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Todd Graham a familiar face to Irish in his first year at Pitt

Allan Joseph | Thursday, September 22, 2011

One of the biggest challenges first-year coaches face is installing their systems while preparing for unfamiliar opponents. Pittsburgh’s Todd Graham, however, is intimately familiar with Notre Dame, as he coached Tulsa to one of the biggest upsets in Notre Dame history, when the Golden Hurricane defeated the Irish 28-27 in Notre Dame Stadium last year.

“[Graham] knows us quite well from last year,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “We’re familiar with his system. Now he essentially put in his philosophy and his system of offense and defense at Pittsburgh. When you’re watching film, you’re seeing a lot of similarities to his Tulsa club.”

Graham’s signature philosophy is defensive complexity, as his Panthers (2-1) employ a dizzying number of looks in order to confuse the opposing quarterback.

“They play every coverage imaginable in the back end,” Kelly said. “You’re going to see multiple coverages in the secondary. They’ll bring a lot of pressure, mix it up between three down and four down [linemen], and give you a lot of different looks. I think that that, from our standpoint, is what concerns us the most.”

Kelly drew comparisons between his squad and the Panthers’ defensive front.

“I like their front. They can be in three down, four down, and they’re a lot like us in that standpoint,” Kelly said. “I just remember last year they brought a lot of pressure.”

While the Pittsburgh secondary has struggled somewhat this season, senior Irish wide receiver Michael Floyd expects the Panthers to play their best game of the year against Notre Dame.

“When a team plays Notre Dame … it [doesn't] really matter what the record was,” Floyd said. “I think they will play exceptionally well, and I don’t think the mistakes will be there.”

On the offensive side of the ball, the Panthers are taller and bigger than Graham’s 2010 Tulsa squad, but Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said the core schemes are no different.

“Tulsa had excellent personnel too, it’s just a little different,” Diaco said. “They still have a myriad of different plays that they run from different steps, and we need to be ready to defend all of those plays.”

The Panther offense revolves around junior running back Ray Graham, who currently ranks fifth in the nation in rushing with 140 yards per game.

“[Ray Graham] is a rugged player,” Diaco said. “He’s got contact balance and initial quickness, he’s got long speed and he could move both laterally in short space quickly, and he can also get vertical and accelerate. He’s a rugged runner, he’s a tackle-breaker, so he’s a real challenge.”

Graham, however, is also known for his versatility out of the backfield.

“Obviously the first guy that stands out is Ray Graham,” Kelly said. “[He's an] outstanding running back, [and is] multidimensional in that he can catch the ball coming out of the backfield — he can line up as a wide receiver.”

Junior Panther quarterback Tino Sunseri has flourished in Todd Graham’s offensive system and has especially developed a relationship with receiver Devin Street.

“[Sunseri] seems far more comfortable in this system,” junior linebacker Manti Te’o said. “He’s making good decisions, so we definitely know what they are capable of doing.”

Sunseri leads a complex offense that will force the Irish defense to stay honest and disciplined.

“We need to read our key, get into our fit, and we need to stay there — and not be unfocused with our eyes,” Diaco said.

Te’o, however, believes the Irish must stick to their fundamentals.

“We just play football,” he said. “We just line up and get to the ball.”