So last week, I posted my top ten moments of Pitt’s 2012 season. The next one I wanted to do was top ten players, but I wanted to wait until after the bowl game in case anyone (particularly the younger players who could have an impact next year) distinguished themselves. Unfortunately for Pitt, that did not happen. So, with that, let’s get to the top 10 players of Pitt’s season. Think of this as an MVP ballot of sorts, the 10 most important guys that helped Pitt win football games this year.
10. Rushel Shell - Shell didn’t single-handedly win the Panthers any games this season, but I thought the flashes he showed at times this season made him deserving on being on the list. If nothing else, he gave Pitt fans plenty of reason to believe that the future in the ACC under Paul Chryst will be bright. Shell’s hard-nosed, physical style fits in well with Chryst’s system. His season got off to an ignominious start when he was suspended for the season opener against Youngstown State, but he bounced back to rush for 562 yards and four touchdowns on the season.
Signature moment: Running for 157 yards in Pitt’s cathartic victory over Virginia Tech. Shell announced his arrival to college football with a bruising running style against a future ACC foe.
9. K’Waun Williams - Williams was sort of a known quantity coming into the season. He had started all 13 games in 2011 and, while Cullen Christian and Lafayette Pitts battled it out for the other spot in training camp, he had his starting job locked down. Williams may not have been flashy this year, but he was everything a returning starter should be on defense: solid and dependable. Williams, along with a couple of other guys on this list, are a big reason Pitt’s pass defense ranked 21st in the country. Signature moment: His interception in the end zone against Notre Dame. Williams, like many of his teammates, played his best game of the season against the Irish. He often covered Notre Dame’s behemoth tight end Tyler Eifert, and held him to no catches longer than 11 yards. This late pick almost sealed the upset for the Panthers.
8. Tino Sunseri - Sunseri may be one of the most polarizing players in Pitt history. He’s endured a massive amount of criticism over his three years as a starter, but came through to deliver a strong senior season. Moving back to a pro-style offense, Sunseri finished with 3,288 yards, 21 touchdowns and three interceptions. After going 271 pass attempts without a pick, it was certainly disappointing to see him throw one on his second attempt of the BBVA Compass Bowl (on a horribly telegraphed pass, no less) but that shouldn’t take away from what he accomplished this season. Most of the criticism leveled at Sunseri revolves around his inability to lead a comeback win in the second half, and that’s certainly justified. In most games this year, though, he was sharp and, most importantly, mistake-free from the start.
Signature moment: His performance in two season-saving wins against Virginia Tech and Rutgers. Sunseri wasn’t perfect in these two games (combined stats: 40/67, 510 yards, five TD, one INT) but he was precise from the start and didn’t make any major mistakes. Both of these wins were essential for Pitt’s season, and Sunseri played well in both.
7. Ryan Turnley/Chris Jacobson - OK, I’m sort of cheating here listing two players for this spot, but I think both guys represent the same thing: stability along the interior of Pitt’s offensive line. The line had plenty of question marks during the season, but came together well enough as the year progressed (especially after a disastrous first two games). It may not have been a strength of Pitt’s team (the Panthers ranked 70th in Division I-A in sacks allowed and 92nd in rushing yards per game) but, especially after Ryan Schlieper went down with an injury, these two guys in the middle provided leadership and experience on the field to get the line through this season.
Signature moment: Paving the way for a 144-yard rushing performance against Notre Dame. Pitt was one of just five teams to rush for over 100 yards against the Irish this season (insert your favorite Alabama joke here) and did so in a game where most, including yours truly, though it would be one of the biggest mismatches of the game. They set the tone with a 55-yard Ray Graham scamper on their first play from scrimmage, and established a strong running game from there.
6. Todd Thomas - My man Chris Peak over at Panther Lair had some great stats about Thomas on Twitter this morning (check out his feed @PantherLair for all the details) but, basically, Thomas’ athleticism re-invigorated the defense and became one of the Panthers’ most dynamic defensive playmakers. He finished fourth on the team with 59 tackles (40 solo, 19 assists), despite playing in just nine games this season. That’s an average of 6.6 tackles per game. Thomas began the season working at the strongside linebacker spot, but moved over to weakside midway through the season to replace injured Manny Williams. The position change was no problem, though, and Thomas’ production (especially his solo tackle numbers) went up from that point.
Signature moment: His blocked punt and touchdown against Louisville. This play put the Panthers ahead 14-7 in a game they would eventually lose, but was a super athletic play on punt teams and Thomas’ first career touchdown. “I am like, ‘This is unreal. I‘m not coming this free,‘” he said after the game. “Once I got through, I threw my hands up. I don‘t think I had any technique.”
5. Lafayette Pitts - Pitts earns the award for breakout freshman of the 2012 campaign. After a position battle with Cullen Christian in the preseason (one that Pitts seemed to lead all along) he showed why he won the job quickly, providing a healthy dose of athleticism in the back end of the Panthers’ defense. Pitts seemed especially well-suited to play in Dave Huxtable’s exclusively man-to-man defense, but should be just fine if the new defensive coordinator wants to mix in some zone coverages, as well.
Signature moment: His performance on deep passes against Notre Dame. This was a tough one, but Pitts’ only had one interception, and it came late, after the game had been decided against Rutgers. Instead, I went with a couple of pass breakups Pitts had late in the Notre Dame game. The Irish were trying to come back and Pitts found himself with one-on-one coverage against receiver Chris Brown a few times, but made athletic plays to break up the pass.
4. Devin Street - Street may have made the biggest step forward of any Pitt player this season. The talent was always there, but this year he really put everything together to be a No. 1 receiver for the Panthers, a role he will continue in next year. He finished the season with 73 catches for 975 yards and five touchdowns. He ranked second in the Big East in receptions per game and third in receiving yards per game. Street said he filed paperwork with the NFL to see where he would be drafted, but fully intended to return to Pitt next season. The mere fact that he was even considering leaving early is a testament to how strong his season was. Pitt has some concerns at the receiver position next year, but you can pencil in Street for that No. 1 starting spot.
Signature moment: Back-to-back 10 catch/100-yard performances against Syracuse and Louisville. Street’s combined stats in those two games: 21 receptions, 241 yards, one touchdown. Obviously, he would’ve preferred to have won both games, but you could say those were the contests where Street really broke out this season. He set career highs against the Orange, only the break them the next week against Louisville.
3. Jason Hendricks - Hendricks led the Panthers in solo tackles (59), total tackles (90) and interceptions (six). In that last category, he was tops in the Big East. Hendricks came up with big plays when the Panthers needed them, including a pick in the bowl game to keep Pitt’s hopes alive at the time. He also quarterbacked the Pitt defense from his safety position. Hendricks had eight tackles in Pitt’s win over Buffalo, helping contain a Bulls’ team that was giving Pitt some trouble in a weird, rainy game.
Signature moment: Two picks against Virginia Tech. Even the way the Hokies ended the year, this was still a huge win for Pitt that basically saved the season after such a disastrous first two games. The Panthers grabbed momentum early and never let go, thanks in large part to two picks on bad passes from Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas.
2. Ray Graham - Graham started off slow coming back from last year’s ACL injury, but by midway through the season it was clear that he was back to being the “old Ray” from earlier in his career. He finished the season with the first 1,000-yard campaign of his career, and he moved up to second place on Pitt’s all-time rushing list, behind only Tony Dorsett. The season came to a disappointing end when he was unable to play in the BBVA Compass Bowl with a hamstring injury, but Graham’s NFL draft stock will certainly be something to watch over the coming months.
Signature moment: His 55-yard run on the Panthers’ first play from scrimmage against Notre Dame. This run showed two things: First, Ray Graham was absolutely back and healthy. Second, Pitt wasn’t afraid to run the ball against Notre Dame’s defense. Graham was an absolute monster against the Irish, with 172 yards and one touchdown. Until Monday night’s championship, he was the only running back to score a rushing touchdown against them.
1. Aaron Donald - This was actually a fairly easy call. Donald was Pitt’s most important player of the season, with 64 total tackles and an astounding 18.5 tackles for loss. He seemed to pick up steam as the year went on, and finished the last two games with seven combined tackles for loss in wins over Rutgers and South Florida. He also led the Panthers with 5.5 sacks on the season, including one a piece in the final two must-win games. Despite being somewhat undersized, Donald is just an absolute terror in the middle of the defensive line. He uses his hands very well to shed blocks and is quick with his feet to get in the backfield quickly. He, too, submitted NFL paperwork, but said that he fully planned on returning to Pitt next year. Especially with another year of experience, he is absolutely a player you can build a defense around.
Signature moment: His performance in the final two games of the regular season. For a player that had so many big plays, there really isn’t one that stands out. I chose these two games just because Donald absolutely suffocated both the Scarlet Knights and Bulls in their rushing attacks and led Pitt to two wins they needed to reach a bowl game.