Injury Bug Continues To Bite

One by one, the Pitt football team has lost key components to its depth chart, and when it was determined Sunday that junior defensive tackle Gus Mustakas needed season-ending knee surgery it marked the third starter to go down in a month and fifth player overall.

Gus Mustakas' injury will be difficult to take because he most certainly was the Panthers' top defensive lineman through two games. He was their second-leading tackler and was becoming a real force in the middle. During his weekly press conference Monday afternoon, Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt said that sophomore Tommie Duhart and redshirt sophomore Mick Williams are competing for the starting spot.

Mustakas would come in handy this week, as Pitt (2-0) faces Michigan State (2-0) Saturday at noon in East Lansing, Mich., but both Duhart and Williams will get extensive action instead. Wannstedt also noted that no other players will be moved to add depth at defensive tackle, and no freshmen will lose their expected redshirt years at this time.

"It's a tough deal for Gus and a tough deal for us, but we do have some depth there,'' Wannstedt said. "So, we'll call on Tommie Duhart and Mick Williams. They'll step up and be called on for a more needed manner as far as repetitions and stuff. So, we'll be fine there, and everybody else is fine and ready to go.''

Wannstedt mostly was referring to junior tailback LaRod Stephens-Howling, who suffered from bruised ribs against Grambling and had just three carries. X-rays showed no broken ribs, but he could be limited this week. If he is, that would be the only reason, Wannstedt said, that freshman LeSean McCoy would supplant Stephens-Howling as the starter.

"I thought McCoy went in there and did a nice job, and the more opportunities he gets the better he'll become,'' Wannstedt said. "So, it was a step for him to play that much, and this week will be another step in the right direction. ... It's not as much how well he's playing as compared to LaRod.

"LaRod's the starter. With LeSean, it comes down to where LaRod is health-wise and who gives our team the best chance to win. And if LaRod is slowed up a little bit, then it's an easy decision. If Shady takes all the practice reps or most of them, then it's an easy decision. But LaRod hasn't done anything to not deserve to start. But I look at it from the other point.''

While Wannstedt is excited about McCoy's future with the program and even playing he and Stephens-Howling in the same backfield, Pitt's depth at tailback took a hit when sophomore Kevin Collier suffered a broken wrist in the final preseason scrimmage and needed season-ending surgery.

Pitt already had lost senior starting wideout Derek Kinder to season-ending knee surgery a week into camp and freshman offensive guard Chris Jacobson to knee surgery shortly after that. Then, in the regular-season opener, junior starting quarterback Bill Stull suffered a thumb injury on his throwing hand that needed surgery and at least a couple weeks to heal. His stitches come out this week, and then he can begin rehab.

"You get guys hurt, but this many is a little surprising,'' Wannstedt said. "We really haven't had many guys banged up, and generally you get a one- or two-game injury. ... So, it's been unusual, but as we keep recruiting good and keep getting depth and talent, when these unfortunate things happen, other guys step in and take over.

"It'd be nice to have another junior quarterback or redshirt senior who's been around. That's ideally what you'd like to have. When one guy leaves, the other guy takes over. We'll get there, but we can't get it at every position in just two years. That's the problem. We do have that a little bit on the defensive line. We have some depth there, but not at the other spots.''

Still, thanks to a tremendous offseason strength and conditioning program that built them up mentally as well as physically, the Panthers believe they can persevere through these difficult times.

"The people out there playing, they're the ones that we have to rely on now,'' redshirt junior safety Eric Thatcher said. "It's tough to lose three starters, but we have to show that we're a strong character team and show that we have the guys who can step up from backups to show that they can play.

"We always talk about being one play from being on the field, and those guys have prepared themselves just as the starters have prepared for the games. So, it's their time now, and I believe they'll step in and play well.''

Fifth-year senior Mike McGlynn agreed that the backups will do a good job.

"The people who are stepping up into those roles, they just have to pick up the slack and pull their weight,'' McGlynn said. "But that just presents an opportunity for guys to get more playing time, and that's why they came here. They came to play, so we'll see how well they can do it.''

Notes: Redshirt freshman Ricky Gary will get his third straight start at field cornerback for sophomore Aaron Berry, while classmate Kevan Smith will open a second straight game at quarterback. ... Freshman quarterback Pat Bostick will play "if needed, but we'll see how the game unfolds,'' Wannstedt said. ... The Michigan State game will be nationally televised by ESPN.

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