Football: Panthers undergo another transition

By Lauren Kirschman

Last year, the Pitt football team used spring practice to transition to a new system and grow… Last year, the Pitt football team used spring practice to transition to a new system and grow comfortable with a new head coach and his staff.

This year, the Panthers started all over again.

Head coach Paul Chryst took over for former head coach Todd Graham, who took the same position at Arizona State after spending just a year with the Panthers. Chryst, the former offensive coordinator at Wisconsin, runs a pro-style offense that is more similar to former head coach Dave Wannstedt’s system than Graham’s fast-paced offense.

But with a new system comes a transition period, and quarterback Tino Sunseri said that a learning curve is to be expected.

“You have to go out here and do something and make your mistakes, then go into the film room and be able to adjust and make corrections,” Sunseri said.

Backup quarterback Mark Myers said that this year’s transition has been easier for him than the change last spring.

“I get this a lot better,” Myers said. “I came to Pitt for pro-style. I’ve been working in it my whole life and I got it down pretty well. It’s a lot easier than last year.”

Wide receiver Cameron Saddler added that this year’s change is a good one that isn’t just affecting the team’s performance, but also its attitude.

“Everyone on the field can tell this change is for the better and everybody’s embracing it,” Saddler said. “Everyone seems to be bought in and Coach Chryst makes it easy. He makes it fun to come out here. I’m waking up at six in the morning and I’m not dreading coming over here.”

The defensive line — particularly sophomore defensive tackle Aaron Donald — was impressive on Saturday and has been performing well during spring practice. Sunseri said that facing Donald and the defensive line can only make the offense better.

“Whenever you’re going against good competition, all it does is heighten everyone around you,” Sunseri said. “You’re going to get better on your techniques because most likely, you’re going to not find a guy like Aaron Donald on a lot of teams.

“If you are going out each and every day and battling against a guy like him, the only thing you can do is get better. All they are going to do is keep challenging you.”

Sunseri added that while the defensive line “did some stuff to confuse them” on Saturday, the offensive line is getting better, and the offense as a whole is improving. But the offense managed to score just one touchdown and turned the ball over twice in the scrimmage during practice on Saturday.

“You got to give credit to the defense for mixing up their fronts and looks,” Sunseri said. “Offensively, we need to go back to the film room and look at our mistakes and correct them.”

The lone touchdown came on a 70-yard run from sophomore running back Isaac Bennett. Bennett is getting a chance at increased playing time this spring with Ray Graham limited after the knee injury he suffered last season.

Chryst said that Bennett is still developing.

“He had a big hit here and then he’ll do some things that just kills you like not picking up a linebacker in the backfield,” Chryst said. “When he comes out he’s into it and giving effort. That is really what you ask for and then it’s ‘Can we learn? Are we going to repeat the same mistakes or are we going to learn from them?’”

Sunseri said that Bennett will continue to grow as a player.

“As a running back, you have to be able to be a pass protector, you have to make sure you get out on your routes and it’s a total combination,” he said. “The best thing he has is Ray [Graham] … That’s a guy you can look up to and make sure you’re a sponge and learn everything you can.”

Bennett said that Graham has been encouraging and has offered advice on what he should focus on. Bennett added that playing last year will help him earn time on the field this season, but he hesitated to call it a competition between running backs.

“I don’t really say ‘competing’ because we are working together,” he said. “All of the running backs work together to make the team better.”

Chryst said that he didn’t come to Pitt with any specific expectations regarding the quarterbacks who will get Bennett the ball and run the offense. He said he’s had a good experience working with Sunseri and Myers so far, but added that there is room for improvement.

“It’s funny, because when you talk about the group, it applies directly to the quarterbacks as well,” he said. “I think there were a couple of things that were good.

“The thing that is fun about scrimmages is you are truly competing. When you hold onto the ball, it’s a sack. When you take a sack on a second-and-three, then you’re back to the third-and-10 and that’s not real good. It’s good learning, but it’s not good quarterback play. If you go down the line there are a lot of things in every position that you have to get better at.”

Spring practice will conclude on April 14 with the Blue-Gold Scrimmage, which Chryst recently announced will be held at North Hills High School instead of Heinz Field.

The Panthers will open the season against Youngstown State on Sept. 1.