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New Beginnings

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At Pitt’s first news conference of the football season, I asked Dave Wannstedt a Beano Cook-esque question:

After assembling a team of his own recruits, how many players from Wannstedt’s first Pitt team and how many from this team could have started for the University of Miami’s 1987 national champions?

Predictably, Wannstedt avoided answering the question, knowing it was loaded. He made vague comments that Miami never had an offensive tackle like Jeff Otah and that he liked the defensive line on this Pitt team.

I didn’t expect a comparison to the incredibly talented Hurricanes, who had played for the national title a year earlier. What I was hoping for instead was to show the difference in talent from the team Wannstedt inherited and the one he has built into a Big East favorite.

My take is that, from Pitt’s 2005 team, cornerback Darrelle Revis, middle linebacker H.B. Blades and maybe strong-side linebacker Clint Session would have started for that Miami team. This year, I could see tight end Nate Byham, defensive end Greg Romeus — Daniel Stubbs would be ahead of Sheard at left end — and Aaron Berry as potential starters. (Jonathan Baldwin has the chance to be very special, but until he produces to that potential it’s hard to pick him over Brian Blades and Michael Irvin).

That’s three from each, so where is the sign of progress?

It’s down the depth chart.

Pitt has talent in every class, at almost every position, especially up front. Wannstedt inherited a team with offensive and defensive lines that had no depth. Now, the Panthers go three deep at every spot on the defensive front four and have five solid linemen and a few capable backups on offense.

Not bad, considering Wannstedt didn’t clean house upon arrival.

“When I came here my first year, I made the commitment to myself. I said this is probably different than what most first-year coaches do. In fact, it was different,” Wannstedt said. “Every first-year coach takes over a program and doesn’t like the way they practice, doesn’t like the talent, doesn’t like the off-season program — doesn’t like anything. Everything has to be changed, including the players.

“Because I’m a Pitt grad and a Pitt guy, all these kids chose to come to the same school as I did and, really, the first year I kind of went through it and tried to observe and then make some decisions after that. I really didn’t get into the thing of were they my guys or Walt’s guys or whoever’s guys. They’re Pitt guys, and that’s how I approach it. Kids make decisions to come to school here and we’re all one big family.”

Or, in other words, he’s no Rich Rodriguez.

Wannstedt was asked today if, after five recruiting classes, this Pitt team resembles what he anticipated. The only holdovers from the Walt Harris era are sixth-year senior middle linebacker Adam Gunn and fifth-year senior defensive tackle Craig Bokor, who signed with Pitt in 2004 but spent a year at Valley Forge Military Academy before enrolling.

“Pretty close, you know,” Wannstedt said. “At certain positions, I’d like to not have freshmen. I’d like to have a returning junior at a couple spots. For the most part, we’ve got a good group of guys. We’ve got guys that are committed and are all here to win and here to do it the right way, and that’s what you try to assemble as a coach.”

Just a wild guess, but I think he was talking about LeSean McCoy.

* Pitt defensive coordinator Phil Bennett suggested today that while Pitt’s defense has received all kinds of preseason accolades, it hasn’t done anything to earn them. Sounds like someone trying not to let his unit get too cocky, especially after giving up 27 points to Bowling Green in the 2008 opener and didn’t rank in the top 25 nationally in any major categories.

“I think it’s that way with our defense, it’s that way with our football team,” Wannstedt said. “This time of year, it’s just talk, really. They have to pick top teams and they have to talk about different positions and individuals, but that’s the great thing about this game: you’ve got to go out there and prove yourself. You’re only as good as your last play. The quicker that our kids understand that and we start playing that way, the quicker we’ll make progress in the right direction.”

Wannstedt also was asked if this defense has a chance to be Pitt’s best in his five years as head coach.

“Potentially, it could be,” he said. “We’ve got to stay healthy and stay together and play smart, but we have a chance to be pretty good, I think.”

• After a two-week suspension, redshirt sophomore tailback Shariff Harris will be reinstated today. Harris is not expected to play against Youngstown State, although Wannstedt didn’t entirely rule out the possibility.

“He won’t obviously be in the plan because of practice reps this week,” Wannstedt said, “but he will dress out and, in an emergency, we could use him.”

• Wannstedt said sophomore defensive end Tony Tucker, who left the team after seven days of training camp, will not return to the program. Tucker, of Bowie, Md., had four tackles, a sack and a forced fumble in 13 games last season and was expected to be the top reserve at defensive end this fall.

<p."It was personal issues he had at home and felt like it was best that he went home and stayed at home," Wannstedt said. "We wish him well."

• Pitt offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. said Panthers coaches still haven’t decided on a specific timetable for how long it will take for redshirt freshman quarterback Tino Sunseri to make his college debut.

“The plan is to get him involved in the game,” Cignetti said. “We just don’t know when or where at this point.”

• Cignetti also said the Panthers plan to use “smart coaching” to get Baldwin more involved in the offense, making the 6-foot-5 sophomore receiver either a primary or secondary target in plays or getting him quick touches through screens or reverses.

Then again, Cignetti acknowledged that “smart coaching” might involve just putting the ball in the air in Baldwin’s direction.

“I met a couple guys on the South Side that said, ‘Hey, don’t forget about that play to No. 82,” Cignetti said.

• Running backs coach David Walker isn’t cutting freshman tailbacks Dion Lewis and Ray Graham any slack, even if they have yet to carry the ball in a college football game and have big shoes to fill for the departed McCoy and LaRod Stephens-Howling.

“It’s got to be more than potential; it’s got to be production on Saturday,” Walker said. “The guys have shown through the last three weeks that they’re capable, that they understand our system. We’ve talked about all along not making any excuses, and we’re not going to make any excuses for guys being young and guys being inexperienced. That’s not going to cut it, so we’ll go out there and we’ll perform.”

• Pitt hasn’t played Youngstown State in four years, but three current Panthers saw action. Stull, fifth-year senior defensive tackle Gus Mustakas and sixth-year senior middle linebacker Adam Gunn all played in the 41-0 victory over Youngstown State on Sept. 24, 2005. The game was Wannstedt’s first victory as Panthers’ head coach after an 0-3 start.

A recurring theme this week has been Pitt players and coaches talking about worrying about the Panthers, not their opponent. No surprise, considering they are playing Division I-AA Youngstown State, a team Pitt beat 41-0 in 2005.

Wannstedt seems more worried about getting in good practices.

“You can just feel the excitement growing with our kids, just as far as getting ready to play this ballgame,” Wannstedt said. “The biggest thing with openers, when you have so much time, is that you make sure that you don’t miss a day of practice or a section of practice because you’re focused on Saturday.

“Saturday will get here quick enough. We have a bonfire coming up Thursday night. We’ve got the kickoff luncheon Friday, so we have enough things leading up to game time to keep the emotional part of this game open or alive. Still, we need two more days of good practice, two more good days of focus and that’s where our mindset’s at today.”

• Legendary Pitt coach John Majors and former Panthers All-American offensive lineman Ruben Brown will be special guests at the annual Pitt Football Kickoff Luncheon at 11:30 a.m. Friday at the Westin Convention Center Hotel, Downtown. Pitt chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg, athletic director Steve Pederson and Wannstedt also will make remarks.

The luncheon is open to the general public at $40 a person. For more information, contact the Panther Club at 412-648-8889.

• This is my final day as the Pittsburgh Trib’s Pitt football beat writer, as I’ve been offered an opportunity to move into a new role within the sports department that includes writing a weekly column.

The new Pitt football beat writer is John Grupp, who has done an outstanding job covering the Pitt men’s basketball team the past three seasons and I promise will do the same with the Panthers in football. John also is one of the nation’s leading writers on horse racing and covered high school sports here for about two decades.

The Trib also has a new addition to our staff, Ralph Paulk, who started Monday and will join John in providing coverage of the Pitt football and basketball teams. Soon, they are expected to set up a Pitt-centric blog to continue the intensive coverage to which you’ve become accustomed.

I’d like to express my sincere thanks to all the readers of this blog who have passed along kind words. The pleasure was all mine.

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