Pittsburgh finished 5-7 last season, a third straight year without a bowl game under Wannstedt. However, the Panthers knocked off second-ranked West Virginia, 13-9, in the 100th Backyard Brawl to cap the season and instill hope for the future and create a buzz unlike any before during his tenure.
Another ranked recruiting class, All-American middle linebacker Scott McKillop leading a defense that returns nearly intact from one that ranked fifth nationally at season's end and explosive tailback LeSean McCoy are just a few reasons the Panthers are considered to be a team on the rise.
Certainly, there are questions surrounding the club, primarily the quarterback situation and depth on the offensive line, but some could be answered during the 15 spring practice sessions that culminate with the annual Blue-Gold intra-squad scrimmage April 19 at 6 p.m. at Heinz Field.
First, we'll take a look at the Pitt offense.
The quarterback position appears to be deeper than ever under Wannstedt with five players in the mix. After injuries and attrition from previous years forced Wannstedt to use Pat Bostick as his starting quarterback as a freshman, Pitt appears to be much more solid at the position with he and redshirt sophomore Kevan Smith much improved after getting considerable playing time last fall.
The position is deeper as well since redshirt junior Bill Stull, the starter for Pitt's opener last season, is back to reclaim that spot after missing all but a half due to a thumb injury. Wannstedt also brought in two quarterbacks, junior-college transfer Greg Cross and freshman Tino Sunseri, to compete for the starting job. Cross will get a head start because he has been enrolled since January.
Even though Bostick finished the season as the starter, arm strength and mobility were concerns for the offseason. Wannstedt said he lost a lot of weight training with Buddy Morris since season ended so he can regain his spot. Cross makes for an interesting addition since he is more mobile than the rest and could run specialty packages, like the Wildcat, if he doesn't win the job outright.
Pitt must replace three starters on its offensive line, at center and both tackle spots, but appears to have some players to fill the roles. Depth, as usual, will be a concern. Junior-college transfer Robb Houser was brought in to man the center position, while redshirt sophomore Jason Pinkston should be able to handle a starting tackle spot that he had before a shoulder injury sidelined him.
The two starting guards, C.J. Davis and Joe Thomas, are back. But a freshman could earn the starting nod at the other tackle position. Redshirt frosh Jordan Gibbs is expected to get a lot of playing time, while incoming freshman Lucas Nix is a five-star athlete that also could push for a spot.
Depth issues were handled by moving some players. Redshirt junior John Bachman was switched from guard to center, while redshirt sophomore Jared Martin went from defensive tackle to center. Both could make an impact if they're healthier than they were last season. And junior defensive tackle John Malecki, who wouldn't be among the top four this fall with redshirt junior Gus Mustakas returning from a knee injury, was moved to guard.
Fifth-year senior Dominic Williams and redshirt freshmen John Fieger and Chris Jacobson should push for playing time at guard, while fifth-year seniors Chase Clowser and Frank Kochin, as well as talented redshirt freshmen Greg Gaskins, Wayne Jones and Dan Matha should do the same at tackle. Gaskins worked at center last year, while Jones was a defensive tackle. Both have the size and athleticism to be fine tackles in the future.
Juniors Nate Byham and John Pelusi, a redshirt, are back to man the tight end spot again. But the two are joined by junior Dorin Dickerson, who has been tried at running back, wideout and outside linebacker (last season). Dickerson said he liked playing defense, but he was an offensive star in high school and could excel if he gets to settle in at the tight end position. Redshirt sophomore Tyler Tkach moved from defensive end to tight end this spring as well.
McCoy ran for 1,328 yards and 14 touchdowns, but senior LaRod Stephens-Howling gives Pitt a veteran backup with starting expeience. Redshirt sophomore Kevin Collier and redshirt freshman Shariff Harris are backups as well. Collier was expected to contribute until a hand injury sidelined him in training camp for the entire season.
Senior Conredge Collins, redshirt junior Shane Brooks and redshirt frosh Henry Hynoski form a solid fullback corps that can block, catch passes and get some tough inside yardage when necessary.
The wide receivers were thrown for a loop when senior Derek Kinder, a first-team All-Big East performer the previous year, suffered a season-ending knee injury early in camp last fall. But he returns to give Pitt added talent and experience this year. Joining Kinder are junior T.J. Porter, who started for Kinder at flanker, and redshirt junior Oderick Turner at split end.
If Kinder can return to perform at his previous level, this position will be solid. The remaining players must upgrade their play no matter what Kinder's condition is. Redshirt junior Cedric McGee and speedy redshirt frosh Aundre Wright should contribute at flanker, while sophomore Maurice Williams and redshirt freshman Aaron Smith provide depth at split end. Williams was late contributor last fall.
Starting place-kicker Conor Lee, a fifth-year senior, has been spectacular with just six missed field goals in his career and a perfect record on extra points.
The only players who did not return, despite more eligibility, were wideout Marcel Pestano, offensive lineman John Brown, who battled injuries his entire career, and Lucas Stone, the holder and backup punter.
Pitt's Spring Offensive Outlook
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