QB — Tino Sunseri
Sunseri had his best game of the season in a 44-17 win over USF. The concern with Sunseri — as Pittsburgh head coach Todd Graham referred to every week, up until this week — is that Sunseri holds the ball too long. The results of him holding the ball too long have been turnovers or sacks. The Panthers are next to last in the Big East in turnover margin, with a -1. They give up the most sacks in the conference with a total of 21 in five games. This offense is based on timing. If Sunseri gets the ball out quickly — as is required — he should have another productive day. If Rutgers can get pressure on him and force him into some bad decisions, it could be a long day against the Big East's leader in turnovers (+2.75 turnover margin per game).
One other thing to keep an eye on is the number of times Sunseri will run the ball. He's carried it at least 10 times in the last four games, with a season-high 35 rushing yards last week. With teams putting a lot of emphasis on Graham, it opens things up for Sunseri to run the ball. If he can continue to contribute in the run game, he'll take some pressure off Graham.
RB — Ray Graham
Ray Graham put together his second 200-yard outing of the season, and has the most yards after five games of any running back in school history. The number to keep an eye on his the number of times he's going to touch the ball. Already, he has 126 carries — just 22 short of his entire 2010 workload. If he keeps up with his average — 25.2 carries a game — he'll surpass that. He had a tougher time running the ball against defenses such as Iowa and Notre Dame where he had 89 and 97 yards.
WR — Mike Shanahan
Mike Shanahan is known as the five-back in the Pitt offense. What that means, is he'll line up in the slot as a bigger receiver to challenge the safeties and linebackers. Occasionally, he'll line up wide in an attempt to stretch the defense. He can be a deep threat. Pitt just hasn't used him that way. Part of that is getting the deep ball; something Pitt hasn't established this year. Shanahan had been Pitt's most consistent receiver this season, leading the team in receptions twice. He had two drops in the first quarter last week, which is out of his character. Each receiver has taken his turn this season, being the team's leading receiver. Todd Graham says a lot of that is by design, and a lot is by "taking what the defense gives them." Shanahan led the team in receptions in the opener against Buffalo, and in Week 4 against Notre Dame.
WR — Devin Street
The player who is Pitt's deep threat, is Devin Street — the position that just makes plays. Street will line up wide. He's the primary deep threat, but don't expect to see many 40-yard deep passes. Street's range is anywhere from 20 to 30 yards. Street has proven he can get yards after the catch. He led the Panthers in receiving at Iowa with a career-game; seven catches for 138 yards and a touchdown, including a 66-yarder. That play was similar to many of the quick-hitch passes you'll see out of this Pitt offense. Street, for some reason had a lot of space on that play. He made the catch, then turned it up field for the score. That play sums up what he can do — he's not the every play, big-play receiver. However, if he catches the defense sleeping, he can do enough in the open field after the catch.
WR — Cameron Saddler
Todd Graham said Thursday that Saddler's performance — a career-high six catches for 68 yards against USF — was a combination of the "taking what the defense gives them" theory, but also a combination of Saddler's improvement this season. Saddler plays what's called the two-back. It's a hybrid slot-receiver/running back position. In his first two years, Saddler caught 10 passes for 74 yards. Already this season in five games, he has 12 catches for 105 yards and a touchdown. In Todd Graham's system at Tulsa, the two-back (Demaris Johnson, 2010) was the one that was most productive. We'll see this week if Saddler's performance at USF was just his part in the rotation to lead the team in receiving, or if he can put together a similar type of performance.
LT — Juantez Hollins
Hollins will make his sixth start at left tackle on Saturday. He had not played in a college game until starting the opener against Buffalo. He struggled in that game, making some of the calls, but based on the position and how it relies heavily on pass-blocking, Hollins has had to grow up in a hurry. He had senior left guard Chris Jacobson next to him, but Jacobson went down with a knee injury in the Iowa game, and is now lost for the season. Hollins hasn't been dominant, but he's getting a little better each game.
LG — Ryan Schlieper
Schlieper came in after the second play of the game, when senior starter Lucas Nix went down with an apparent foot or ankle injury. Schlieper had played in just three college games before last Thursday. Schlieper looked more comfortable and more confident as the game went on. He was a big factor in Ray Graham's 226-yard performance; coming out with a couple of big pulling blocks on the longer runs. Nix isn't expected to be out long, but we do expect Schlieper to start this week. One other interesting note on him is that in the spring, it was redshirt freshman Matt Rotheram that worked ahead of Schlieper, and was even with the first-team at guard. Schlieper was a third-team guard three weeks ago. Thanks to injuries and his own improvement, he is slated to make his first start Saturday.
C — Ryan Turnley
There had been a long debate about who the starting center would be, heading into the season. Junor Ryan Turnley — who played in 17 total games before this season — has been Pitt's most consistent lineman all season, despite learning a position he's never played before. Todd Graham's requirement of the center position? Simply to get 100 percent of the shotgun snaps down. So far, he's done that.
RG – Cory King
Before Schlieper stepped in, Cory King was making his first start two weeks ago against Notre Dame. Since Lucas Nix was the starter at right guard, King started the last two games at left guard. When Nix went down in this last game, King moved back to right guard. King knows both guard positions well, while Schlieper only knows the left guard assignments. He showed no problems making a quick switch back to right guard after the injury. Of any of the first-year starters, King has shown the most flexibility.
RT — Jordan Gibbs
Gibbs is now Pitt's most experienced lineman. He didn't make his first career start until the fourth game last season. He went on to make 10 starts at right tackle last season, then has started all give games at right tackle this season. Gibbs is a more natural left tackle, but moved back to the right side in the first week of the season to better accommodate Juantez Hollins. It's similar to the guard situation; Hollins only knows the left side, while Gibbs has been around long enough to know both spots well. Gibbs is a physical player, and gave the unit a much-needed boost in that area ever since he broke in to the starting lineup.
DE — Brandon Lindsey
Lindsey leads the team with four sacks this season, and led the team with 10 last year. He has recorded at least one sack in 11 of his last 17 games. He had three sacks against Rutgers last season, but that was from his defensive end spot in the 4-3. Initially, Lindsey was moved to a stand-up end position (hybrid LB/DE) called the Panther. He started there in the first game, then was moved up to the line as a defensive end in the 3-4 scheme. The move was made to accommodate freshman Ejuan Price — a player the coaching staff believes is one of their top 11 players; someone they had to make room for. The move hasn't bothered Lindsey, who is still Pitt's best defensive player. He has proven to get sacks as a 4-3 end, a 3-4 end and a 3-4 outside backer.
NT — Myles Caragein
We've seen a little more of sophomore Aaron Donald in the rotation at this position at recent weeks. Caragein is just a solid player. He doesn't do anything flashy, nor is he a explosive type of player that's going to knock someone off the ball every play. He is solid, and does make Pitt's run defense a challenge for opponents. That all starts with Caragein. If you see Donald in the game at nose, then you know that Pitt is trying to get to the quarterback.
DE — Chas Alecxih
Alecxih has started 18 consecutive games on the defensive line for Pitt. Of all the players up front, he is most suited for his respective position because he has the ideal height and weight. Alecxih admitted this week that he doesn't like screen passes, and he expects to see that from Rutgers this week. Then, it was pointed out to him that when he had an interception earlier this season against Buffalo, that was during a screen play. For the most part, he is a disruptive player that looks for a way to get himself involved on every play. He's equally dangerous stopping the run as he is getting to the quarterback.
OLB (PANTHER) — Ejuan Price
As mentioned earlier, room was made for Price in the starting lineup. That's how much the coaches think of him. His job is to get to the quarterback. In his first road start at Iowa, he came away with two sacks. The pressure of playing his first road game at a place like that, or even a game against Notre Dame doesn't faze him. He doesn't get involved in any of the hoop-la. Price is very business-like in his approach, and has already shown some big play ability early in his career.
OLB (SPUR) — Todd Thomas
Thomas was initially a 2009 commit. He did not qualify academically, so he had to spend a year at Milford Academy. Then, when we finally got to Pitt in 2010, he switched from receiver to defensive back. A torn ACL ended any chance of Thomas playing last year. This year, he's slid into this hybrid SPUR role, which is considered a linebacker/safety position. Thomas struggled in pass coverage at Iowa three weeks ago. He responded with a six-tackle performance against Notre Dame. He also had two sure interceptions dropped in both the Iowa and Notre Dame games. Against USF, he came up with a key sack of B.J. Daniels on a fourth down play in the second half. Thomas hasn't been tested in the passing game in these last two games the way he was at Iowa. One thing to keep an eye on with him is that you'll see him at the outside linebacker spot, you'll see him drop back as a safety, and you'll also see him playing middle linebacker in certain passing downs. He says those are the basic responsibilities of the Spur.
MLB — Max Gruder
Pitt's most experienced linebacker, and a leader of the defense. Though Pitt has struggled on some of the underneath routes this season, we haven't seen Notre Dame and USF go after those underneath routes as much. Iowa and Maine had the most success of anyone with that. Gruder is also Pitt's leading tackler. He'll be solid in run support, but if Rutgers can draw him outside and get him in one-on-one coverage, they can drag him out of his comfort zone.
MLB — Tristan Roberts
Roberts gained a starting spot after the first few games, replacing sophomore linebacker Shane Gordon who started the first two games. Gordon is the more athletic of the two, but because of his experience and work ethic, Roberts has worked to gain that starting job. Roberts doesn't do anything flashy, but seems to have faith in the coaches to be able to hold on to a starting job. This is one thing we're seeing with the linebackers overall.
There are younger players like Nicholas Grigsby and LaQuentin Smith waiting in the wings behind Gruder and Roberts. The coaching staff is eager to get them involved, but at the same time likes the comfort level of two seniors in the middle. There's also more leniency with those two outside spots, where there are two freshmen starting. Interestingly, Thomas is ahead of a senior in Greg Williams, and another senior, Lindsey, was moved up front to accommodate Lindsey. What it says to us is the outside positions can get by with athleticism and less experience, while the inside spots require more cerebral players.
CB — K'Waun Williams
Pitt's top cover corner. He'll most likely draw the tough task of defending Mohamed Sanu. There were some miscommunications between the corners and getting the right calls from the coaching staff. As they've adjusted to the new system, we haven't seen any signs of miscommunications in the last two weeks. For example, in the first three games the corners were playing too far off the receivers. In those first three games, Pitt was giving up an average of 336.9 passing yards a game. They also allowed 6 touchdown passes, and only picked off two passes. In the last two games, Pitt has yielded 219.5 yards a game, allowed just one touchdown pass but still has produced just one interception.
CB — Antwuan Reed
While Williams is Pitt's cover-man, Reed has more of the potential to come up with the interception. Against Iowa and Notre Dame, he dropped two sure interceptions that could have easily been returned for touchdowns. While he hasn't come up with the big play, Reed is more likely to jump routes. He does a good job reading the quarterback, and taking a chance at the ball.
S — Jarred Holley
Holley is Pitt's active leader with nine interceptions, including one this year. He came up with his first sack of the season last week against USF — something he hasn't been asked to do too much — but it's something we could see more of from him. Holley is the quarterback of the defense. While the inside backers have pretty good field vision, they lack athleticism. Holley's athleticism and field vision are equally as good.
S — Jason Hendricks
Hendricks' play has also improved from the first three games. He struggled in one-on-one coverage in those first three games. Aside from an interception at his own five yard-line against Notre Dame, we've seen teams shying away from him in the last two weeks. It will be interesting to see if Rutgers goes after him in one-on-one coverage. They'll need to for us to get a better assessment of where he stands—he's either improved as he showed in the Notre Dame game, or he's still susceptible to the one-on-one matchups.