By Matt Popchock
I honestly don’t know what’s been more frustrating, watching Dave Wannstedt make nothing out of something, or watching Todd Graham, in his first couple (meaningful) weeks as the ‘Stache’s successor, try to make something out of nothing.
For Graham, I think the honeymoon stage of his job is pretty much over. I was at Heinz Field and sat through all 60 minutes of that sloppy win over Maine, so on Monday it bugged me to hear him make no bones about the fact that he will stick with Tino Sunseri, thereby, austensibly, shoving a square peg into a round hole.
I realize installing a new system and learning a new approach to the game takes time, but I think both men deserve whatever heat they take for their team’s latest performance.
Look, I know nothing about coaching football, and I’m the first to admit that. I never played a single second of the sport, in a formal, organized setting, my entire life, and I couldn’t diagram a play on the chalk board if someone put a gun to my head and asked me to.
But I’d like to think I’ve watched enough football–and other mainstream sports–to be able to tell when an athlete simply doesn’t fit. On Saturday I saw a quarterback who simply isn’t fitting into the Panthers’ new system. Right now the “high octane” offense fans were promised reminds me more of my dad’s old lawnmower.
That’s why I was so glad to see Graham on the sideline at Tony Dorsett Stadium last Friday following Hopewell’s upset victory over visiting Montour. It told me Graham clearly understands his program’s need for an impact player. Rushel Shell can be that player.
Right now the closest thing the Panthers have to one of those is running back Ray Graham. When all else fails, you put the ball in the hands of your best player, and Graham has certainly earned that mantle. He’s the leading rusher in the nation, and he’s accounted for six of Pitt’s ten touchdowns through two games, so he’s more or less strapped that struggling offense to his back.
But Graham only has one year left, and there’s little doubt he’s an elite player at his position, so if he follows the same career path as predecessors Dion Lewis and LeSean McCoy, he could leave his senior season on the table, thereby leaving Pitt without that impact player to fuel its offense. Cleveland High School (Cleveland, Tennessee) dual-threat quarterback Chad Voytik is an excellent recruit, but can anyone remember the last time a true freshman QB started for Pitt, let alone had success in year one?
If Shell comes to Pitt, he can–and should–get playing time right away, even if Graham stays. He has more than proven he can make a difference as a true freshman no matter where he signs, but this would be especially true with the Blue and Gold.
For all of Pitt’s offensive inconsistencies in Wannstedt’s final season, its most lethal weapon was a thunder-and-lightning backfield of Graham and Lewis. It would make perfect sense to do the same thing, ideally, with Graham and Shell.
Besides, I’ve heard the same negative rumors about Shell that one typically hears about any prized recruit, and though I read nothing into them, I don’t doubt Shell would receive the humility and self-discipline any prized D-1 prospect needs to be successful if he played for Todd Graham. Any kid can mature when he goes from being a fish in a pond of half a dozen to a fish in a pond of a hundred.
When ROOT Sports high school football coordinating producer Craig McConnell joined us for his weekly spot on “The UPMC High School Football Show” (Saturday at 7:00 A.M. on 93.7 The Fan) last Saturday, his knee-jerk reaction was that Shell will ultimately sign with Pitt.
However, he outlined why he thought Todd Graham’s offense might not suit him as well as that of the other schools supposedly on his short list. I disagree.
What Todd Graham is trying to do at Pitt requires players who are fast, can think on their feet, and demonstrate an ability to make plays outside the tackles, not just inside. On Saturday, Tino Sunseri appeared slow, indecisive, and inaccurate outside the pocket.
What did I see from Rushel Shell last Friday? Yes, on some occasions he relied on his linemen to part the Red Sea for him, but he was decisive, he was explosive, and when he did get to the outside, he was dangerous. He was poised, he let the game come to him, and he displayed more vision than most high school players I’ve seen.
Furthermore, as Shell later told us, and as head coach Dave Vestal later corroborated, it was he who suggested to Vestal the play that essentially won Friday’s game for Hopewell. That kind of leadership and competence will serve any college team well.
Spending Saturday at Heinz Field was a sobering reminder that the days of Johnny Majors and Jackie Sherrill are long gone. No longer is Pitt the “beast of the East.” If anything, it’s the prom queen of the welding school, until proven otherwise.
But that is not to say Pitt can’t regain the national relevance on the gridiron it has sought for years. For that to happen, however, the program needs to bring in players of Rushel Shell’s caliber, and players of Shell’s caliber need to thrive at Pitt in order to attract future blue-chip recruits. That’s how the program vastly improved its stead in the 1970s, with success spilling over into the 1980s.
In recent years the program has often competed with the Toledos, Marylands, and Cincinnatis of the world for its talent, and let’s not kid ourselves–winning a recruiting battle with Penn State does not always mean as much as it once did. I think we’re seeing the side effects of this.
It’s been a while since Pitt got a kid whom practically everybody worth a darn in college football wants. A player like Larry Fitzgerald not withstanding, it’s been a while since Pitt had a Marino, or a Dorsett, so to speak. To sign one (especially one who happens to be one of Tony’s relatives) would be an absolute coup for this program in both the interim and the long run.
Pitt can still be “it.” Rushel Shell is “it,” and he can make Pitt “it.” It would behoove Pitt to do everything in its power to make him “it.”
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)