Spring Football in getting underway across the country, and Notre Dame's opening game is less than 180 days away. Blue & Gold Illustrated will be breaking down the 2012 schedule and ranking teams based on difficulty during the next two weeks to get you ready for spring practice.
Incoming freshman Rushel Shell set national records as a high school running back in western Pennsylvania.
No. 8: Pittsburgh
Nov. 3, 2012 — South Bend, Ind.
Last Meeting: Tyler Eifert’s fourth-quarter touchdown catch let the Irish squeak by with a 15-12 win over Pittsburgh at Heinz Field. Jonas Gray scored his first career touchdown, but Notre Dame’s offense sputtered for much of the early afternoon game.
Season Outlook: Pittsburgh churned through four coaches in a little more than a year before landing on current skipper Paul Chryst. At least ideologically, they seem to have found a fit with the former Wisconsin offensive coordinator.
Last year, the Panthers finished 6-7 under Todd Graham before he skipped town for Arizona State. The midseason loss of running back Ray Graham was a major hit. Without Graham, quarterback Tino Sunseri struggled to play consistently for the second year in a row. The 2012 schedule isn’t harrowing, but Chryst will have to get good quarterback play if he wants a successful first season in the Steel City.
Top Returners: RB Ray Graham, WR Devin Street
Graham ran for 958 yards and nine touchdowns in the eight games he played before blowing out his knee. He looked more than capable of being the next in a long line of electric running backs for Pittsburgh, like LeSean McCoy and Dion Lewis. Graham won’t be in action during the spring and it remains to be seen what the injury will do to his production on the field. If he can return to full strength, he’ll be a one-man show in Chryst’s offense.
Street is Pittsburgh’s deep threat. The speedy sophomore led the team with 53 catches for 754 yards last season. He and rising senior Mike Shanahan will lead a fairly young group of receivers in trying to complement the run game. Street could become an all-conference quality player if he develops a nose for the end zone this season. He scored only twice last year.
Top Newcomer: RB Rushel Shell
The future of Pitt’s royal running back lineage seems to be in good hands with Shell. The Western Pennsylvania native set national records with more than 8,500 yards and 100 touchdowns in his high school career. He is cut from the Panthers backfield mold —6-foot-1, 210 pounds and more than willing to rack up 40-plus carries in a game. Shell’s size and maturity are developed enough to warrant playing time as a true freshman.
Biggest Losses: DE Brandon Lindsey, OL Lucas Nix
Lindsey was a prototypical rush defensive speed. He had great speed off the line for a 6-foot-2, 250-pounder, which helped him lead the team with 8.5 sacks in 2011. The converted outside linebacker had 54 total tackles, including 11 behind the line of scrimmage. He is one of four seniors who was invited to the NFL combine last month.
Nix joined Lindsey at the combine and left a big gap in the Pittsburgh offensive line, a unit that could end up being the Panthers’ weak spot next fall. The 6-foot-6, 310-pound guard is one of three starting linemen that will need to be replaced before September.
Spring Question? After a nightmare trip around the coaching carousel, how long will it take the Panthers’ players to develop faith in the new staff? Chryst’s straightforward personality and offensive philosophy are cut from a blue-collar cloth that is well-respected in Pittsburgh, but no one could blame this roster for being a little wary of their coaches after the past 14 months. Chryst has never been a head coach before and admitted to local reporter that he will be evolving as he learns on the job.
Why They’re Here: On paper, Chryst seems like a great fit for Pittsburgh. With question marks about Ray Graham and a few other key player that are banged up this spring, the Panthers might be playing in a new conference before they become a force to be reckoned with again.