Cavanaugh Wakes The Echoes

Matt Cavanaugh might forever be known to Pitt fans as the quarterback who helped lead the Panthers to their last national championship three decades ago, but his charge now is to help bring the program back to that prominence and get the team's new starting quarterback ready in the process.

As Pitt's offensive coordinator, Matt Cavanaugh had to get junior Bill Stull ready to start the season. And now, he must replace the injured Stull with either redshirt freshman Kevan Smith or freshman Pat Bostick. Cavanaugh is tied to the situation in other ways as well.

"I very well could've been a career backup at Pitt, but when Robert Haygood got hurt I was ready,'' Cavanaugh said. "And I got a chance to play and played well enough that they decided to keep me in there until I got hurt. Then, someone else came in, but I got the job again the next year.

"And that pretty much was my career in the NFL. When you're backing somebody up, you better be ready to play. And you're not going to get the reps (with the first team) that you need during the week, but mentally you've got to get yourself ready to play at all times.''

Haygood, Pitt's starting quarterback in 1975, opened the following season in the same position, but an injury forced the Panthers to go with Cavanaugh. The end result was an undefeated season, including a win against Georgia in the Sugar Bowl with Cavanaugh as the MVP, and a national title.

Freshman Rick Trocano had to take over for Cavanaugh for a while in 1997, although he later returned as the starter, but that paved the way for Trocano to be the starter in 1978 and '79 until he got hurt and was replaced by freshman Dan Marino. He went on to set Pitt and NFL records on his way to induction into the College and Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"I probably can sympathize more with Billy Stull than I can with Pat or Kevan, Cavanaugh said. "I was really depressed when I got hurt. I was really down. I didn't know how long I was going to be out. They gave me a number.

"And I had to deal with that. I was very supportive of the guy behind me, and Billy has already done that. He was here (Monday) ... just being supportive, talking to the two guys and even a lending hand.''

Smith and Bostick are off-limits to the media this week, at least until after Saturday's game against Grambling, so there's no way to know what's going through their minds. But Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt offered an opinion.

"We don't have a choice now,'' Wannstedt said. "And I don't think if, given a choice, a coach would want to put a freshman on the field. ... The real key is what you do with them as a coach and what's his supporting cast.

"And if you're putting a young kid on the field, and he has to do more than his job, it's going to get you. But it should be obvious that our supporting cast is better than it's been in my time here as the head coach.''

Some believe that Smith has an edge, primarily since he's been in Pitt's offensive system one year more than Bostick. And the latter also missed eight days in training camp for personal reasons. But both Wannstedt and Cavanaugh have said that Bostick has made up that time.

"From a mental standpoint and understanding what we're doing and what he's working against, he's really never had a problem with that,'' Cavanaugh said. "(Bostick) works hard in the classroom and has a good understanding of offense and defense that he got in high school (at Manheim Township, Pa.), and that transition has been a little bit easy for him.

"Physically, he's a bit behind. He still has to get in better shape, and we've addressed that. And he has to get stronger, but that's something that's not going to happen overnight. He might be a year away from physically developing where I think he's going to be. But 90 percent of this game is being smart, and he's got a lot of those tools already in place.''

Cavanaugh did not believe he would water-down Pitt's offense just because a freshman will be the quarterback, although it would be difficult to be more conservative than the Panthers were last week, but the game plan could be altered to play to either Smith's or Bostick's strengths compared to Stull. Arm strength is one area that comes to mind, so more attempts might be made downfield. And don't expect a quick hook for either guy.

"Being a former quarterback, I think it'll be a very slow hook,'' Cavanaugh said. "But I'm not making that decision. It'll be coach Wannstedt's decision. I just think that for somebody going out and playing for the first time, you've got to be understanding about that. (And) there's probably going to be some things happen that we wish wouldn't happen.

"But if he's not protecting the football or if he's turning it over and we're getting penalties because his snap count is off, those are things that we can't live with. ... But I'd like to think that we're going to let a guy playing for the first time, whoever that is, earn his stripes.''

And even though both are expected to play, they won't be used in a platoon. There's no set time when the backup will come into the game.

"I don't know, but ... it'll be in the flow of the game,'' Cavanaugh said. "I hope we'll be winning big and now we want to get the other guy some playing time. Hopefully, it's not that we're getting our (butts) kicked.

"Then, we've got to make a change. I think we'll just see how the (starter) is playing, and if we're moving the ball I don't see why you'd ever take the guy out if we're moving the ball and scoring points.''

And as Cavanaugh, Smith and Bostick well know, the backup is just an injury away from playing.

Panther More Top Stories