Panthers open training camp

The University of Pittsburgh football team opens training camp on Tuesday. Head Coach Dave Wannstedt, coming off a 5-6 inaugural season, looks to vastly improve on the Panthers record. With the maturation of the upper classmen and influx of freshman talent, the PantherDigest.com looks at the key questions entering camp.

The Pitt Panthers open training camp on Tuesday and there are a tremendous amount of questions that need to be answered. Training camp will last three weeks with a greater number of two-a-day sessions. The coaching staff will conduct three full scrimmages at the UPMC Sports Complex on the South Side.

The Panthers class of 2006 was ranked amongst the best in the country. Many of the incoming freshmen are expected to work their way into the two-deep lineup. Coach Wannstedt will hold separate training sessions the first five days of camp in order to provide every player a higher amount of repetitions. The staff will use these sessions to evaluate the players and formulate their two-deep roster.

The PantherDigest.com would like to take a closer look at a few key questions entering training camp:

OFFENSIVE LINE – CAN IT IMPROVE?

Fifth-year senior quarterback Tyler Palko has openly stated that he expects to have a much improved 2006 season. His numbers diminished in every statistical category in 2005. Tyler managed to throw for 2,392 yards, 17 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. The pre-season Heisman hype he garnered prior to the 2005 quickly fizzled as he and the Panthers struggled on the football field. A great deal of his difficulties could be attributed to the abysmal play of the offensive line. The Panthers return right tackle Mike McGlynn (junior), right guard John Simonitis (redshirt senior), center Joe Villani (senior) and left guard C.J. Davis (sophomore). Junior college behemoth Jeff Otah (junior) and John Bauchman (sophomore) are expected to compete at left tackle.

> McGlynn and Simonitis are responsible for protecting Palko's blind-side. Neither has been a pillar of consistency in the past. Panther fans have been waiting for John Simonitis to take his game to the next level. He has managed to produce a pair of sub-par seasons as a starter. The coaching staff added blue-chip freshman prospect Joe Thomas (6-foot-5 inches, 290 pounds) from St. Edwards High School in Parma, OH. Thomas was arguably the top offensive linemen in the state of Ohio. Joe will be planted behind Simonitis on the two-deep roster. One can only assume the competition will unearth the best in big John. C.J. Davis has added ten pounds of muscle (currently at 300 pounds) and appears ready to develop into an All-Big East performer. Villani, a former walk-on, started the majority of 2005 and hopes to build on his experience.

Jeff Otah personifies the term "behemoth". At 6-foot-7 inches, 340 pounds, he has officially usurped the title as "largest player on the Panthers roster" from redshirt sophomore Chase Clowser. Otah spent the last two seasons at Valley Forge Military Academy. He was named the Seaboard Conference MVP in 2005. Jeff will compete with blue-collar John Bachman (sophomore) for the starting left tackle position. Although Bachman has gained 20 pounds of muscle (currently at 280 pounds), Otah is expected to win the job.

DEFENSIVE LINE – YOUNG & INEXPERIENCED

The Panthers have a young, but talented group of defensive tackles. A myriad of big bodies will compete for four spots on the two-deep roster. Two of the most experienced players are Rashaad Duncan (sophomore) and Corey Davis (redshirt sophomore). Duncan played in 11 games last year and started two of the final three. Davis played in 6 games. Thrown into the mix will be Ernest Williams (redshirt freshman), Nick Williams (reshirt sophomore) and Gus Mustakas (sophomore). Mustakas had an outstanding freshman and emerged as one of the Panthers top pass rushers. Gus played in 11 games and was second on the team with three sacks. He has worked diligently to improve his physique and he currently weighs close to 275 pounds. "Mick" Williams was a redshirt last season and currently checks in at a stout 290 pounds.

The upperclassmen are expected to be pushed by a trio of blue-chip freshmen. John Malecki, Jared Martin and Jason Pinkston have the size and ability to push for significant playing time. Coach Wannstedt has been looking for players that bring a nasty demeanor to the football field. Malecki is known for his nasty attitude and physicality. He was the most dominant defensive tackle in Western Pennsylvania last season. John led Franklin Regional High School to its first WPIAL and PIAA Class AAA championship.

NOTE:The status of rugged freshman Craig Bokor is currently in question. There's a strong possibility the 6-foot-3 inch, 290 pound tackle will be moved to the offensive line.

The situation at defensive end appears to be much more stable. Starters Chris McKillop (redshirt junior) and Charles Sallet (redshirt senior) return to start at right and left end respectively. McKillop started the entire season and led the defensive front with 44 total tackles. Despite questionable size, Sallet played in 10 games and started 9 of them. He frequently struggled against the run. Joe Clermond (redshirt junior) and Doug Fulmer (redshirt freshman) currently project as the primary backups.

The Panthers welcome outstanding defensive end prospects Greg Romeus, McKenzie Mathews and Tyler Tkach. Mathews comes to Pitt with the highest pedigree. He registered 39 sacks his final two seasons at Christian Brothers Academy in Syracuse, NY. McKenzie led his team a 24-1 mark during that span. He currently weighs 240 pounds and he's primed to push for significant playing time. Romeus is the top sleeper in the class of 2006. A physical specimen and neophyte to the game of football, he's simply oozing with potential. Look for Greg to terrorize Big East quarterbacks in the future.

THROW WHO THE DAMN BALL?

Derek Kinder (junior) firmly established himself as the Panthers staring flanker in 2005. He transitioned from a reserve role to prime time starter. Kinder playing in 11 games and started 8 of them. He was the Pitt's second leading receiver with 37 catches for 374 yards. Joe DelSardo (senior), the Panthers' most experienced wide receiver, will act as Kinders' primary backup. The departure of All-Big East performer Greg Lee leaves a sizeable vacancy at split end. Pitt has a large pool of talented candidates to fill the vacated position.

The leading upperclassmen to fill Lee's vacancy include Marcel Pestano (redshirt sophomore), Oderick Turner (redshirt freshman) and Cedric McGee (redshirt freshman). Pestano played in 11 games last season but saw limited action. He had one catch for five years on the year. Marcel is known for his blazing speed and athletic ability. Turner, a large 6-foot-3 inch, 200 pound prospect, displayed flashes of brilliance in the Blue-Gold spring game. McGee was known as a big play specialist in high school.

There are four outstanding freshman candidates that will push upper classmen for starting roles and playing time. Dorin Dickerson, Tamarcus Porter, Elijah Fields and Aaron Smith are considered amongst the best group of freshmen wide receivers in the nation. Dickerson was named The Associated Press Pennsylvania Class AAA Player of the Year. It's generally believed that Dickerson will be one of the leading candidates to replace Greg Lee. A big play waiting to happen, Dorin caught 22 receptions for 423 yards his senior year. He rushed for 1,429 yards on 182 carries. Fields was named The Associated Press Pennsylvania Class A Player of the Year. He's a player with limitless potential capable of making an impact on either side of the ball. Most believe he will inevitably end up at safety. "T.J." Porter has already opened a number of eyes. A physical specimen at 6-foot-1 inches, 185 pounds, he's steadily proving that he's every bit as good as Dickerson and Fields. If Porter continues to display exceptional speed and uncanny ability to separate from defensive backs, the staff will take little time moving Fields to defense.

With the exception on Kinder at flanker, the competition at wide receiver is wide open. Although young and inexperienced, Wide Receiver's Coach Aubrey Hill will have a tremendous amount of talent to choose from.

WHO WILL POUND THE ROCK?

The Panthers running attack was anemic at best in 2005. Coach Wannstedt hoped to develop a more balanced offensive attack that featured a powerful running game. He soon discovered that the players he inherited from the previous regime were unable to execute the offense put in place. With a year of experience in the new system, the coaches and players hope to dramatically improve in 2006.

LaRod Stephens-Howling (sophomore) played in nine games as a true freshman and started three. He led Pitt in rushing with 434 yards on 96 carries. Gone are running backs Ray Kirkley (graduation) and Rashad Jennings (transfer to Liberty University). The Panthers averaged 116.8 rushing yards per game in 2005. Stephens-Howling gained 10 pounds of muscle during the off-season. Despite the muscle gain, he remains a diminutive running back that may struggle with a 12-game schedule. Three players will attempt to fill the void left by Jennings and Kirkley: Shane Brooks (redshirt freshman), Brandon Mason (redshirt sophomore) and Kevin Collier (true freshman). Brooks fits the role of the "power back". At 5-foot-11 inches, 220 pounds, he brings an aggressive and bruising running style. Shane, a standout on the Panthers scout team, earned Offensive Player of the Year honors from the coaching staff. Another players looking for quality minutes will be Brandon Mason. Mason, a player with the physique of a body builder, is coming off a medical redshirt in 2005. He truly remains an enigma. At 220 pounds with above average speed, Brandon has never tapped into his vast potential. It appears that 2006 will be a make or break year for this player. Kevin Collier may be the Panthers top combination of size and speed. A player that has been compared with the New York Giants Tiki Barber, Collier was considered one of the top running backs in the nation. He rushed for 1,942 yards and scored 20 touchdowns as a senior. Kevin enters camp fully prepared to make a run at the starting position. It's safe to assume he will accrue ample playing time throughout the 2006 season.

DARRELLE REVIS AND WHO?

Darrelle Revis is considered one of the top cornerbacks in the nation. A lock down corner with rare skills, he has established himself as the Panthers' top player on the defensive side of the ball. Who will start opposite Revis is the question that needs to be answered. The current front runner for the starting right cornerback position happens to be Reggie Carter (senior). Reggie worked diligently in the spring to establish himself as the player to beat. He will have to fend off Kennard Cox (redshirt junior), Kelvin Chandler (redshirt sophomore), Aaron Berry (true freshman) and Ricky Gary (true freshman). Blue-chip cornerback Jovani Chappel (true freshman) joined the Panthers in January and enters camp as the Revis' chief backup.

Cox has primarily accrued playing time on special teams. An energetic player with great size, he was neck and neck with Carter throughout the spring. Chandler is currently attempting to make the transition from wide receiver to cornerback. Although not expected to make an impact, Kelvin is highly athletic and possesses intriguing potential. Berry is a lightning quick cornerback that was named to The Associated Press Pennsylvania Class AAAA All-State Team. Although lacking impressive size, Aaron is surprisingly tough and physical on the football field. "Sticky" Ricky Gary accumulated over 30 scholarship offers. Like Berry, Gary is a small but physical cornerback. A player with an amazingly colorful personality, he was named first team All-Florida Class 2B at defensive back. Carter will have a slew of talented players challenging him for the vacant sport at right cornerback.


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