red flag.' I'm looking forward to working with him." Chryst did say that the competition for the starting quarterback job would be open. At the same time, he says he feels that way about all positions. In other words, he wants to give everyone the opportunity to prove themselves, whether it be in spring ball or training camp in August. He doesn't want anyone feeling safe, relaxed or settled in at any position, just for the simple fact of keeping everything competitive.
"There's a lot (of quarterbacks) there for spring to get good reps," Chryst said. "It's going to have to sort itself out a little bit. "I think (competition) is always open, truthfully. You have guys that are well established. They shouldn't get beat out, but I think you're always competing. Every player competes against himself to be the best that he can be. You're competing against teammates for playing time, and you're competing against your opponents. There's always competition. The headlines shouldn't read, ‘Open Competition.' That's not what I'm saying, but I think you're always competing. The great thing about sports is what happens between the lines is what matters. Production matters, and playing the game well. The best players should be playing. If you were a starter, and if you are getting better, then you probably should still be a starter. It's always open competition."
Sunseri does have a couple of factors that should aid him well, but there is room for improvement. One good thing that should help Chryst, is the experience factor. In his final three years at Wisconsin, he was breaking in a new starter twice. Russell Wilson came in as a pretty high profile transfer in for one year. There was a bit of transition—simply taking in a new player, getting him adjusted to a new system in a matter of weeks. The end result was Wilson putting up record numbers and leading Wisconsin to a conference title. Chryst will be expected to do the same with whoever his quarterback is this year.
Sunseri has started the last 26 games at quarterback with a career record of 14-12. He's hovered around a career 64-percent completion percentage. That experience and a starter and the completion efficiency is good. Chryst's tallest order will be getting Sunseri to cut down on his interception totals. Sunseri had more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (10) last year.
As Sunseri looks over his shoulder, he will have at least four others battling for reps this spring. One who figures to benefit from the hiring of Chryst is sophomore Mark Myers. As the season kicked off last year, Myers did not win the No. 2 quarterback spot. By season's end, he was the backup. He played in four games. How much will the new system benefit Myers' ability? Furthermore, what can Myers prove that he might be able to do differently? If Chryst says it's open competition, that's a double-meaning for Myers. It's a second chance to earn the top backup role, and if he has a really good spring, put himself in line to compete for a starting job if that's the direction this quarterback derby goes. At the very least, not winning the backup job last year was a wakeup call for Myers. Maybe it's time for him to just focus on winning that backup role before graduating on to a bigger role if need be. Even if he wins the backup spot, he still has two full years to start after Sunseri graduates.
Then, there's Trey Anderson who saw a considerable amount of reps. Anderson's most significant action in 2011 was taking over at halftime of the Rutgers game, with Pitt down 6-3 and looking to make a move to get back in the game. Pitt, of course, did not. The coaching decisions of the previous staff were put on full display that day, as Anderson was fed to the wolves—throwing two interceptions that allowed Rutgers to help pull away for the blowout win. With that type of experience, Anderson at least has the ability to shake off the jitters of his first year—and being thrown to the wolves as he was in that Rutgers game. The biggest thing we'll be looking for is to see how many reps he gets against Myers, and to see if there's any separation between the two under a new staff. E.J. Banks—who was a four-year starter at quarterback for Montour—worked in at scout team quarterback as the 2011 season went on. He also worked with the quarterbacks in preparation for the BBVA Compass Bowl. One other thing to note with Banks and Anderson in particular, is that Chryst comes from a system where walk-ons have worked their way up into being starters.
Granted, Anderson was quickly put on scholarship last year, and Banks also accepted a scholarship to Notre Dame coming out of high school. With that said, and the fact that Chryst has had walk-ons flourish under his tutelage (look no further than Wisconsin starting receiver Jared Abbrederis), look for him to give these two former walk-ons at least a look. It's not to say they're guaranteed to be starting, but it's also not to say that they'll be flushed down to strictly holding the clipboard.
The other one to have eyes on this spring is Anthony Gonzalez. Gonzalez moved to H-back during training camp last year, and played at the H-back and as a receiver at times in the 2011 season. If he doesn't win a starting or at least a backup role, it's very notable that Gonzalez is back at quarterback this spring to at least compete.
Of course, all five of these players will battle for reps this spring. Chad Voytik will come in for the fall, and if things don't get settled this spring—the highly recruited freshman from Tennessee may also have a chance to compete and steal reps away from someone else when he gets here. The pressure is on all five to make sure they have a handle on the offense, to prevent Voytik from stealing reps. Then again, if they all do well and Voytik comes in and performs well in August, that competition factor—as Chryst alludes to—makes the position even stronger.
Anything can happen with this group. It doesn't appear that anything is locked in with the pecking order of this position yet. It does seem likely that Tino Sunseri will get the most reps early on based on the amount of experience he has. One thing is for sure, though. Chryst has to get this position productive. This might be priority number one on his list for year one of his Pitt tenure.
Interestingly, since 2002, Pitt has had just six different starting quarterbacks. Four of those six (Bill Stull, Kevan Smith, Pat Bostick, Tino Sunseri) have combined for starts in the previous five seasons (2007-11). Rod Rutherford and Tyler Palko had a pretty good hold on this position for the previous five seasons. Both combined for every start from 2002-2006. Not just that, there was more of a sense of security with both. Pitt needs to get back to that sense of security, and that falls on the shoulders of Chryst. He's proved he can do it before, and he will get his chance to impact the quarterbacks right off the first whistle on Thursday.