PITTSBURGH -- For a team known as Wide Receiver U. with Biletnikoff winners Antonio Bryant and Larry Fitzgerald in the fold just a few years ago, the names Derek Kinder, Oderick Turner, Marcel Pestano and T.J. Porter probably don't strike fear among secondaries in the Big East Conference.
Kinder, a junior who was second to departed Greg Lee with 37 catches and three touchdowns last season, is the only experienced wideout. Pestano, a redshirt sophomore, had just one catch for five yards in 11 games last fall. Turner is a redshirt freshman, and Porter is a true freshman.
"I would say that we have enough good receivers to compete in the Big East, but I can't say that one or more will turn out to be another Antonio or Larry,'' Pitt wideouts coach Aubrey said. "But we have a lot of solid guys, and I think they're going to have excellent college football careers.''
That might be true, but the Panthers don't appear to have the long-ball threat that Bryant and Fitzgerald brought to the field. Kinder is a possession receiver and a tough blocker, but he won't stretch a defense too much. Turner, Pestano and Porter can get upfield, but neither is consistent.
"That's the one thing we need to work on,'' Kinder said. "That's all of us. We could be a lot more consistent, but I think it's going to happen. There's a lot of potential in this receiving corps, and we'll all be back next year. So, we might have a ways to go, but we'll get there sooner than later.''
Actually, the Panthers could be known as Tight End U. After Lee and Kinder, who caught 86 total passes last season, tight ends Erik Gill, Steve Buches and Darrell Strong combined for 54 receptions. Buches, a fifth-year senior, will be among the top pass-catchers this year. Strong, a junior, should also see an increased role, and frosh Nate Byham should contribute as well.
When you add sophomore John Pelusi into the mix, Pitt has a solid future at the tight end spot. Pelusi (knee surgery) will just begin to practice in the team drills this week, and he likely will redshirt.
"I've said it before,'' fifth-year senior quarterback Tyler Palko said. "A tight end is a quarterback's best friend, and we have a terrific group right here. They have good hands. Steve's a good blocker, too, and Darrell and Nate can get downfield. They give us a lot of options.
"As far as our wide receivers go, I'm confident that they'll continue to improve. We're getting more comfortable with each other every day, and I think that's something that will continue to grow throughout the season. I expect the passing game to keep evolving every week.''
There have been some injuries and other problems during training camp that have held the wideouts back a bit. Redshirt freshman Cedric McGee has missed nearly the entire camp with a left leg injury, and Porter missed time as well with an ankle problem. And junior-college transfer Lowell Robinson just hasn't caught on, so to speak, after moving from defense just before camp.
Senior Joe DelSardo, demoted last fall and held to 15 catches after hauling in 49 with four touchdowns in 2004, was suspended for the final week in camp and the opening game with Virginia. His status for the season will be evaluated again after the opener. Walk-ons Branden Ballard and Austin Ransom have had to step in just to provide some depth in camp.
"Our top four guys have hung in there,'' second-year Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "Derek Kinder has been the leader in that group, and the other guys are working hard to get up to his level.
"Right now, Oderick Turner has a chance to be a big-time receiver for us, and the other guys are getting closer all the time. We'll just have to see how it plays out over the course of the season.''
* Wannstedt added that CB Darrelle Revis would be the top punt returner, but freshmen CB Aaron Berry and WR T.J. Porter, as well as junior WR Derek Kinder are the backups. Wannstedt said he hasn't determined who will handle kickoff-return duties this season.
"I would expect LaRod Stephens to be one of the two guys,'' Wannstedt said. "The other guys that are working there are Lowell Robinson, Dorin Dickerson, Kevin Collier, about four or five guys are working with LaRod.''
* Pitt's field-goal kicking duties, however, are murky. Redshirt sophomore Conor Lee hasn't been able to kick much the past two weeks with a hamstring problem, and freshman Dan Hutchins has been inconsistent at best. Lee attempted to kick Thursday night at Heinz Field and grabbed his hamstring after a miss, and he didn't work out Friday.
* Senior punter Adam Graessle, who will handle kickoff duties, also could be the field-goal kicker for tries more than 40 yards.
* The Panthers' final practice in training camp was Friday night, under the lights, at the UPMC Sports Complex. Wannstedt wanted to give the returnmen and receivers another chance to play at night since the opener against Virginia Sept. 2 is at 7 p.m. at Heinz Field.