Spring ball begins March 15th and will finish up with the annual Blue/Gold scrimmage on April 12th. The first day of practice will be here before you know it! Here are what I consider the top 10 questions to be answered during the spring practice sessions. Some of the questions may not get answered till fall camp, when the incoming recruiting class arrives, but the more questions that can be answered this spring, the better off the team will be.
1. Who will replace departed linebackers Gerald Hayes and Brian Beinecke, and who will win the backup positions on the two-deep depth chart? Hayes was a very dominating player who is moving on to the NFL and Beinecke had an outstanding career at his rush linebacker position. They will not be easily replaced. Lewis Moore, who started at strong side linebacker last season, will move inside to replace Gerald Hayes. Candidates for the strong side position include 6-4/245 sophomore Joe Dipre and 6-1/230 redshirt freshman Azzie Beagnyam. They can both play inside also. Another candidate is 6-1/230 senior Malcolm Pinder, a star last spring with his outstanding speed and hard-hitting style. He suffered some nagging injuries at fall camp last year and looks to rebound. The two leading candidates to replace Beinecke are 6-1/220 junior Malcolm Postell and 6-0/220 redshirt freshman Charles Sallet. The coaches were impressed by Sallet's play last season in practice. He has a reputation as one of the hardest hitters on the team.
Answer: Lewis Moore started the spring at his strongside linebacker position, before moving moving inside and impressing the Panther coaching staff. Moore is an outstanding talent and has a great chance to have a future in the NFL. Azzie Beagnyam was the star of the spring game after registering 10 tackles - 7 solo, including 2 for losses. If Moore does move inside, Azzie has a good chance to start at the strongside position. Azzie showed why Texas A&M, among others, were after his services after high school. He is a natural linebacker with a great nose for the ball. Former running back Malcolm Postell looks to have a solid grip at the other outside position. The coaches have praised his aggressive style of play. Joe Dipre suffered a bruised knee and missed some practice time, but he was having a good spring also. He should push for a starting position this fall. Redshirt freshmen Charles Sallet and Brian Bennett showed off their speed and athletic ability this spring. They are a little undersized, but both should be capable backups this season. Malcolm Pinder moved from linebacker to the defensive end position, but walk-on's Keith Hill and Ron Idoko were both very impressive this spring and both should make a push for the two-deep come fall camp. I would say the questions going into spring were answered in a very positive manner.
2. Who will start opposite returning starter Shawntae Spencer at cornerback? Sophomore Josh Lay, at 6-2/195, is the leading candidate but will be pushed by 6-0/190 redshirt freshman Reggie Carter. 5-10/185 Senior William Ferguson has recently been moved back to the cornerback position and will also push for a starting position. Ferguson is a former starter and brings much-needed experience to the position. Redshirt freshman Larry Moore (5-9/175) will also look to break into the two-deep. Junior Marcus Furman (5-9/185) has been moved to CB from his running back position and should provide depth this season if he doesn't redshirt.
Answer: William Ferguson had a good spring and looks to have nailed down the starting position. Josh Lay won the most improved player award this spring and is coming on fast. He should challenge Ferguson for the starting position. Marcus Furman had surgery on his hip this spring but is expected to be 100% for fall camp. Redshirt freshmen Reggie Carter and Larry Moore will both push for a spot in the two-deep. Although cornerback looks to be the weakest position on the team, this unit made marked progress this spring.
3. Will former JUCO star Princell Brockenbrough step up and be the receiving threat the team needs, to keep opposing teams from double teaming superstar Larry Fitzgerald? The Pitt coaches have raved about the 6-3/210 Brockenbrough not only for his athletic ability, but also for his ability to knock out defensive players with vicious blocks. Joe Stephens, a 6-0/190 sophomore speedster from Florida, also looks to earn a spot in often-used three WR sets.
Answer: The biggest surprise this spring was the play of Chris Curd. He came out of nowhere to have an excellent spring and is the front runner to win the starting position opposite Larry Fitzgerald. Another receiver who impressed this spring was Joe Stephens. Joe had a standout performance in the spring game and should be one of our top receivers this fall. Princell Brockenbrough struggled some this spring, but he should make a strong push to start come fall camp. Fitzgerald, Curd, and Brockenbrough all measure 6-3 and over 200 lbs. Those three should be a force to be dealt with. The "little guy" of the group is Florida speedster Joe Stephens. At 6-0/190, he also has excellent size for the position. With the emerging play and development of Curd and Stephens, this group really stepped it up this spring and should be in for an exciting season.
4. Who will replace departed standout offensive linemen Chad Reed and Bryan Anderson? Junior Justin Belarski, at 6-3/290, is the leading candidate at center. Justin is one of the strongest players on the team and has had a chance to learn under multi-year starter Chad Reed. Junior transfer Rob Frederick (6-3/295) will also compete for the starting job at center. Guard Bryan Anderson was 4-year starter and an All-Big East performer, so he will be tough to replace. Former starter senior Jon Schall (6-4/295) will be given the first opportunity. He will be pushed by talented redshirt freshman, 6-3/290 John Simonitis.
Answer: The coaches were very happy with Jon Schall this spring. He is a former starter and has the size and experience to have a good year. The center position is another story. The coaches have said that neither Belarski or transfer Rob Frederick have separated themselves in the competition for center. Jon Schall also has taken reps at center. If he would move to center, John Simonitis would move to the right guard position. Center is still a question mark, but I think Belarski will be able to take over at the position and do well.
5. How will the running back position develop? Senior Brandon Miree (6-0/235) shook off some early season rust to have excellent performances in the Panthers' biggest games the second half of the season. Will he pick up where he left off? Will 5-10/190 sophomore Jawan Walker push for the starting position? Last year he had pulled even with Miree in fall camp before suffering a knee injury. Can 5-10/215 junior Raymond Kirkley break out of his sophomore slump and push Miree and Walker for playing time?
Answer: Brandon Miree was impressive all spring. Kirkley looks to have regained his form and is running hard and displaying cutting ability. Jawan Walker is still developing, but he has shown flashes of becoming a top player. He has the speed and moves to become a difference-maker in time. Darren McCray has moved back to running back from safety and has been impressive. This position should be one of the strongest and deepest on the entire team.
6. Who will win the backup QB position and will Rod Rutherford continue to make excellent strides in his development as a QB? Will 6-2/210 sophomore Tyler Palko be redshirted this season? Will 6-2/225 redshirt freshman Luke Getsy win the backup position outright? Getsy has added close to 20lbs. since he started in Pitt's strength and conditioning program and looks to have a promising future ahead of him. Rod had a very good season last year as a first-year starter. Last season he was the #2 rated QB in the conference. If he cuts down on his turnovers and improves on his accuracy, he will be among the best QB's in the country.
Answer: This one is a close call. Tyler Palko and Luke Getsy have both been impressive this spring. Both are excellent athletes and have shown this spring that they can drive the offense. The coaching staff may decide to redshirt Palko if the race remains close.
7. Who will replace Brian Guzek at defensive end? Sophomore Thomas Smith (6-4/265) is the leading candidate. He will battle 6-5/275 sophomore Kevin Harris and 6-4/245 sophomore Andy Alleman for the starting position.
Answer: Thomas Smith looks to be the leading candidate. Andy Alleman and Malcolm Pinder will be pushing him for the starting position. There is a lack of experience at this position but nice talent. Kevin Harris has worked at tackle all spring. Most teams will use an extra blocker against Claude Harriott, which should open things up for the other defensive end starter.
8. Can new running backs coach Dino Babers develop depth at the fullback position? Senior fullback Lousaka Polite has been one of the best fullbacks in Pitt history. The Panthers have had very little depth at the position the last few years though. Converted running back Tim Murphy (5-10/230) has excellent running skills and looks to take his game to the next level this season. A.J. Schneider, a 5-11/245 redshirt freshman, looks to push for playing time also.
Answer: I have to give this question an incomplete answer. Tim Murphy sat out the spring after shoulder surgery. He should be 100% for fall camp. A.J. Schneider left the team, which leaves us pretty thin. Justin Acierno is a 6-1, 235 lb. walk-on from nearby Central Catholic who looked pretty good at the spring game. The best bet would be to keep Lousaka Polite healthy. He is one of the best fullbacks in the country.
9. Can 6-3/295 redshirt sophomore Troy Banner break into the two-deep at defensive tackle? Banner has struggled through injuries up to this point in his career, but may finally be healthy and ready to produce. He will have his work cut out for him as the Panthers return their entire two-deep at defensive tackle.
Answer: This remains to be seen. He was playing pretty well before suffering a hamstring injury this spring. He made some eye-popping plays at the spring game, despite playing injured, so nobody can question his talent. Defensive tackle is the deepest position on the team, so he will have to keep working hard over the off-season to make the two-deep. With Stephens, Crochunis, Spencer, Holthaus, Banner, Harris, and Fritz, Pitt finally has talent, experience, and depth at this position.
10. Will the talented group of tight ends become more of a threat in the Panthers offense? Returning senior starter Kris Wilson is an excellent receiving threat. The 6-3/240 Wilson has excellent speed and hands. Talented sophomore Erik Gill is the backup. He is a 6-5/255 tight end with excellent hands but played mostly in blocking situations last season. Redshirt freshman Steve Buches, a 6-3/230 receiving specialist, also looks to contribute this season.
Answer: We will find out this fall. Wilson and Buches made a ton of excellent plays at the spring game. Gill is a good blocker who has shown he has solid hands as well. With a lack of experience at wide receiver, it wouldn't surprise me if we featured our excellent group of tight ends more this season.