Playmakers should thrive in Pitt offense
In the spring of 2005, Cameron Saddler was an eager freshman at Gateway High School who didn't know Todd Graham from a box of graham crackers.
They were as far from each other in a football sense as Monroeville is from Oklahoma. where Graham was defensive coordinator and later head coach at the University of Tulsa.
Serendipitously, their paths crossed at Pitt this year, largely due to Saddler's unique blend of speed and elusiveness -- something Graham needs in large layers to make his offense work.
To that end, Graham can thank Gateway coach and athletic director Terry Smith. If not for Smith, who knows what outfield Saddler might be patrolling?
Short of stature, now as then, Saddler, 5-foot-7, 170 pounds, could play all sports better than most of his classmates, but he wasn't sure which he liked best.
"One day, I realized I am actually pretty good at (football) for how little I am," he said. "But in ninth grade, I played baseball. One day, me and Coach Smith talked, and he said, 'You are good at baseball, but football will pay for school.'
"That's all I needed to hear."
Six years later, Saddler is one of several Pitt players who could benefit this season from Graham's multiple, no-huddle offense that will be on display at the annual spring game at 2 p.m. Saturday at Heinz Field.
They include quarterback Tino Sunseri, running back Ray Graham and wide receivers Mike Shanahan and Devin Street.
Saddler, a rising redshirt junior wide receiver/punt returner, was an afterthought in the Pitt passing game the past two seasons. He caught only 10 passes for 74 yards and two touchdowns, but those numbers should increase in Graham's offense.
"Cam Saddler, he has all the shakes," Street said.
Said Graham: "He brings a certain set of skills to the system that our system utilizes."
The "system" relies on speed. Players must have it, not only when they are carrying the ball, but running onto the field, back to the line of scrimmage, in and out of practice drills and, presumably, through the lunch line in the cafeteria.
But there's more to it than that.
Don't forget the ground game
On the day he was hired, Graham told a news conference his offense is not a spread. He doesn't want people to consider it big on frills, short on power.
Graham said the running game can be anywhere between 60 to 70 percent of his offense. Indeed, Graham's Tulsa teams in 2008 and 2010 were fifth and 15th in the nation in yards rushing (268.0 and 216.9 per game), in part because the offense tries to put playmakers in space.
Which is why Todd Graham is so high on Ray Graham, even if they're not related.
"Our system really benefits him," Todd Graham said. "He is the most explosive guy we have, and the sky's the limit as far as what he can do in this system."
Sunseri said he likes the options the offense gives him, including tucking the football and running, and he believes that will open lanes for Graham.
"I feel bad for those safeties who are sitting back on their heels," Sunseri said. "He is so shifty, you have Ray running full speed at you and you have to be able to react off him."
Graham, a rising junior, was second to Dion Lewis in rushing last season with 922 yards (6.2 per carry). He caught 24 passes for another 213.
"I like to get one-on-one with defenders," he said. "I get to show my ability more. With the pro (the former offense), I was more of a downhill runner, but I am more of a shifty back."
Ray Graham said opposing defenses must honor the passing game more than in previous seasons.
"Last year, they were up big in the box (safeties inching toward the line of scrimmage). Now they can't play like that. Now, they have to play honest."
Receivers thriving, too
Street, a redshirt sophomore, and Shanahan, a redshirt junior, also have looked at home in practice after having modest success in the previous offense.
Street said the law of averages favors him because -- in Graham's perfect world -- the offense will snap the ball about 80 times a game.
"That's more reps for me, and more catches," he said. "It's just more exciting. Defenses are not going to know what is coming at them because we do so many different things. My appetite is through the roof right now."
Anointed the starter because of his experience and the fact that redshirt freshmen Anthony Gonzalez and Mark Myers have none, Sunseri must play well for Pitt to thrive.
Quarterback coach Todd Dodge believes that will happen, but in a new offense, it's not an overnight makeover.
"There is no substitute for being able to start 13 football games (last season)," said Dodge, who played quarterback at the University of Texas from 1982-85. "It has shown some, and we have to get better at it now in making better decisions in certain situations."
It's interesting to note that Graham's quarterback at Tulsa the past two seasons, G.J. Kinne, threw for 2,732 yards, 22 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions while leading his team to a 10-3 record last season. Those numbers aren't much different than what Sunseri compiled in Pitt's 8-5 season (2,572, 16 and nine), with one fewer attempt. Plus, Sunseri's completion percentage was significantly higher (64.5-59.8).
"He fits the mold that Tulsa has had in high-percentage guys," Dodge said. "I think he is a guy who can make all the throws we need to make."
Dodge's vision of a quarterback in this system comprises the ability to pass and run.
That includes, he said, a 90 percent completion percentage on sprintouts, nakeds and bootlegs, 60 percent on intermediate throws, two or three successful deep throws and about 45 yards rushing per game.
Sunseri ran for only 108 yards last season in a dramatically different offense, but he is a better athlete than the perception that surrounds him, according to Dodge.
"He gets tabbed for not being real athletic," Dodge said. "But he is a good athlete with not being real fast. We want to slay 'em with our arm and hurt 'em with our feet, and Tino has the skill set to do that."Additional Information:
Here are the 2010 statistics of Pitt's top returning playmakers on offense:
Player -- Att. -- Yards -- Avg. Per game -- TDs
Ray Graham -- 148 -- 922 -- 6.2 -- 76.8 -- 8
Player -- Rec. -- Yards -- Avg. -- TDs
Mike Shanahan -- 43 -- 589 -- 13.7 -- 1
Devin Street -- 25 -- 318 -- 12.7 -- 2
Ray Graham -- 24 -- 213 -- 8.9 -- 2
Cameron Saddler -- 7 -- 33 -- 4.7 -- 1
Player -- Comp. -- Att. -- Int. -- Yards -- TDs
Tino Sunseri -- 223 -- 346 -- 9 -- 2,572 -- 16