PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — Head coach Paul Chryst got what he ultimately wanted in Buffalo, but the Panthers still want more from their offense, and they could get some help this weekend.
Senior tight end Hubie Graham, having battled a recent collarbone ailment, believes he will return to the lineup Saturday when Pitt (0-3, 3-4) hosts renewed Big East rival Temple (2-1, 3-3).
“It’s been a tough road to get back, and I’ve hit a couple bumps in the road. But when I was out there, running around today, I felt good,” Graham said after practice on the South Side Tuesday. “It’s the most injured I’ve ever been in my career, but I’ve been trying to do whatever I can for the team. Getting a win [last Saturday], and seeing how all the hard work paid off for those guys is important [to me], and I feel like we can get on a little roll here.”
The Panthers still haven’t found the end zone with much consistency. One possible reason is a drop-off in productivity from the tight end spot.
While Graham and Drew Carswell have endured bites from the injury bug, Chryst has been forced to move senior receiver Mike Shanahan to tight end while mixing in true freshman J.P. Holtz.
“You throw something at him, and he doesn’t flinch. He adapts quickly, he understands what you’re talking about when you’re talking about looks, and he doesn’t need a ton of reps to understand it. He did a nice job,” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said of Shanahan’s performance in a 20-6 victory over the Bulls.
Meanwhile, Graham has taken it upon himself to assist in grooming the former Shaler standout, and the consensus around campus is Holtz has made progress.
“I don’t know if he signed up for this,” said tight ends coach Jim Huber with a smirk. “There’s a lot of kids in his class not playing, but he’s done a nice job for us. He certainly has no fear. He plays hard. He does as best he can, and a lot of times, it’s very good.”
Using tight ends in pass protection has been par for the course in Chryst’s offense, though it hasn’t been quite as effective as the Panthers would like. They have allowed 19 sacks, the second-most in the conference, which puts them toward the bottom of the barrel nationally in that category.
Despite another solid effort from Tino Sunseri in terms of protecting the ball, he managed only nine completions in the win, and his 128 yards represented his lowest single-game output of the year.
“Our biggest problem is protection. We’re getting ‘out-athlete-ed,’” Huber said. “We tried to help them on the edges, but you just can’t do it on every snap. Then you’ll never get anyone out on a pass route, and that’s when you get caught.”
Sending Graham and company on some of those routes seems like a logical step forward. He was Pitt’s third-leading receiver in 2011, a year in which he and current sophomore Carswell accounted for four of Sunseri’s ten TD passes. Shanahan, from his natural wide receiver position, had four alone.
Graham hauled in four passes for 38 yards in this year’s opener against Youngstown State, but has only caught two for 14 since. Carswell, before missing the last two games, had the only touchdown by any Panther tight end thus far among his five catches for 58 yards. Holtz has two receptions and 35 yards to his credit.
Last year Pitt tight ends combined for 508 yards on 45 receptions. This season they are on pace for about half of both totals, but given the statuses of Graham and Carswell, some sort of regression was probably bound to happen.
“I think that was a little bit of it. It wasn’t anything we were going out of our way to do,” Rudolph said. “I just think we’re trying to do what we’re good at right now. Some of that is pass protection.”
But even with the obvious importance of it, is Chryst leaving too many bullets in the gun?
“The last couple of weeks we’ve used some different personnel groupings. We haven’t lost confidence in them or anything like that,” he said at his weekly press conference Monday, “but just trying to make sure that the snaps we’re getting out of guys that we’re using them wisely.
“Shanahan is taking on another role…I think it’s kind of as much the way it’s been designed, and there’s been some of those third-down situations where J.P. is number one in pass protection, and then getting involved. It’s kind of a number of things,” Chryst added. “We’re certainly not trying to phase them out, but also just trying to use our personnel the best way we can.”
So while Graham gets back into game shape, and Holtz and fellow freshman Rushel Shell muddle through the growing pains of learning pass protection at the major college level, it appears Pitt will continue to rely on playmakers Shanahan and Devin Street downfield, while giving Sunseri all the help they can–and on Saturday, he might need it.
Although the Owls rank seventh in the eight-team league in total defense, they also rank third in sacks with 17. They are a physical bunch, as Graham described Tuesday, and, like Pitt’s prior opponents, may try aggressively to exploit the Panthers’ inconsistencies up front.
Sufficed to say, he doesn’t mind stepping off Tino’s radar, and stepping in front of Tino’s would-be tacklers instead…just as long as he gets to step on the field Saturday at noon.
“You have to earn those catches. They have stuff for us, but other guys had some opportunities, and other guys were open and made plays,” Graham said. “We’ve been called upon to do some extra things in pass protection to help our offensive line. We’re fine with that, and we’re sure the catches will come.
“One thing Coach Chryst is going to do is take what the defense gives him. He’s a great offensive mind.”
(Abbey Way contributed to this post.)
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)