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Kovacevic: Pitt's Chryst clears air

| Friday, March 30, 2012

On this chilly, windswept Thursday morning on the South Side, the only thing louder at Pitt's spring football practice than the passing freight trains was the chirping and cheering of the players.

Yeah, the players.

Remember them?

"That was us out there," senior guard Chris Jacobson said with a smile as broad as his chin strap. "That's football."

It's certainly how football's supposed to sound.

The Paul Chryst era has barely begun at Pitt, but the biggest change is already easy to see and hear.

In practices last year under Todd Graham, it was the coaches doing the barking and whistle-blowing, like drill sergeants. All stressing to rush between plays. Sprint to the line of scrimmage. Shout and blow whistles. Call the next signal. Snap the ball. Get rid of it in a half-second. More shouting. More whistles. Sprint to the next drill station.

It's what receiver Cam Saddler adroitly described this week as "little stuff that doesn't pertain to football." And it's painfully ironic that something aimed at saving time actually was a colossal waste of time, energy and usually field position.

Hurry up and pooch.

Chryst won't coach a game for the Panthers until the Sept. 1 opener against Youngstown State. For all we know, he could be awful. He was a winning offensive coordinator at Wisconsin, but this is his first head coaching job. He could get run off like Dave Wannstedt for failing to win the big one. He could flee like Graham, with only a trail of cowardly texts to prove he was ever here.

But I don't think so.

Forget how Chryst immediately connects at the Pittsburgh level with his no-nonsense, "this ain't rocket science" approach.

Forget that, in lieu of posing for pictures to adorn the sides of Port Authority buses, he said this in our lengthy talk Thursday: "Truthfully, I think these players can help me grow as a head coach as much as I can help them."

Instead, just look at what's happening around Chryst.

On this day, it was the players most vocally engaged in full-contact scrimmages. They challenged, admonished, even shoved each other to make points. They tackled as if it were late November in Morgantown.

Sure, there was prodding from the staff — Chryst himself reamed out the defense after one early lapse — but the noise came mostly from a group of athletes that appears to have rediscovered its voice.

"This is all about the players," Jacobson said. "That's No. 1 with Coach. He wants to bring out the best in us. That trust is there."

One large slice of that trust, Jacobson added, is the reinstallation of a pro-style offense similar in spirit to Wannstedt's.

"This is how the NFL does it," Jacobson said. "This is getting in the huddle. This is studying defenses. This is working in the film room. This is getting the most out of every play."

As opposed to?

"Just hiking the ball, running right or left, then lining up again. That's not football."

Chryst is getting his highest marks inside the program for his patience, and not just between plays.

He hasn't made any Graham-style predictions of instant glory.

"We want to be the best we can be," is as close as Chryst comes.

He hasn't put in much of his playbook, using these nine spring sessions more to evaluate players' strengths. The chess moves can come after he examines his pieces.

"It's got to be a little of both," Chryst said. "There are things you've done in your past, maybe a formula that's brought success. But you also have to give your current team a chance to succeed."

He also hasn't made any real roster calls, underscored by going with seven quarterbacks in this camp. Beleaguered Tino Sunseri might be the front-runner, in part because others haven't stepped up. But even that call isn't being rushed. Chryst wants to learn more about Sunseri.

"You focus on the now," Chryst said. "Every person in any walk of life can decide what they want to get out of any day. It's no different in football and no different for our quarterback."

Chryst, part of a family of football coaches while growing up in Madison, Wis., seldom separates life and the game.

"Look, these guys are student-athletes, and their sport is football. We're football coaches. Football is the common bond. You do want the program to help players become better people. But ultimately you're in this game because you love being a football player."

Things sure look and sound different at Pitt.

The smell's refreshing, too. A lot less octane in the air.

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