The focus will continue to be on Paul Chryst as he begins the first year of his era at Pitt, and also his first shot as head coach.
While the coaching change has been the biggest story surrounding the Pitt program over the last eight months, when Pitt begins to actually practice this afternoon, there are a lot of actual football questions the team is facing, starting today.
The first, and a very general question across the board, will be the team's health at a number of positions. At the top of that list is running back, a position where the team appears to be in very good shape, depth wise. Can Ray Graham return to form after missing the final five games of the 2011 season, due to a knee injury? Graham's performance was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal 2011 season. Pitt was still able to eek out wins over Louisville and Syracuse to earn a bowl bid for the fourth year in a row, but Graham's absence was noticeable. His ability running the ball was the lone spark in an anemic offense.
It's unclear how many reps Graham will get early on. Graham insists he's fine, and Chryst said last week at Big East media day that he has done well in summer conditioning. The question will be how well he holds up in contact, and then again when he makes the jump from practice contact to live game contact. Waiting in the wings at running back is sophomore Isaac Bennett, who handled the workload in Graham's absence for the remainder of 2011 and in the spring. If Graham is healthy, how much will we see Bennett? If Graham is not healthy, is Bennett ready to provide those big running plays the offense needs? Or, will Rushel Shell come in and prove he deserves a shot? Malcolm Crockett also provides depth. There's a lot of directions the running back position can go. It all starts with Graham's health.
The receiver position was also hit with injuries, as Cameron Saddler missed the remaining five games due to a broken sternum suffered in the UConn game. Mike Shanahan sat out the spring due to injury. The receiver position was ineffective in 2011, missing routes and contributing a lot of dropped passes. They will be under a microscope heading into the 2012 season because of that, but also have its two most experienced players in Shanahan and Saddler coming off injury.
The offensive line must replace three starters, four if you include Juantez Hollins who will sit out the 2012 season due to a suspension. Even though Hollins was inconsistent in his first year as a starter, there's an even bigger question mark in regards to who will replace him in the starting lineup. Chris Jacobson is back, after suffering a season-ending knee injury in the Iowa game. Jacobson brings the most talent and experience to the line, but his health will be under close watch as well.
The defensive line boasts a lot of potential, but has to replace starters Chas Alecxih, Myles Caragein, Brandon Lindsey and Justin Hargrove. Aaron Donald, all of a sudden, anchors the defensive line, entering his junior year. Donald enjoyed a breakout sophomore season, but the line will need much more than just him. Bryan Murphy returns after sitting out the 2011 season due to an academic suspension. Murphy played in six games as a true freshman in 2010, and had a productive 2011 spring. Khaynin Mosley-Smith is a leading candidate to start, but battled Tyrone Ezell for first-team reps in the spring. Senior Shayne Hale and sophomore T.J. Clemmings will likely battle for a spot at defensive end--two of the most heavily recruited players on the Pitt roster. The defensive line has a wealth of sophomores--Mosley-Smith, Murphy, Clemmings and converted linebacker LaQuentin Smith. The potential is there, but how much will youth and inexperience show up?
Not to be outdone by the other positions, the linebacking corps also has some health concerns. Todd Thomas sat out the spring, nursing a knee injury. He played in 10 games last year as a redshirt freshman, and certainly showed promise. Dan Mason returned in the spring, after missing the majority of the 2010 season and all of the 2011 season after a devastating knee injury in September of his sophomore year. Ejuan Price hurt his shoulder late in the spring, after taking significant reps last year as a freshman. Like the defensive line, there's no shortage of potential. Can these players returning form injury hold up in contact, and again in live game situations? That will be one of the biggest questions there, not to mention Chryst is placing a big emphasis on finding the three starters--something he stated last week at Big East media day.
The team's deepest and most experienced unit--the secondary--also has some health concerns. Jarred Holley sat out the spring, and corner K'Waun Williams suffered a knee injury at the tail end of spring. Williams had a surgery which would allow him to be back in time for camp. Still, like the other injury issues the team has, how will these two hold up? Jason Hendricks--another of Pitt's more experienced starters--returns after missing the final six games of 2011 due to a shoulder injury. However, if there's one position Pitt might have a luxury at, it's in the secondary. Fifth-year senior Andrew Taglianetti is back. The secondary also gets a boost from Michigan transfers Cullen Christian and Ray Vinopal. Both players had very good springs, and will battle for starting spots.
The quarterback position doesn't have any injury issues, but will once again be under close watch. Tino Sunseri's job looks safe. Though the passing game has lacked any kind of fire, Sunseri appears to have the job locked down heading into 2012. Mark Myers will transfer, leaving the backup position to be a battle between Trey Anderson and Chad Voytik. Again, Graham's injury affects the passing game. If Graham didn't get injured last year, perhaps we're looking at Graham being the focal point of the offense. Based on his track record, he can still be that centerpiece. However, is he healthy enough to handle that work load and continue to produce? If he's not, can the others step up? If not, the passing game--quarterbacks and receivers--are under even more pressure to produce.
None of these questions will get answered immediately on Monday, but after all the health issues and the drama surrounding Pitt's last coaching change, Pitt can finally take its next step on the football field. Pitt will practice Monday afternoon from 2:45 to 5:45. All practices are closed to the general public. The first day of pads will be Friday, followed by the first scrimmage of camp on Saturday. We will be there to cover all the action, as everything unfolds.