The Panthers opened training camp Monday with a renewed enthusiasm, and that's good news for fans hungry for some stability during a tumultuous time. Indeed, coaches have come and gone from this Big East school of late, but there is hope that Chryst stops that trend.
So far, so good.
"Everything's going great so far," sixth-year senior offensive lineman Chris Jacobson said. "Everybody's buying into what Coach Chryst says and just coming out here and working hard and doing what he wants us to do."
The Panthers—under Todd Graham, who left after one season for Arizona State—went 6-7 last season, 4-3 in the Big East.
"Obviously, it feels different, the whole tempo of a new system is back to how it used to be under (former coach Dave) Wannstedt," Jacobson said. "We're back to pro-style football. We're ready to hit somebody in the mouth now."
But will it translate to a successful season? Pitt, slated to join the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2013, is picked to finish fifth in the mediocre Big East.
"We need to come out with a good attitude every day like we did today," senior quarterback Tino Sunseri said. "Good attitudes are important because good attitudes rub off on everybody."
Even with some experience back in key positions—Sunseri running the offense and all-conference senior running back Ray Graham hoping to be healthy following knee surgery to repair a torn ACL—Chryst knows it could be an uphill battle to re-establish the program.
"Obviously, it was good to get them out there, but it's quite a process," said Chryst, the former offensive coordinator at Wisconsin. "The coaches are doing a nice job of teaching them. For the first day, we got a lot done, but you're not going to be able to make too many predictions off of today's practice."
The diminutive Graham said his first day back was a pleasant surprise. With his speed and quickness, the 5-foot-9, 190-pound Graham could form a potent tandem with much-heralded freshman Rushel Shell, who set Pennsylvania's career rushing record at nearby Hopewell High last season. Sophomore Isaac Bennett, who played as a true freshman and was impressive in spring drills, is also in the mix.
"It was good to get out there and actually run around," Graham said. "This was the first practice and the first time that I was with my teammates again. As the days go on, I'm going to get better and better. I felt much stronger making the cuts than I thought I would. For me, it's more of a mind thing. It's more of a mental thing than a physical thing."
For the 6-foot, 215-pound Shell, it's an overwhelming scenario. Some have compared him to a young Tony Dorsett, the former Heisman Trophy winner at Pitt who also attended Hopewell and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
No pressure there, or anything.
"I'm trying my best to get it all done so fast," Shell said. "Everybody here is a great athlete. Those (veteran) guys have a great knowledge of the game and I'm trying to get my knowledge up to their level. Everyday, they're trying to tell me things that are going to make me better."
While Shell gives Pitt something for now and the future, there are more than just a few of those veterans who give Chryst hope for a solid debut season. There is three-year starter Mike Shanahan at wide receiver, as well as rugged defensive backs Jarred Holley, a two-time all-conference safety, and Andrew Taglianetti.
Then there's Chad Voytik, also a true freshman, who is a highly recruited all-state quarterback from Cleveland, Tenn. He passed for more than 5,000 career yards in high school.
"We've got a lot of goals, the biggest thing working to improve," Chryst said. "Guys have got to work to get better. It's important. You're a better team if each individual gets better and keeps grinding it out."
The Panthers open the season vs. Youngstown State on Sept. 1.