Gone from the Pittsburgh Panthers are their two leading rushers, the team’s top tackler and one of the most dependable kickers in college football. There is no need to look for the star wide-receiver to save the day either, as three of the Panthers top four wide-outs have departed. The worst news of all though is that the cause for most concern is not positions left voided by departures, but instead a position which desperately needs a star to emerge after two unreliable at best seasons–quarterback. So how does Pitt fare in the Big East in what most would categorize a re-building year? Quite well actually, and here is why.
Despite significant losses on both sides of the ball the Panthers have talent oozing from their organization thanks to three straight top 25 recruiting classes. Evidence of the athleticism and depth can be seen on the offensive line, where Pitt boasts six players of starter quality. Anchored by seniors Joe Thomas and John Malecki the Panthers line is not lacking in experience or talent. Redshirt sophomore Chris Jacobson will back Thomas at right guard and is skilled enough to take the starting position there should Thomas falter or shift positions due to injury. Having missed six days in fall practice makes right Tackle Lucas Nix the one big question mark starting on the unit. Heralded as a five-star recruit out of high-school skill is definitely not in question for this sophomore, but Nix will be on a short leash if he does not produce early on. Robb Houser will center the line with Jason Pinkston sealing up the left tackle position possibly giving Pitt the best line in the Big East. What makes this unit so dynamic is that many of the linemen are versatile and can fill in at other positions if called upon; combine that with depth players such as Greg Gaskins, who are more than capable replacements, and out comes an offensive line who will win the majority of the battles in the trenches.
When gauging how the Panthers will contend in the 2009 season it is not hard to narrow down Pitt’s success, or lack there of, to the quarterback position. Every other piece is in place for the coaches pick to win the 2009 Big East Conference, the only problem is that the quarterback is the most important piece and the position most in flux for Pittsburgh. For the optimists out there, you can look at projected starter Bill Stull’s performance at #10 South Florida last year in which he led the Panthers to a comeback victory in the fourth quarter by passing for 228 yards and a touchdown. For the pessimists out there, you can look at the other 12 starts in his collegiate career. The biggest complaint with Stull is that he had all the tools around him to become a successful quarterback last year in a weak conference and still could not get the job done. Coach Dave Wannstedt has already stated that Stull has little room for error, and redshirt freshmen Tino Sunseri will be in the mix. Popular belief is that Sunseri is still one year away from being a solid quarterback at the college level but the team really has little choice should Stull stall. Most disappointing of all the quarterbacks though is junior Pat Bostic, who will likely be redshirted this year. Bostic came to Pitt ranked as the third best quarterback in the class of 2007 but has not lived up to expectations despite quarterbacking the Panthers to a 13-9 upset at #2 West Virginia in 2007. In order to capture the Big East championship, new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti will have to keep the offense simple and easy flowing–something he is certainly capable of judging by his record.
Sophomore Johnathan Baldwin headlines a talented group of receivers to open the 2009 campaign. Oderick Turner will start along side Baldwin with Cameron Saddler, Aaron Smith, Aundre Wright, Cedric McGee and Mike Shanahan all competing for spots. The Dismissal of T.J. Porter in early spring hurt the WR group, but Saddler and Shanahan both have high ceilings and will make make this unit unstoppable if they live up to expectations. Plagued by injuries over the past two seasons Pitt wide-recievers have not had the standout years demanded of them, but there is so much talent in this unit that injuries will not be a problem this year. The Panthers also return 2008 first-team all Big East selection Nate Byham and perhaps the most athletic player in the conference in Dorin Dickerson. Byham is a superior blocker and catches anything thrown his way while Dickerson is quick enough to spread the field and big enough to flatten defenders. If Pitt can manufacture a quarterback that gets the ball to the receivers, the Panthers offense will be a matchup nightmare for any conference foe.
It is hard to imagine a Panther backfield without the likes of LeSean McCoy or LaRod Stephens-Howling, and it is even tougher to imagine a Panther backfield with three freshmen sharing the duties of running back. The Panthers are in good hands though as Dion Lewis will officially be the starter with fellow newcomer Ray Graham and redshirted Chris Burns finding their way into the mix. Lewis graduated high-school early in order to get on campus and prepare for the 2009 season while Graham was regarded as a top five prospect in the state of New Jersey. Expected to be redshirted as a freshmen, Graham dazzled in fall camps and topped it off with a 128 yard rushing day in a preseason scrimmage. Thanks to his ability to break off long runs and mystify defenders the New Jersey native not only secured his spot on the team, but is now also in an outright competition for the starting job. Blocking for the talented core is redshirt sophomore Henry Hynoski, who is not as talented as Conredge Collins but after lettering last year knows the system well enough to keep the offense flowing well. The biggest reason why this unit has so much hype entering the season is because of the success they had in fall practices against Pitt’s defensive unit, which figures to be one of the best in the conference.
Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard anchor the Panthers defensive line which will be regarded as one of the toughest in the nation. Pitt’s two defensive ends have a chance to ascend into the Universities record books over the next two seasons if they continue on the path they set for themselves last season. Regarded as a new-age defensive end, Romeus sports lightning quick speed and grizzly strength which was evidenced last year by his All-Big East selection. Sheard is no picnic to play against either, his 45 tackles and 11 quarterback rushes during the 2008 season made it tough for opponents to only focus on Romeus. Seniors Gus Mustakas and Mick Williams round out the line completing the most dominant unit on the team. Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the defensive line is the extreme depth that the Panthers boast though. Brandon Lindsey, Shayne Hale, Tyler Tkach, and Myles Caragein will all be competing for time behind the starters, and all are capable of making game changing plays when given the opportunity.
Even with the losses of All-American Scott McKillop and Austin Ransom Pitt’s linebacker core will be nearly as ferocious and punishing as last years squad. Greg Williams is the lone starter returning, but expect him to take lead and have a breakout season after putting up solid stats in a sparkling freshmen campaign. Taking over the middle linebacker spot is senior Adam Gunn, who started at linebacker in 2007 but missed all but one game of last year due to a neck injury. Gunn is a hard-hitter who is a tough matchup for defenses, and despite suffering the broken vertebrae in his neck a year ago he was one of the most physical players in fall camp. One major surprise entering the season is sophomore lettermen Max Gruder, who is battling with senior linebacker and 2007 starter Shane Murray for the starting job. Gruder was voted the most improved defensive player on the Pitt roster and has shown enough promise to win the starting job.
Even though there is phenomenal depth at the linebacker position it may just prove to be the weak spot on the defense seeing as how the line and secondary will be so strong. Cornerbacks Aaron Berry and Jovani Chappel will matchup against the receivers while Dom DeCicco and Elijah Fields will in all likelihood hold down the fort at safety. The only weakness is height for this group, as DeCicco 6-3 frame is the tallest in the secondary. Ricky Gary and special teams phenom Andrew Taglianetti will both get their shot to crack the starting lineup but expect this unit to hold tight and be even more aggressive than last year.
The 2009 Pitt Panthers are even more dangerous than last years version–even without ‘Shady’ McCoy. Extreme depth, development of key players, and ridiculous talent will make this team the best in the Big East. Look for the Panthers to drop a couple of games on tough road trips but that will be a common sight in this year’s conference as Pitt will finally make it back to a BCS game. Here is how the rest of the conference shakes out.
2.) South Florida: An extremely skilled team with quarterback Matt Grothe and defensive end George Selvie leading the way but a tough loss at Pitt will ultimately lose the conference for them.
3.) West Virgina: There is more talent here than most people think. Jarrett Brown and Noel Devine will keep the season interesting for the Mountaineers.
4.) Cincinnati: Losing practically your whole defense is not the recipe to repeat as champions.
5.) Rutgers: Contrary to popular belief this year a weak schedule does not make up for a weak team.
6.) Louisville: A solid running back but not much else.
7.) Connecticut: Donald Brown will be missed.
8.) Syracuse: No comment.