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Change brings promise under new Pitt coach

| Sunday, July 29, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Christopher Horner
Pitt head coach Paul Chryst watches the Blue-Gold spring game from the field Saturday April 14, 2012 at Martorelli Stadium in Ross. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review

Coach Paul Chryst's grand plan for Pitt includes going into a season with an offense as familiar to his players as their names.

Chryst's pro-style system represents a step toward that goal, but when training camp opens Aug. 5, the 2012 Panthers must steer through a learning curve for the second time in two seasons.

Just don't expect coaches to simplify the playbook so players can better understand it.

“There is no question there is a benefit to being in the same system,” Chryst said. “That's what we hope to accomplish here over time. But if all you did was play to their strengths, they would never grow.”

Chryst is Pitt's sixth head coach in 19 months, and his pro-style offense is nothing like the speed-based, no-huddle system shoved into the players' daily routine last year by former coach Todd Graham.

Chryst, however, spends no time thinking about the difficulty involved in change. Rather, he points out what can happen, careful not to promise that it will.

“Two years ago, we had a fifth-year quarterback at Wisconsin (where Chryst was offensive coordinator from 2005-11) who was running a lot of those plays for five years,” he said.

“(Last season), same system, but the quarterback was one year (in the program).”

Result: Wisconsin won 11 games both times, with veteran Scott Tolzien and transfer Russell Wilson.

“Coaches, maybe media, can make it more than it is,” Chryst said. “Certainly, (when) the system changes, you can say it applies to the quarterback as much as anyone, but no one is interested in that being an excuse.”

After 23 seasons as an assistant on nine teams, Chryst is a head coach for the first time, dealing with the transition by preparing for it, rather than making it an issue.

“You have to make sure they are prepared and confident so they can go enjoy it,” he said. “It's reacting to things and trusting yourself.”

When camp opens, Chryst plans to do as much observing as instructing. After 15 spring practices, where several key injured players were missing, he still must get to know his players.

Nine players who are potential starters or key reserves missed the spring game and all or some practices that preceded it — running back Ray Graham, guard Chris Jacobson, wide receiver Mike Shanahan, linebacker Todd Thomas, cornerback K'Waun Williams and safety Jarred Holley, plus defensive lineman Tyrone Ezell, linebacker Ejuan Price and wide receiver Ronald Jones.

“From the outside, they are good players,” Chryst said. “We know about them, but we haven't worked with them.

“In the spring, we introduced schemes, we introduced ourselves to them, and they introduced themselves to us. It was a good introduction, but it wasn't much more than that. We have a lot of work to do.”

Chryst said he expects each injured player to recover in time to begin practice in August. But when asked if Graham (knee) will be ready to shoulder a full workload at the start of camp, Chryst was vague.

“I won't know until he goes,” he said. “The last time I was on the field with him (at the spring game), he didn't do anything. But back-to-back workouts don't bother him. They don't bother Todd Thomas like they used to, so they're progressing.”

He is equally noncommittal on the subject of freshmen playing early, a potential issue with quarterback Chad Voytik and running back Rushel Shell joining the team.

“If you are impacting it (as a freshman), then it's pretty remarkable,” he said. “We've played freshmen at a position (on previous teams), and yet by the time they were seniors or juniors, the best player was the kid that redshirted.

“I would hope that we don't have to play someone because they're the best and they're not ready. Then, you're doing a disservice to the kid.”

Camp will commence with fifth-year senior and two-year starter Tino Sunseri as the No. 1 quarterback. Chryst said he will withhold comment on Voytik “until we get out there.”

Meanwhile, Chryst said he is building a good relationship with Sunseri.

“You ask him to do something, he is going to try to do it,” the coach said.

He likes the way Sunseri has calmly embraced the recent chaos within the program.

“That's good news,” said Chryst, pleased that Sunseri believes annual change eventually will make him a complete player.

But Chryst warns: “That ‘eventually' is here.”

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at jdipaola@tribweb.com or 412-320-7997.

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