The Pittsburgh Panthers open up spring practice Tuesday under first-year head coach Todd Graham. I had a chance to catch up with Graham recently to preview the spring. Here is Part I of our conversation:
When we last spoke, you had just been hired and I'm sure it was a hectic time. Have you settled in since then, and what kinds of things have you been doing?
Todd Graham: Basically, we got to recruit for two weeks there. That was fast and furious, but I felt good about what we did. We were able to meet some needs. With the amount of time we had, we were able to put together a very adequate group.
Since then, we've been evaluating and putting in our system and how we do everything that we do. I've been very impressed with the young men we have, and they've embraced our way of doing things. We've evaluated the last two years of film, and so we think we have a pretty good idea of where we're at. I can't wait to get out there and see exactly how they're throwing the ball, catching the ball, how we're executing, how well we run. Our training has completely changed. We want to be faster, that's the big thing. And just seeing their understanding of our system and adapting to the scheme.
Have the players been watching a lot Tulsa film?
TG: We've got them looking at a lot of our Tulsa stuff and some of the Michigan stuff. Naturally, it will be a blend. But we'll mostly be adapting to the players that we have.
The thing I feel good about after really assessing it in detail is, I feel like we've got pretty good offensive and defensive line talent. I feel really good about their toughness, and I think that's a great foundation for being successful. I feel like we've got three guys at quarterback who are diverse in their talent. And then Ray Graham, I think he can be one of the best tailbacks in the country, and I feel really good about the receiver corps. We don't have very many receivers -- we only have seven on scholarship -- because it was a different system. But the ones we have can really run, and I feel like they give us the speed we need to get this system going.
So has this time been kind of like recruiting for you, where you're mostly evaluating on film?
TG: It is like recruiting. I'm big into analyzing. The key for us is to get the right people in right places, get the right people on the field and then adapt to their skills.
Offensively, I feel really good that we've got some playmakers. Ray Graham, in our system, can be as good as we've ever had. He's got all the tools -- he's fast, explosive, can take it to the house, is a great inside runner, great outside runner. His buy-in to how we're doing things is really good. He can do a lot of things catching the football, too.
So we feel really strongly that we have a good playmaker there in Ray, and we'll have some young guys behind him -- we only have one scholarship tailback this spring. So depth is a major issue, the main issue for us. Then at receiver, we feel like [Mike] Shanahan can be special in our system. We think [Devin] Street is going to be special. Now Cam Saddler, the speed guy, he reminds me lot of Damaris Johnson who we had at Tulsa -- a smaller guy, a speed guy now playing in this system. You know, they're used to lining up with two receivers, and now we'll have three, four and even five sometimes. So with only seven on scholarship, we've got to get them in shape. And we've got guys coming in this summer.
Let's talk about the quarterback position. How much of an edge does Tino Sunseri have after starting all of last year?
TG: Of course, going into the spring, he started last year, so he's the guy to beat out. But we feel really good about [Mark] Myers. The guy can really throw the football, is a true passer, a drop-back pro-style type quarterback. Tino is more in the manner of what G.J. Kinne was at Tulsa -- he can throw the ball and run the ball. He has a good balance and is very efficient, completing 65 percent of his passes last year. And then the [Anthony] Gonzalez kid is an athlete. The guy can run and was big time playmaker, and we're excited to see him because we have no film on him other than high school.
We're excited about what we've seen with all three guys. Then Kolby Gray, who played defensive back last year after a shoulder injury, we put him there to have a fourth guy. And that's where his heart is, and we've been impressed with him. So we've got four guys there we feel good about. Tino, I feel really good about how he'll adjust to his system.
You've said you want to run a three-man defensive front. How does Brandon Lindsey fit into that? Will he be the hybrid, linebacker/defensive end guy?
TG: In our system, the 3-4, he'll be what we call the Panther outside linebacker, the rush linebacker. And boy, standing him up, he's a guy we think can be special. He really impressed us last year with his speed. We'll move him around, move him all over. He'll be a guy we think can be a really big impact rushing the quarterback.
We're a multiple front, but we're a three-man system, and we feel really good about him.. It will be much like what the Steelers do with [James] Harrison, that's kind of what our system is. Sometimes it will look like a 4-3, but the difference is our end on the three technique side is standing up. So there will be three guys with their hand on the ground and the rest of the guys will be standing up.
It's about getting more speed on the field, and Lindsey is excited about standing up. He moved down from defensive end to linebacker, and looks really impressive on film. Of course, he will not able to go through spring because of a [shoulder], but there's no reason to push him because we know what he can do.
With him out, who do you see taking that role this spring?
TG: Right now, we're looking at different guys and kind of toying around with that. We'll know more in the spring. Greg Williams, who played linebacker last year, is a guy who could possibly be there. Then we've got just some young kids. Bryan Murphy is another kid who played defensive end who could do it and will line up there in the spring. But nothing is definitive there yet.
We also have some guys coming in this summer, LaQuentin Smith and Nicholas Grigsby, and we think either one of those guys could fit in the Panther role as well. I think those guys will be impact players.