Chryst brings familiar offensive style to Pitt football program

By Dustin Gabler

After undergoing a drastic change a year ago with the implementation of Coach Todd Graham’s…After undergoing a drastic change a year ago with the implementation of Coach Todd Graham’s self-titled “high-octane” spread attack, the Pitt football team has returned to an offensive style that the team finds more comfortable: power, pro-style football.

Following a disappointing 6-6 record last season when much of the blame centered on Graham’s offense, the Paul Chryst-led Panthers are returning to what worked so well under former coach Dave Wannstedt.

Wannstedt, who spent numerous years in the NFL as a head coach for both the Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins, brought a professional style to his alma mater when he took over at Pitt in 2005.

His offensive strategy, like Chryst’s will be, was built around a solid running game, and Pitt produced three NFL running backs during Wannstedt’s time at Pitt: LaRod Stephens-Howling, LeSean McCoy and Dion Lewis.

Now Chryst, who was named Pitt’s fourth head coach in less than two years when Graham shockingly left for Arizona State after less than a year in the position, will look to reinstate a running mindset by mimicking the power offense he built during his time as offensive coordinator for back-to-back Big Ten champion, Wisconsin.

“We don’t apologize if we can line up and knock the heck out of [the other team],” Chryst said of his offensive style at his introductory press conference. “That’s fun.”

At Wisconsin, Chryst liked to use multiple running backs. And luckily for Pitt’s new head coach, he not only inherits one of the best ball carriers in the nation in senior Ray Graham, but also has talented backups at his disposal in sophomore Isaac Bennett and exciting freshman Rushel Shell.

Unlike Todd Graham’s offense last season, the running game will be downhill with the quarterback taking snaps from under center and handing the ball off to the rusher in a traditional fashion. Chryst won’t rely on quarterback Tino Sunseri’s running abilities to offset the running backs, and don’t expect the Panthers to run much from the shotgun.

We also won’t  see Pitt’s offense hurrying to get off as many snaps as possible, like the team did under Graham last season.

“Obviously, it feels different [than last year],” senior guard Chris Jacobson said of Chryst’s offense. “The whole tempo and system is different, but now we’re back to how we used to be under Coach Wannstedt, playing pro-style football and trying to hit someone in the mouth.”

Wannstedt recruited Jacobson and the other upperclassmen to play pro-style football. This should give Chryst an advantage over Graham, who was attempting a complete change in the playing style.

Following 2011’s lackluster season, the older Pitt players are reminding everyone of the success that the Panthers had under Wannstedt.

“We understand what we’re expected to do each and every play,” Sunseri said. “Even though [Wannstedt’s and Chryst’s systems] are very similar, they are also very different. But you can always resort back to [what we did under Wannstedt] to look at the success we had.”

While every coach’s offense has its own nuances and terminology that make the playbooks different, the overall theme of Wannstedt’s and Chryst’s systems share a common message: establish the running game to set up the passing attack.

And when the ball does go in the air, targeting the tight ends will likely be a focus. Since arriving, Chryst has focused on tight end recruiting and has already used several two- and three-tight-end formations in practice.

In Wannstedt’s best season in 2009, the Panthers had dominant tight ends Nate Byham and Dorin Dickerson. Both are now in the NFL.

With Chryst’s offense that pairs athletic tight ends with mismatched slower linebackers to develop the passing game, current Pitt tight ends Drew Carswell and Hubie Graham could see a lot of the ball in 2012.

As for the wide receivers, Chryst has instilled the concept of focusing on the catch first before the big play, while Graham talked about impact plays and often forced the ball down the field.

“One of the things the receivers have been working on in this offense is catching the ball, securing it and getting upfield to get yards after the catch,” said Sunseri, whom Chryst has already named as his starting quarterback for this season. “They want to become playmakers.”

Despite all of the talk about pro-style and no-huddle football, one of the biggest differences between Chryst and Graham is the adaptability of the former.

Graham forced a heavily pro-style group of players to play in his hurry-up system, which led to numerous errors from pro-style quarterback Sunseri, a blown 21-point lead against Iowa and a tired defense much of the year.

Chryst displayed his adaptability when Wisconsin added Russell Wilson as a fifth-year transfer last season.

Wilson, a mobile quarterback, came to the Badgers in late June, giving the offensive coordinator just over a month to write up a playbook for the new quarterback, yet Wilson flourished and developed into an All-American and Heisman trophy candidate.

“No matter who we have had, our offense has found a way to play to player’s strengths and not fit into a certain mold,” Chryst said of his system’s adaptability. “To me, a coach’s job is to put players in positions to have success.”

Expect to see Chryst learn Sunseri’s strengths early and build an offense catered to them, instead of forcing a huge workload upon him.

Chryst will focus on short passes and play-action, and with such a dangerous running game, Pitt will run the ball until the defense shows that it can stop it, at which point Sunseri will sell the fake and look to find his receivers open down the field.

“This is a great offense to be in,” freshman quarterback Chad Voytik said. “It’s all about making the right reads.”