Monday is Pitt football media, and the Panthers open training camp on Tuesday as the Big East favorite this season, the first time they have been chosen to win the conference.
Three players Pitt can count on: Greg Romeus, Nate Byham and John Malecki. Their leadership will be as important as their play on a Pitt team that has had its share of off-field distractions.
Many believe, however, that Pitt’s success depends largely on the play of quarterback Bill Stull, who enters camp as the returning starter despite a poor finish to the 2008 season.
It says here that Pitt has more pressing issues than quarterback, where Stull and backup Pat Bostick have a combined 22 starts between them. Consider the 2007 season, when Stull was making his first start and neither Kevan Smith nor Bostick had ever taken a snap in college football.
Here’s my take:
* The most pressing concern is finding cohesion on the offensive line. Left tackle Jason Pinkston is returning from a shoulder injury. Left guard has been vacated by the graduations of C.J. Davis and Dom Williams, and will be a battle between senior Joe Thomas and redshirt sophomore Chris Jacobson. Robb Houser returns at center, where his primary competition is walk-on Alex Karabin – although right guard John Malecki could be an alternative. That leaves sophomore Lucas Nix at right tackle.
Losing Davis, a four-year starter and the anchor of the line, places more pressure on Pinkston to know his protections. Davis also proved to be an upgrade when he moved to center, where Houser struggled at times before a season-ending leg injury. Now healthy, Houser has to show that he isn’t the weak link to a line with two talented but inexperienced starters.
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt has maintained the mantra that he wants his “best five” linemen in the starting lineup. It’s more likely we’ll see a front five consisting of Pinkston, Jacobson, Houser, Malecki and Nix, with Thomas as the primary backup at guard or tackle. Which makes perfect sense. But from what I’ve seen in practices and games the past two seasons, the best five might be Pinkston, Jacobson, Malecki, Thomas and Nix.
* Perhaps the most interesting position battle in camp will be at tailback, where the Panthers have to replace both LeSean McCoy and LaRod Stephens-Howling – and likely will do so with a freshman.
Dion Lewis emerged from spring drills as the starter, but if Ray Graham lives up to everything I’m hearing about him, don’t be surprised if the incoming freshman makes a strong first impression. One coach told me Graham was the best back to come out of New Jersey in the past decade, lofty praise considering Knowshon Moreno was selected 12th overall in the NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos this past April.
Although sophomore Shariff Harris and redshirt freshman Chris Burns were disappointing during spring drills, I wouldn’t rule out either one making a move up the depth chart in camp. As the season approaches, those with the best knowledge of the offense become more valuable.
* While tight end appears set with Byham the returning starter and Dorin Dickerson at H-back, the pecking order of their replacements will be an interesting development. (And don’t be surprised to see Dickerson on the field more often, as he’s capable of playing in two-tight end sets or occasionally lining up at fullback in the I-formation).
Virginia transfer Andrew Devlin isn’t eligible to play this season, but he can practice and is likely to serve as the top blocking tight end next year. That leaves redshirt freshmen Mike Cruz and Justin Virbitsky and true freshman Brock DeCicco to compete for the third tight end spot.
DeCicco’s play could help determine whether Cruz and/or Virbitsky moves to the offensive line. Virbitsky might project better as a guard or tackle, while Cruz is a long snapper who I believe could make the transition to center. For now, Cruz has the upper hand as the third tight end, which would allow DeCicco to redshirt.
* With seniors Cedric McGee and Oderick Turner and sophomores Jonathan Baldwin, Aaron Smith and Aundre Wright complemented by Byham and Dickerson, this could be Pitt’s best receiving corps in years.
The Panthers have wideouts who specialize in the streak (Baldwin), post (Turner) and middle routes (Byham, Dickerson and McGee), as well as a nice possession receiver in Smith – if he shows consistency – and a scoring threat on reverses in Wright. Don’t be surprised if Pitt throws it more.
I’m also told that there is a world of difference in Greg Cross’ understanding of the receiver position since spring drills, enough that Pitt coaches could be convinced to give Cross a redshirt this year if he’s not one of the top four or five wideouts, something that wasn’t even a consideration after the 2008 season.
* This could be the best defensive line in a long time for Pitt, if Romeus and junior end Jabaal Sheard live up to their promise and defensive tackle Mick Williams consistently plays well. The key could be at nose tackle, where redshirt sophomore Myles Caragein is expected to replace Rashaad Duncan and could eventually provide an upgrade at the position.
The key to the defensive line might be Gus Mustakas, who is healthy for the first time in two years. Mustakas and fellow fifth-year senior Craig Bokor will provide valuable depth in the interior spots.
Defensive end is deep, as Tony Tucker contends with Justin Hargrove, Shayne Hale and Brandon Lindsey – all of whom had strong springs. That doesn’t even take into account incoming freshmen Tyrone Ezell and Jack Lippert.
* The player Wannstedt is most excited about is incoming freshman Dan Mason, a middle linebacker from Penn Hills. At worst, Mason is expected to compete for the backup job. While sixth-year senior Adam Gunn is projected as the starter and fifth-year seniors Steve Dell and Shane Murray the backups at the Mike position, Mason’s timetable will depend on how quickly he learns his defensive assignments.
* While Greg Williams returns as the strong-side linebacker, Max Gruder appeared to win the weak-side job in spring drills. Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, however, fast became a fan of Murray’s last year and his recovery from a knee injury will determine whether Murray plays inside or outside and whether he can be a starter or backup.
Don’t be surprised if redshirt freshman Manny Williams makes a move up the depth chart in camp. He’s a playmaker who is now 6-foot-1, 225 pounds and still moves like a safety, despite a season-ending knee injury his senior season at Clairton.
* Aaron Berry is an All-Big East performer who recently was named to the watch list for the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back, but the senior cornerback is facing a now-or-never situation.
Berry is a big-time talent but also a major headache for the coaching staff, which suspended him for the final week of spring drills. He has leadership ability but it’s often as misguided as his play is inconsistent.
If Berry can take a positive step forward, perhaps taking a cue from high-character corner Jovani Chappel, Pitt’s secondary has a chance to be special. If not, Berry might be on a short leash. There’s a belief that backup corners Jarred Holley and Antwuan Reed are as just as talented.
* Safety Dom DeCicco is expected to take a leadership role on the defense, and his friendship with the enigmatic Elijah Fields could play a pivotal part in whether the redshirt junior safety finally lives up to his billing. Fields has yet to show, in practice or games, that he deserves a starting safety job. And Andrew Taglianetti’s presence will only add to the pressure for Fields to perform like he did at Duquesne High.
If I’m Wannstedt, my biggest concern is with the specialists. Pitt has to replace All-Big East kicker Conor Lee, punter Dave Brytus and long snapper Mark Estermyer with players who are unproven.
Redshirt junior Dan Hutchins is the frontrunner to win the punting job and has an edge over Kevin Harper for placekicking duties. Hutchins has been Lee’s protégé the past three years, and Lee gives a ringing endorsement but I’m sure the coaches would prefer that one player doesn’t have to handle both kicking and punting chores (especially in the event of an injury).
Another battle to watch will be that between Lucas Briggs and Harper for kickoff specialist. Briggs handled the job well last season, but Harper has a reputation for booming kicks into the end zone. We’ll see whether coaches value their kickers to boot it deep or prefer placement.
* Also, it will be interesting to see who handles punt returns, as Berry and T.J. Porter split the duties last season. Berry was demoted after fumbling against Rutgers and Porter has been dismissed from the team. The top candidates are Aaron Smith, Cam Saddler, Taglianetti and Holley.
Depending on Saddler’s status – he tore his ACL in camp last year, an injury that takes a year recovery – my money’s on Taglianetti.
* Finally, I’ll make my preseason prediction. I’m one of the Big East media members who picked the Panthers to win the conference. I was right on the nose last year with a 9-3 prediction, and I believe this Pitt team will be better despite the losses of the three Irishmen, LeSean McCoy, Scott McKillop and Conor Lee – hey, we take credit where we can – because of its defense and a Big East that isn’t expected to be as strong as last season.
So I’m saying Pitt will go 10-2, win the Big East and earn a BCS bowl berth. Not to put any pressure on Dave Wannstedt and the Panthers.