One of the worst football cliches ever uttered is "the defense is ahead of the offense" as I've always felt that was a polite way of saying that the offense stinks. I mean, frankly we often heard from a former coach that he had never been on a championship team where the defense wasn't ahead of the offense in training camp but I seem to remember some very good Pitt teams where the offense chopped up the defense all throughout training camp.
In short, what it comes down to is this - the side of the ball with the better players is usually the side of the ball that is going to be "ahead of" the other side of the ball and the reason I bring this up is right now it seems like the "defense is ahead of the offense" at Pitt spring camp but from where I stand, that's mostly because the best players on this team are on the defensive side of the ball.
That's not to say the offense doesn't have good players, but when I think of the impact players on this team, most of them are on defense - or in the case of Ray Graham, not playing right now.
So with that in mind, let's take a look at the progress of the offense as spring drills head into the home stretch (yesterday we looked at the defense).
1.) The throwing and catching has gotten better, but it still isn't good. Period. It has been erratic at times, it has been inconsistent and while the there have been some good things that have happened in 7 v 7 drills, when the team has gone 11 v 11 it has been ugly at times. I do think it has improved so that is a good thing but from my observations there have been far too many interceptions thrown, far too many bad passes and far too many dropped passes by receivers to feel good about the passing game. Again, it has gotten better so you figure with more reps and practices and as the unit gets comfortable playing this offense it will continue to improve. But this area has a long, long way to go to get to a point where it is competent enough to make people opponents about it.
2.) The quarterback competition has been tough to follow because neither Mark Myers or Tino Sunseri has really distinguished himself in such away that there is no contest. I thought by now we would see this happen but it has not. Both have shown flashes but Myers inexperience is easy to see as his decision making is not where it is supposed to be and Sunseri's physical limitations have been well documented over the past two years and they aren't going to change. I do think this offense will protect the quarterbacks much better than the last offense - which exposed them - so if either player can develop consistency they should be able to have some success. Trey Anderson is way behind, not surprisingly, and that's mostly because he's not a great fit for this system. I would think the Anthony Gonzalez experiment will be coming to an end any day now as he is getting no work at all at quarterback and he is clearly too good of an athlete to have sitting on the sidelines at a position he will never see the field.
3.) I really like what I have seen from the running game - I think it will only get better and better and better for two reasons - there are some really good running backs here and also, because of all the limitations with the line with regards to pass blocking, the run blocking has been pretty good and will get better. That's mostly a testament to the scheme, which clearly is designed to protect linemen as opposed to hang them out to dry and having a tight end, fulback and some pulling guards and whatnot - the unit comes off the line of scrimmage in the run game the way you'd like to see. Again, this is not Wisconsin's line and thus I'm not saying they are going to blow people off the line every week, but I do think they will have some success in run blocking and that's a good development. The problem with pass blocking is simple to see, the tackles are a little bit limited in either quickness or footspeed so the edge rush is going to be an issue again. The one difference is, unlike last year, this year the staff can help that situation with a tight end and a fullback helping in the pass blocking so I do expect this area to improve.
I've had coaches say this and having been able to see it up close I agree "the spread is a great system unless you don't have the players to run it, then it is terrible because it is reliant on players making plays and no amount of changing schemes can cover these flaws." I understand it better now - I think some of the flaws that were exposed last year will be hidden better in this pro-style offense.
4.) Personnel wise the starting line so far has been (tackles) Matt Rotheram and Juantez Hollins, guards Ryan Schlieper and Cory King and Ryan Turnley. Chris Jacobson (knee) will obviously be one of the starting guards come training camp so the interior line is going to be fine - it is that tackle spot that has a long way to go. I know Adam Bisnowaty may be able to help immediately, but he is a true freshman and thus it is not fair to expect much out of him. I do like the work that Jim Hueber has done with this unit and he seems to be a very good teacher and in talking to the players, they love what he is teaching, so like the quarterbacks you hope this group gets better as they get more experience and work with Hueber. There are some other guys who may step up - Justin Vrbitsky is a converted tight end, Tom Ricketts is young and while he needs to physically develop some, I do think he has some talent and could grow into a good player.
5.) The running back group is loaded and not much needs to be said about it - Isaac Bennett has progressed like we thought he would, Corey Davis has had a nice spring and we all know that they are keeping the seat warm for Ray Graham, who is out until the fall. And then there is some guy from Hopewell coming in who, I think I read was a pretty good player so I can't wait to see this guy run the ball........(I'm joking, I know his name, I've seen him play multiple times so please spare me the 'his name is Rushel Shell' e-mails). At any rate, the running backs in this scheme - I really love some of these running plays because the linemen really come off the ball and look for someone to crack in the mouth - should be able to have a lot of success.
6.) The tight end position, with Hubie Graham and Drew Carswell, is in good shape thought it is very thin. This is an area that needs to be recruited (the first commitment for next year is a tight end) as Carswell really is more receiver than tight end. Graham is a good old fashioned tight end as is Brendon Carrozzoni. There isn't much beyond that in terms of traditional pro-style tight ends so these guys need to stay healthy, particularly since they play a big role in the offense. But I like Graham a lot and frankly, I like Carswell as an H-back type as he does a good job of catching the ball down the field and he is a big target. The other day he made a really nice over the shoulder catch and showed his speed and athleticism to even get himself open.
7.) Mark Giubilato and Derrick Burns are the two primary fullbacks right now and I have had a hard time trying to evaluate them because it is tough to see what their assignments are from the sidelines (as opposed to when you are watching from the press box and can see the plays develop). The thing I will say is Burns is very good at catching the ball out of the backfield and both seem to be reasonably good blockers so that's a good start but this, like tight end, is a position that needs to be recruited for as there just aren't many options for the coaches to choose from.
8.) The bring us to receiver, which, as a unit I have had a hard time getting excited about. I think there are some good players, I just don't see a difference maker, a big-time player, a guy who is going to strike fear in the opposing defenses. That isn't a bad thing necessarily and I think there are some guys with potential to be very good, but I think it is hard to really stretch the field and score consistently if you can't get those big chunk plays and force teams to work to defend the deep ball. Devin Street obviously is the first guy who comes to mind in terms of filling this role but what we've yet to see that on a game in and game out basis and he's been a little bit limited in spring so he hasn't shown that, either. Cam Saddler has had an excellent spring and has caught a zillion balls nearly every practice, but again, he's more of a slot guy - as is Ronald Jones and guys like Ed Tinker, who I really think has some ability. I know Brandon Ifill has made the move to receiver but he has not yet shown the ability to be that game breaker type of player and if he doesn't, I'm not sure where he will ultimately fill in. And there is still Mike Shanahan, who has been limited for some of this because he is recovering from back surgery, but he is another guy who is very good football player, good receiver but he is more of a possession guy as well.
All told this group is deep in terms of, there are a lot of guys who either already are or are capable of becoming good college football receivers but unless one of them, and Street would be the most logical one given his skill set, steps forward as a game-changer, I'm not sure if this unit will be much better than last year. Defenses will be able to start creeping up and take away the run game and the pass game will be reduced to dinks and dunks and that will mean the offense will have to work way too hard to try and drive down the field to score.