Football: Quarterbacks important in Graham’s system

By Greg Trietley

ccording to head coach Todd Graham, the key to the future of the Pitt football program is the… According to head coach Todd Graham, the key to the future of the Pitt football program is the development of his quarterbacks: Tino Sunseri, Mark Myers and Anthony Gonzalez.

At Pitt’s intrasquad Blue-Gold Game on Saturday, the importance of the quarterback was on display as starter Sunseri, who has thrown for 300 yards once in his career, attempted 55 passes, mostly from the shotgun, and picked up 416 passing yards.

The junior has had to absorb “like a sponge,” as Graham phrased it, one of the more intricate systems in college football. The system, one that Graham has repeatedly described as no-huddle, high-octane and explosive, centers around a quarterback who is capable of running the intricate offense.

“It takes time to learn,” Graham said. “This system is somewhat complicated, and all the pressure, I’ll tell you, is on the quarterback. This is a quarterback-driven offense. We’ve got to have a quarterback that is smart and makes good decisions. We’ve been impressed with [Sunseri].”

Overall, the Blue-Gold Game showed that Pitt’s skill positions — recruits from the methodical, plodding Dave Wannstedt era — have adapted to Graham’s up-tempo, no-huddle scheme.

The offensive productivity stood in stark contrast to that of last year’s Blue-Gold Game, in which the offense scored one touchdown on a 9-yard run by Sunseri and former star running back Dion Lewis picked up just 74 total yards on five carries.

Looking back, the 2010 Blue-Gold Game was an omen of an offense that often struggled during the season, most notably during a 35-10 loss to West Virginia. If this season’s game is any indication, Pitt won’t be struggling to put points on the board very often.

Pitt averaged 26.3 points per game last season, while Graham’s Tulsa squad put up 41.4 points per game — seventh in the nation. Pitt ranked 65th.

But despite the offensive showing in the Blue-Gold Game, Graham was the first to admit that nobody should read too much into Sunseri’s more than 400 passing yards and the starter-laden Blue team’s 48-13 victory.

“Gold was made up mostly of our twos with some guys mixed in,” Graham said in the post-game news conference. “Naturally, the score was pretty predictable.”

Gonzalez also used his feet well on Saturday, scrambling for 39 yards and avoiding pressure all afternoon, but the challenge of leading Pitt’s offensive supporting cast against its defensive starters was too great. He finished just 9 for 26, for 82 yards with two interceptions.

Graham said he was impressed with both Gonzalez and Sunseri, but it’s clear his quarterbacks are still learning the complicated system’s nuances.

“It doesn’t even matter what the yards were today,” he said. “We’re not even close to where we want to be in this offense.”

Kinks in the scheme appeared occasionally Saturday, especially on riskier gadget plays. The Blue offense ran a flea-flicker late in the game, but Sunseri had to throw the ball away under pressure from the Gold front seven.

Graham admitted the team ran “pretty basic stuff” throughout the scrimmage.

“We’ve got training wheels on right now,” he said.

Players have had to adjust to the game speed that Graham touted when he brought his system to Pittsburgh from Tulsa. Sunseri and the offensive line have spent much of the spring working on lining up as quickly as possible, and the entire offense has quickened its pace between plays.

“The first day when we got out there, when everybody was running from drill to drill and everybody was yelling ‘high octane’ and [wide receiver coach Mike] Norvell was yelling to hurry up, we kind of looked at each other like, ‘Whoa, we’re not used to this,’” Sunseri said after the scrimmage. “As each practice moved on, we felt like our offense got more and more comfortable.”

Conditioning the players for the season has been a priority for the coaching staff this spring. Pitt forewent a halftime Saturday and played for more than two hours with no intermission. In total, the Panthers ran 100 plays on offense, and defensive starters each saw about 80.

“We’re going to play a whole bunch more snaps than what they’re used to,” Graham said. “That’s why we went 100 snaps. I wanted to show them. Toward the end there, they were tired. They probably haven’t run 100 snaps in maybe ever.”

Now that the coaches have introduced the offense, the players will have more time to adjust to both the system and the game speed during training camp this summer.

Saturday was the first time under Graham that the Panthers reached triple-digit snaps, and it showed as the scrimmage went on. The firepower displayed in the first quarter turned into punts by the fourth — 15 in all.

“We came out quick. We started off pretty strong,” wide receiver Mike Shanahan said after the game. “Then there was a lull where we had some penalties and some turnovers … The 100 plays might have slowed us a bit.”

Pitt ran 830 total plays under Wannstedt last season. With Graham at the helm, Tulsa ran 1,006.

The passing game looked crisp on Saturday despite the steady rain that fell for most of the scrimmage. Some have doubted the effectiveness of a high-tempo offense at Heinz Field — a playing surface often chewed up by inclement weather and sometimes by two-game weekends — but the results Saturday suggest otherwise.

“We’re going to have games like that, especially in this part of the country,” Graham said. “We threw for over 400 yards, and I’m standing in ankle-deep water on that field. That was one of the most encouraging things, seeing how accurately we threw our edge passes and our comeback passes.”

Graham recalled Tulsa’s 2009 bowl game against No. 22 Ball State to show that he won’t change his game plan based on the weather. Playing in torrential rain that turned the field into mud, Graham’s Golden Hurricane racked up 632 total yards in a 45-13 blowout.

Sunseri, a Pittsburgh native, said he prefers bad weather because it puts pressure on the opposing secondary, which has to match wide receivers’ cuts on a poor playing surface. Graham doesn’t mind the weather, either.

“It doesn’t matter — rain, sleet, snow, wind,” he said. “It doesn’t affect how we’re going to operate. We’re going to run our offense. We’re going to throw the ball. We’re going to run the ball. We’re going to do all the things just like we always do.”