Quarterback: Everybody's favorite whipping boy, Tino Sunseri, has quarterback guru Paul Chryst mentoring him this season and the result will do nothing to change the opinions people have of both men. Chryst has proven that he can turn anybody into a decent quarterback and Sunseri has proven that decent is all that one can expect from him.
Sunseri's passing stats looks pretty good, to say the least. He's completed an excellent 70.4% of his passes with 1,750 yards, 10 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions. He's also No.8 in the nation in pass efficiency. Projected over the season Sunseri will throw for 3,500 yards with 20 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. Excellent numbers for anybody let alone somebody that pretty much everybody wrote off long ago.
So why is Sunseri still a whipping boy for many? Well, for one thing, a lot of people are idiots. But then again some others do have a point. Chryst can't ever teach Sunseri to know the nuances of the game and to have the natural instincts that top quarterbacks have. Stats can tell a lot about a player's performance but in the case of Sunseri's aforementioned stats, it doesn't tell you when those stats were accumulated. Just like a player can be a lot better than his stats show, a player can be a lot less of a player than his stats show. And that's the case with Sunseri. Wrong decisions, not being clutch, and the inability to rise above the others on the field. That's what it takes to be an elite quarterback and it's apparent that Sunseri will never have that.
But to Sunseri's credit he played as well as he can under extreme physical and mental duress. Not only did many people felt that they just knew he would fail this season, they almost willed it out of spite. But Sunseri didn't fold and he's playing up to his ability. Unfortunately for him, his ability is never going to be good enough to be any better than decent, no matter what the stats say.
Last Season's Final Grade: D
Preseason Grade: C-
Midseason Grade: C
Running Back: Big things were expected at this position this year, but the sad fact is, Pitt is No.83 in rushing offense this season. A lot of the problem is that senior Ray Graham is not 100% recovered from his serious knee injury. It usually takes a full year to get back to your previous level so it's not Graham's fault that he's not the same back. He clearly tries but his style is built around his quick feet, but now though the feet are willing, they can't answer the bell, and the result is that he doesn't make nearly as many people miss and long, exciting runs just aren't happening like before the injury.
On the season Graham has run for 439 yards and 4 touchdowns, with a 4.6 avg. He also has 18 catches. He's also had some good games- 103 against Cincinnati and 94 against both Gardner-Webb and Virginia Tech. But he's only had 95 carries on the season compared to 150 carries at the same time last year. Even more telling is that in the first half of last season he ran for 925 yards and a 6.2 avg. compared to the 439 yards and 4.6 avg. this season.
Issac Bennett was a pleasant surprise when Graham went down last season, and after a strong spring showing much was expected of him. However, the sophomore has only rushed 26 times on the season and 10 of those was in the opener against Youngstown State. On the season he has run for 127 yards and 3 TDs. His 4.9 avg. shows he's been solid when he gets the chance but with only a 4 carry a game average there's not much he can do.
That leaves the wildcard, freshman sensation Rushel Shell. Shell did not play in the opener and was only given the majority of carries in two games, but in those two games he exploded for 253 carries on 41 carries, a 6.2 average. And that was against Virginia Tech and Louisville, not exactly horrible teams. It will be interesting if Chryst gives him a chance to take over as the workhorse.
With Graham not at his best, Bennett not getting much action, and Shell playing sporadically, the Panthers rushing offense has regressed form last season. Of course a poor offensive line doesn't help, but it's still apparent that the Panthers running game has not found itself yet. There is hope for this unit, though. Shell should only get better as he becomes more comfortable and Graham's knee should only get stronger.
Last Season's Final Grade: A
Preseason Grade: B+
Midseason Grade: B-
Wide Receivers: Chryst can probably expect Christmas cards from Michael Shanahan and Devin Street for the rest of his life because he took two disgruntled and lost receivers and turned them into one of the most productive duos in the country. How productive? Well, Pitt has only had seven players accumulate over 1,000 receiving yards in a season, and no teammates have ever done it. Shanahan is on pace for 1,050 yards and Street is on pace for 1,028 yards. This comes after Shanahan had 493 yards last season and Street had 754 yards. The most surprising fact about the duo is that Shanahan, long considered the possession receiver, has an 18.1 avg, while Street, the supposed deep threat, is only at 13.2 yards a reception. Both receivers have 3 touchdowns.
After those two, however, the pickings are slim. Cameron Saddler was never a speed demon to begin with, and after his knee injury in the past, he's lost even more of his quickness, not a good thing for somebody only 5'7" tall. He made a nice touchdown catch against Louisville, and he's the undisputed emotional leader of the team, but his production of 12 catches and 178 yards is a big drop. And beyond him, the next in line is Ronald Jones with just 5 catches.
A lot of the success of Shanahan and Street is due to Chryst's system, and neither are game changing talents. For that reason, their grade can only be so high, but it's a welcome site for the program to see the two rebound so nicely after both having underachieving seasons last year.
Last Season's Final Grade: D
Preseason Grade: C-
Midseason Grade: B
Tight Ends: While the wide receivers have been a pleasant surprise this season, the opposite could be said about the tight ends. Hubie Graham has started in the four games that he's played, but he's been one of the biggest disappointments of the season. With the success that Chryst and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph had with tight ends at Wisconsin, it was expected that this position would be a real strength. Unfortunately, however, the unit was actually better last year under then coach Todd Graham who didn't even focus on the position in the offense. Graham has 6 catches on the year, and 4 of them came in the opener against Youngstown State. Injuries have played a part in his problems but even when he's in the game he is not much of a factor. Drew Carswell added 5 catches in the first 5 games, but sat in game six due to an injury. Carswell has a lot of talent but has been sloppy in his play, to say the least, and that has has been a major problem. True freshman J.P. Holtz has just two catches but showed flashes in his limited playing time. With Graham and Carswell out, he played nearly every snap against Louisville. Brendan Carozzoni, who showed good potential while playing in 11 games last season, has not even seen the field, even with Graham and Carswell out. Bottom line, last year the tight ends caught a total of 54 passes. Graham himself caught 28. This year the unit is on pace to catch a measly 26 passes for the entire season.
Last Season's Grade: B
Preseason Grade: A
Midseason Grade: D-
Offensive Line: Remember when Pitt had great offensive lines? I wouldn't be surprised if you didn't because it's been a long time. But they have had a lot of good offensive lines in the last twenty years. In the last few years, however, the line has been anything but good. Last season was a disaster but with another year of experience and Chris Jacobson returning, you would think that the line had no choice but to be better. But if you did think that, you would be wrong. The Panthers are No.83 in the country in rushing offense and that is with Graham, Shell, and Bennett. I'd hate to think where the team would be with even average running backs. The pass blocking is just as bad. Sunseri is much quicker to get rid of the ball this season but the Panthers are still ranked No. 103 nationally in sacks allowed.
And this is with center Ryan Turnley, who performed solidly last season, and Jacobson, who even after six years at Pitt still hasn't reached the level which was expected him. Tackle Matt Rotheram was also solid last year but this year he also has seemed to regress, especially in pass blocking where he seems to always be running behind a defensive end that's about to flatten Sunseri. But if you would count how many times he had to do that, even though it seems pretty much all the time, he's still be behind Cory King, who was moved from guard this season. King has accomplished the offensive tackle trifecta in every game by missing pass blocks, missing run blocks, and picking up penalties. The other guard, Ryan Schlieper hasn't been much better.
Of course, apologists will say that the offensive line just isn't talented, but that's too easy. Rotheram had offers from the likes of Wisconsin, Michigan State, and LSU. Turnley had offers from Georgia Tech and Wisconsin. Jacobson was ranked the No.3 guard in the entire country by Scout.com. These were highly coveted kids. All five starters are considered the equal, and in many cases superior, to pretty much every offensive linemen that West Virginia, for example, has started in any year, and yet the Mountaineers continually field very good lines. In fact, it's commonplace in the NCAA for experienced offensive lines in major college football to be solid. Rotheram has been in the program for 3 years, King and Schlieper for 4, Turnley for 5, and Jacobson for 6. The fact that five fairly highly recruited linemen with that much experience can be so bad is almost unfathomable. You would have to think that, under those conditions, one would have to go out of their way not to at least be decent. But here they are, still well below average. And what's worse is that currently these are by far the five best linemen they have.
Last Season's Grade: C-
Preseason Grade: C-
Midseason Grade: F