Pitt Football captains

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. camp. PantherDigest.com senior writer Dale Grdnic spoke with the Panthers' team captains about that challenge.

PITTSBURGH -- Middle linebacker H.B. Blades has entered his senior season with a new look, but he's just as determined as ever to regain success for the University of Pittsburgh football program.

For Blades, however, it's all about the Panthers and not himself.

"There's really nothing to it,'' Blades said about his new do. "Just last week, I wanted to do something fun for my teammates. I grew out my hair pretty long over the summer, and then I got it cut in a Mohawk look. But I cut it off before camp. I shaved it all down, and I'm ready to go.'' Blades and quarterback Tyler Palko, a fifth-year senior, are the undisputed leaders at Pitt. While the overall leadership has been questioned, these two are at the top of their games.

"H.B. Blades and Tyler Palko,'' second-year Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said, "it seems like these guys have been here for 10 years. Now, they haven't. Their eligibility is on track, but it's exciting to have them here now.

"They're just two of a senior group that made a commitment, and their stamp is going to be on this football team. We don't have a big (senior) class. ... I think our total number is 12. So, it's small, but I think it's a good one.''

The majority of Pitt's seniors are on defense with Blades and Clint Session at linebacker, Charles Sallet at defensive end, Brian Bennett at linebacker and Sam Bryant and Reggie Carter in the secondary. Four other seniors join Palko on offense with center Joe Villani and guard John Simonitis anchoring the offensive line, Steve Buches at tight end and Joe DelSardo at wideout. The other senior starter is punter Adam Graessle.

"The seniors are this team's leaders, and guys like Tyler and me are expected to lead on and off the field,'' Blades said. "I didn't get to finish the last game against West Virginia (last season), so I'm champing at the bit to get back on the field. But we can't rush things before their time. "As seniors, we need to finish our careers on a strong note since Pittsburgh's last impression of us will be this season. They'll remember our senior years. So, we have to give everything we have for this team and do what we need to do to make this a winning program again.'' Palko, as much as anyone, doesn't want to be associated with a loser.

"I've never been on a losing team before, but it's not all about me,'' Palko said. "It's about the University of Pittsburgh. I was embarrassed for our football program, because it's not a losing tradition.

"It's been built on toughness and winning, and we haven't got to that stage yet. But we're getting there. So, I think last year is as far behind us as we can put it. We've learned from it, and we need to come into this season with a totally different mentality.

"Last season was tough on everybody,'' Palko added, "but it was particularly tough on me because I never experienced anything like that in my career of playing football at any level. I really didn't like losing. I'm sure nobody did, but we're going to move on from there.'' Palko added that things are already different for the Panthers.

"The attitude changed in the spring, and we started to develop a team chemistry,'' Palko said. "We even had a little swagger, and none of that was a part of our team last season. That's what was missing.

"But you can't compare the spring and offseason to the regular-season. It has to carry over. We have to develop everything we had so far this year again in the regular season, but I think we'll be able to do it.''

Blades has no doubts, especially where Pitt's defense is concerned.

"I'm certain that this defense is good enough to lead our team to a Big East championship,'' Blades said. "We have six or seven linebackers that can play, so we're very deep there, and we're very deep in the secondary. So, this is an experienced defense, overall, even though our line is young.

"The guys who were young last year, they got a lot of playing time, and they got the spring practices under their belts, too. They have a lot of experience, now, and we all had a good offseason. So, with a summer in the weight room and in the film room, we're much better prepared.''

And with captains like Blades and Palko, Pitt fans should be prepared for their winning attitude to translate into victories on the field as well.

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