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Ready to Play

Dave Wannstedt started getting anxious about Saturday’s season opener against Eastern Michigan while walking around Pitt’s campus today for the first time since July.

Wannstedt talked about his stroll through Oakland, seeing an inflated Pitt helmet in front of the William Pitt Union and the anticipation of a bonfire and pep rally.

“There’s a buzz over there,” Wannstedt said. “That’s a great thing about college sports this time of the year.”

With new starters at several key positions – including quarterback Bill Stull and middle linebacker Scott McKillop – and a handful of newcomers who have brought excitement to the program, Wannstedt will soon find out whether his players’ emotions mirror their coach.

“I hope so,” Wannstedt said. “Usually when young players get excited, they talk too much. There’s a fine line between being excited and nonsense chatter, which becomes a distraction.”

The Panthers practiced Thursday in helmets and shells, a short, light workout that was more about game preparation than anything else.

“We’ve had plenty of physical work,” Wannstedt said. “Now, it’s time to make sure we are sharp mentally and start getting a little closer emotionally.”

Wannstedt has had plenty of time to reflect on last season, when the Panthers got off to their best start since 1982 but sputtered to the end with a five-game losing streak. Wannstedt also is looking forward to this season, and couldn’t help but think of his senior class while preparing for Friday’s kickoff banquet at the Hilton Hotel.

“We have 10 seniors in this group,” Wannstedt said. “That includes everyone, walk-ons and scholarship players. It’s a unique group.”

The group includes linebacker Jemeel Brady, Defensive ends Joe Clermond and Chris McKillop, cornerback Kennard Cox, offensive lineman Mike McGlynn, left tackle Jeff Otah, safety Mike Phillips, cornerback/return specialist Lowell Robinson, tight end Darrell Strong and center Chris Vangas.

Of the 10, all have or will be starters in some capacity.

“We don’t have the national-name guy, the household name like we did with Blades and Palko,” Wannstedt said. “But I really believe this about college football: It’s a team game. It’s not the 11 best talent-wise. It’s the best 11 at one time on the field. I’ve got a feeling about this team that our 11 are going to be better than what people think.”

* Speaking of seniors, three were named captains for the Eastern Michigan game: Vangas (offense), Cox (defense) and Brady (special teams).

* Wannstedt said McGlynn, recovering from a torn labrum, has been cleared and will be dressed in full uniform Saturday. Wannstedt was non-committal as to whether or not McGlynn would play against the Eagles.

“It’ll be a game-time decision if and how much we use him,” Wannstedt said. “He’ll be ready to go.”

* Wannstedt expects four freshmen – safety Dom DeCicco, tailback LeSean McCoy, defensive end Jabaal Sheard and receiver Maurice Williams – to play against Eastern Michigan and possibly more later this season.

“I would anticipate doubling that amount,” Wannstedt said. “By the end of the season, we’ll probably have eight or so.”

* It’s obvious Wannstedt has grown weary of the training-camp atmosphere surrounding Pitt’s program. After 16 seasons in the NFL, he misses the opportunity playing preseason games gives a coaching staff and is looking forward to the Panthers playing an opponent.

“I’m very optimistic,” he said Wednesday. “The only thing that still bugs me, and I guess I haven’t completely shaken my NFL background is that you’re only working against yourself. You don’t have a barometer to measure yourself against, so you walk off the field every day as a coach and you’re either feeling real good or real bad.

“There’s no judging to see how you stand up with comparable talent and with other teams and how your guys are going to mesh together and how they’re going to handle adversity. Those things are very difficult to script when you’re just working against yourself.”

On Thursday, Wannstedt continued: “For me to talk about what they’ve done out here is a coach talking,” Wannstedt said. “You’re excited about your guys. It all makes more sense after you’ve played an opponent and you can say some good things. I’m as anxious and excited and looking forward to Saturday as anyone, just to see some of these kids get an opportunity. I believe they’ll take advantage of it.”

* The Panthers are expecting between 60-70 recruits Saturday, including committed offensive tackles Lucas Nix of Thomas Jefferson and Ryan Turnley of Hopewell and Aliquippa receiver Jonathan Baldwin, Harrisburg Bishop McDevitt cornerback Mike Jones and Dublin (Ohio) Coffman linebacker Steve Gardiner.

By Kevin Gorman

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