With nine players preparing for their first start and a handful of freshmen ready to make their college debut, Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt was asked what he told his Panthers heading into Saturday’s opener against Eastern Michigan.
“I’ve always believed that playing in a football game, whether it be your first game or your last game, you’re going to be excited going into the game,” Wannstedt said. “It’s important for players and coaches to be excited and confident.”
Wannstedt likened the nervous energy to a student before a test. Those who are prepared should be confident. Those with the most confidence should perform the best.
“I think it’s the same way with playing the first game of the season, whether it’s a freshman or a senior,” Wannstedt said. “If you’re confident with what you’re supposed to do, if you know your assignments and you know you’re in great shape, you’re going to play good.”
• If the Panthers are a reflection of their new quarterback, they’re ready for the season to begin. Junior Bill Stull vowed that Pitt fans will be surprised at the new and improved Panthers, and Wannstedt believes Stull is the perfect example of a player who has done his homework.
“I think Bill Stull falls into the category of the student that has prepared himself to take this test,” Wannstedt said. “He’s ready to go. The guy is a lot more accurate than I gave him credit for. He’s making good, sound decisions with the ball and he’s excited about going out there and playing. He’s a football player.”
Stull has appeared in six games the past two seasons, when he was the backup to Tyler Palko, and completed 7 of 10 passes for 86 yards and a touchdown. Even if it was in mop-up time, the brief appearances helped Stull prepare for his debut as Pitt’s starting quarterback at Heinz Field.
“It’s not meaningless,” Stull said. “You’ve got the first game out of the way. You have experience with crowds, loud noises and getting things like the snap count down. I don’t have to worry about little things like that.”
For the record, this isn’t Stull’s first start at Heinz Field. He played there twice in 2004 for Seton-La Salle High School, in the season opener against South Fayette and the WPIAL Class AA final against Aliquippa.
Stull completed 18 of 28 passes for 354 yards and five touchdowns in a 35-0 victory over South Fayette. He completed 19 of 35 attempts for a WPIAL-finals record 323 yards and four TDs in a 42-35 victory over Aliquippa.
Does Stull still reminisce about the latter game?
“I’m not going to lie,” Stull said. “My dad watches it a lot.”
• Two other Panthers who fit Wannstedt’s description of students who have prepared fastidiously for their first exam are fifth-year senior center Chris Vangas and redshirt junior strong-side linebacker Adam Gunn, who earned starting assignments for the Eastern Michigan game.
The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Gunn, a converted safety, said this is the first season he looked in the mirror and saw a linebacker staring back at him.
It might be the first time coaches saw him that way, too. Gunn’s solid play in camp held off the favorite to win the starting job, sophomore Dorin Dickerson. Not that Gunn paid much attention to the publicity.
“I didn’t even really notice it,” Gunn said. “I tried to stay away from all that and stay focused on what I needed to do as a football player. I didn’t read anything. I stayed focused, took it how it came and it turned out pretty good for me.”
The difference was in Gunn’s consistency. Although Dickerson is viewed as a superior athlete, the Panthers can’t afford to allow him to learn while he plays. In Gunn, they have a player who knows his assignments and fulfills his role – something Gunn plans to keep on doing.
“This is going to be my first start, but you can’t let that affect anything on or change how I prepare this week,” Gunn said. “I have to watch film and study the opponent as much as possible so when I get out there I don’t focus on everything that comes along with a night game. I just have to focus on playing football.”
Wannstedt admits he underestimated Gunn, who starred alongside Chris and Scott McKillop at Kiski Area High School but has been relegated mostly to playing on special teams. Gunn, however, won the starting role with his preparation, smarts and playmaking ability.
“Dorin Dickerson and him will both play, but Adam has done a great job,” Wannstedt said. “That kid has done anything that we’ve asked. He’s on every special team. He plays as hard as he can play.”
As backups the past two seasons, Vangas and Stull built a comfort level that carried over into camp. Vangas held off challenges from John Bachman, Scott Corson and Greg Gaskins, but must play well enough to keep Mike McGlynn from taking his job.
“He’s had a very good camp, a great off-season and a good camp,” said Wannstedt, who noted that Vangas seized his opportunity to replace Joe Villani by losing 20-plus pounds since January while increasing his strength and stamina. “We had a lot of guys rotate through that center position the last three weeks. Chris doesn’t make any mistakes. Mentally, he knows what to do. Physically, he’s quicker and stronger than he’s been.”
The 6-2, 310-pound Vangas came to Pitt as a decorated recruit from Dayton (Ohio) powerhouse Chaminade-Julienne, a Division II state champion. Wannstedt is counting on Vangas to provide leadership for the line.
“There’s nobody that wants to win more on this football team more than Chris Vangas,” Wannstedt said. “The guy’s a winner. He’s always been a winner. He loves Pitt. He’s paid his dues. Nothing has been given to him, but he’s battled every day, he’s competed and he’s prepared himself to play. I’m excited for him.”
Wannstedt uses Gunn and Vangas as examples to Panthers players who are spending the season on the scout team, hoping to one day make the depth chart and compete for a starting role that anything is possible.
“That’s what it takes. That’s the type of commitment you like to see,” Wannstedt said. “It’s the Adam Gunns and the Chris Vangas’ that you need on your team for your younger players to look up to and say, ‘Hey, everybody’s not going to come in and start as a freshman. Everybody is not going to come in and play as a freshman or a sophomore. But those that stay will play.’ That’s a great expression. It’s been used a long time in football.”
• Pitt is 24-2 against Mid-American Conference opponents, with both losses coming this decade. The first was a 35-31 defeat at Toledo under Walt Harris. The second was a 16-10 overtime loss at Ohio.
Wannstedt acknowledged that MAC teams have closed the gap on their BCS counterparts, but also recounted how the Panthers’ defense didn’t give up a touchdown against the Bobcats in 2005, a loss that cost Pitt a bowl berth.
“I’m going to say they’ve gotten better. Let’s give them credit,” Wannnstedt said. “But the one game I’ve been involved in that we didn’t win we threw two interceptions for touchdowns and one interception in the end zone. If you turn the ball over, you’re not going to beat anybody. If we throw interceptions for touchdowns this week and throw interceptions in the end zone, we won’t beat this team.”