Preview: Pittsburgh

The Dave Wannstedt coaching era at Pittsburgh has been a rocky one thus far to say the least. In three years at Pitt, Wannstedt has compiled a 16-19 record and has led the school to zero postseason bids. Still, for a number of reasons, Pittsburgh is optimistic about its future, optimistic enough to offer Wannstedt a three-year extension.

And that was before last year's shocking 13-9 upset of West Virginia that kept the Mountaineers out of the BCS National Championship Game. The win in the Backyard Brawl provided some evidence that the program is moving in the right direction and helped with recruiting efforts.

The Panthers went 5-7 last year, but only three of those losses came by more than a touchdown and the battles that Wannstedt has lost on the field have not translated off the field. Wannstedt has landed the Big East's top recruiting class in each of the last three years.

Despite last year's record, Wannstedt's background as a NFL defensive guru was obvious. The Panthers were ranked fifth in the country in total defense, allowing just 297.7 yards per game. Pitt's secondary was especially stingy, giving up just 167.3 yards through the air, third in the nation.

Wannstedt was obviously unsatisfied in certain areas and brought in five new coaches to his staff, led by former SMU head coach Phil Bennett as defensive coordinator. Bennett is replacing Paul Rhoads, who left for Auburn.

Offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh is one of the few coaches that is back on the staff this year. The offense struggled, averaging just 319.5 yards (108th nationally) and 22.8 points (91st), but that should not have been much of a surprise. Pitt entered 2007 without three-year starter Tyler Palko at quarterback and had to replace his replacement, junior Bill Stull, halfway through the season-opener. Pitt ranked 104th in the country in passing yards (178.1) in his absence.

Stull (6-3, 200) had surgery to repair ligaments in the thumb on his throwing hand and had to sit out the rest of the season. Stull was initially replaced by redshirt freshman Kevan Smith, who started the next three games and played in five. Smith (6-3, 225) finished the season 36 of 64 (56.2%) for 415 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions.

True freshman Pat Bostick (6-3, 220) started the final eight games of the season, including the season finale against West Virginia. Bostick completed 155 of his 252 passes (61.5%) for 1,500 yards and eight touchdowns but he also had 13 interceptions.

Junior college transfer Greg Cross (6-2, 215) enrolled over the in the winter. Cross will give Wannstedt a dual-threat option that he can use to mix things up.

But during the spring, Stull proved that he has fully recovered from the thumb injury and clearly earned the number one spot. Bostick appears to be next in line, but look for Cross to get some snaps. The return of Stull should give the Panthers a respectable passing game and prevent defenses from gearing up to stop Pitt's best player.

Sophomore running back LeSean McCoy (5-11, 210) set the Big East freshman rushing record with 1,328 yards and led the country's freshmen with 110.67 rushing yards per game. McCoy scored 14 touchdowns to break Tony Dorsett's freshman scoring record.

McCoy has the size-speed combination that every coach looks for and is considered by many to be the conference's top running back. He was a unanimous Freshman All-American selection and was named First Team All-Big East and Big East Rookie of the Year.

Senior LaRod Stephens-Howling (5-7, 180) will back up McCoy. Stephens-Howling was the starter before McCoy arrived and may be the Panthers' most elusive runner with 1,600 career rushing yards. Shariff Harris (6-1, 190) did not play as a true freshman last year, but if he performs the way he did in the spring it will be hard for the Pitt coaches to keep him off the field.

McCoy quickly learned to get behind fullback Conredge Collins. Collins (6-0, 230) is a senior who will be in his third year starting for the Panthers. He only carried the ball 33 times for 110 yards and a touchdown in 2007, but has earned a reputation as one of the nation's best lead blockers.

Stull was clearly Pitt's most devastating injury, but the loss of wide receiver Derek Kinder was a close second. Kinder (6-1, 210) was a First Team All-Big East selection and Biletnikoff Award semifinalist in 2006, but blew out his knee in training camp and missed the entire 2007 season. With a year to do nothing except train, Kinder has returned in better shape than ever for his senior year.

T.J. Porter (6-1, 185) and Oderick Turner (6-3, 200) were the top targets last year after Kinder went down and now return as experienced juniors. Porter had 37 catches for 329 yards while Turner made 36 grabs for 496 yards and five scores.

Sophomore Maurice Williams (6-1, 190) and junior Cedric McGee (6-1, 200) will provide Pitt with some depth as will incoming freshman Jonathan Baldwin (6-6, 225). Baldwin, who selected Pittsburgh over Notre Dame in Dec., has the size of a tight end and athletic ability of a wide receiver. The Panthers see him more of a wideout and he has the talent to make an immediate impact.

Pitt brings back its starting tight end in junior Nate Byham (6-3, 245), who caught 15 balls for 210 yards and a score last year. Pitt also returns junior John Pelusi (6-3, 255), who had five catches for 46 yards last year, but is more of a blocking tight end. Pitt has moved junior Dorin Dickerson (6-2, 220) from linebacker and sophomore Tyler Tkach (6-3, 265) from defensive end to tight end for more depth.

The biggest question mark for the Panthers offense will be the line where they lost tackles Jeff Otah and Mike McGlynn to the NFL Draft and starting center Chris Vangas. Left guard C.J. Davis (6-3, 315) has started the last 30 games and will be the anchor.

Vangas will be replaced by junior college transfer Robb Houser (6-2, 285) and the staff has elected to fill the tackle positions with experience.

Sophomore Jason Pinkston (6-4, 300) started three games at tackle last year, but is coming off a season-ending shoulder injury. Junior Joe Thomas (6-5, 300), who has started 14 games over the last two years at right guard, will be kicked out to right tackle. Junior John Malecki (6-3, 275) was brought over from defensive tackle to replace Thomas at right guard.

The Panthers have some veterans backing up at the interior spots, but have four redshirt freshmen battling for tackle spots.

While the returns of Stull and Kinder should open things up a bit more for McCoy, if the line is unable to come together as a cohesive unit, it will not matter. However, if the line does step up the Panthers should boast a high-powered, balanced offense.

Whatever happens with Pittsburgh's offense expect the Panthers to lean on their defense, at least in the early part of the season. Bennett will have plenty to work with as Pitt returns seven starters from last year's unit including premier players at each level.

Up front, the Panthers will be led by sophomore defensive end Greg Romeus (6-5, 250) and junior defensive tackle Mick Williams (6-1, 290). Romeus had 7.5 sacks as a freshman, was named a Second Team Freshman All-American and is considered a lock to be a future NFL Draft pick.

Williams had 29 tackles, including five for a loss after replacing Gus Mustakas (6-3, 280) who suffered a season-ending injury in the second game of the season. Senior Rashaad Duncan (6-2, 295) had 40 tackles last year and will be backed up by Mustakas, who is back for his junior year, and junior Tommie Duhart (6-4, 290).

The Panthers return all three of their starting linebackers, including the nation's leading tackler in fifth-year senior middle linebacker Scott McKillop (6-2, 240). McKillop had 151 tackles for an average of 12.58 and had seven pass breakups.

McKillop will be flanked by junior Shane Murray (6-1, 210) on the weak side and fifth-year senior Adam Gunn (6-2, 230) on the strong side. Murray finished 2007 with 60 tackles and three sacks while Gunn had 59 tackles, including 4.5 behind the line of scrimmage.

Redshirt freshmen Max Gruder (6-2, 220) and Tristan Roberts (6-0, 215) will be reserves along with sophomore Dan Loheyde (6-0, 225). Pitt will also have five-star recruit Shayne Hale (6-4, 240) coming in and it figures to be difficult to keep him off the field. Depth should not be an issue.

In the secondary, Pitt brings back junior cornerback Aaron Berry (5-11, 175) and senior Eric Thatcher (5-9, 195) is moving from strong safety to free.

Sophomore Elijah Fields (6-2, 215) sat out last year as the result of a violation of team rules, but could be the most athletic player on the entire team and will get the first shot at the strong safety spot. Fields will have to beat out sophomore Dom DeCicco (6-3, 200), who saw time as a reserve last year. Thatcher will provide consistency as the Panthers will interchange their safeties.

Berry deflected seven passes and picked off two in his first year as a starter in 2007. Junior Jovani Chappel (5-9, 185) played safety and corner last year and is expected to get the first crack at starting opposite Berry. Redshirt freshman Buddy Jackson (6-0, 170) and sophomore Ricky Gary (5-9, 175) will push Chappel and see time as reserves.

Pitt figures to be strong on defense again this year and have the depth in the front seven to sustain injuries. The secondary is not as experienced as it was last year, but has the chance to be just as good.

Senior kicker Conor Lee is the Big East's active leader in field goal percentage at 83.3% (30-36) and is a perfect 75-75 in his career on extra points. Senior punter Dave Brytus averaged 39.6 yards on 66 punts in 2007. Brytus has a big leg, but has been inconsistent at times.

Berry, Porter and Stephens-Howling handled the return duties last year, but look for freshmen Andre Wright and Cam Saddler to get a shot this year.

Charlie Weis got his first win as a college coach in the 2005 opener against his former AFC East rival. This is a game that could come down to which team has the momentum on its side from the early part of the season.

Wannstedt's predecessor, Walt Harris, led the Panthers to five straight bowl games before he left for Stanford and if Wannstedt fails to deliver a bowl trip this season he will be on thin ice.

The Panthers have a relatively easy start to their schedule with Bowling Green and Buffalo at home. The Irish might get Pitt at a good time as the Panthers travel to South Bend after a matchup with Rutgers and before Louisville.

However, it could be a bit of a trap for the Irish as well as the game comes between trips to Washington and Boston College. This is one of the many seemingly toss-up games that Notre Dame has on its 2008 schedule. Top Stories