Even though Pittsburgh finished with a whimper, 2008 was hugely successful at 9-4, and a strong start to 2009 with recruiting would be the perfect way to get the year off on the right track. Sure, a win would have been nice. Heck, even a good showing would have been all right, too.
But that chance sailed high and wide like Bill Stull pass. Speaking of Stull, it's hard to believe some of the spots he was put in -- throwing long into a hurricane, even a couple times on third-and-short -- but it's even more amazing at how he regressed this season.
Early on, his problems could be credited to inexperience. A couple games later, they were due to a serious hip injury. Later in the season, well, he never appeared to get into any kind of groove. Sure, Stull had his moments, but for the most part he just couldn't make enough plays. Throws to open receivers were too far, too short or out of bounds if they were more than 30 yards.
And swing passes to a running back, fuhgetaboutit. Those were Stull's most difficult throws to complete. The sad part is that the Panthers might not have a better quarterback in its program right now. And Pitt must upgrade its play at the quarterback position if it wants to be successful next season. There's no way around it. For this program to get to the next level, it needs a quarterback who makes plays, as well as manages the game. Stull has done neither.
That's not to say that he won't be better next season. Maybe it'll be Pat Bostick, who has two seasons remaining, or Tino Sunseri with four seasons left. Kevan Smith, who also has two years remaining, is a long shot. And senior-to-be Greg Cross, well, who knows? He was brought in for his running ability and not his passing, but he played so rarely that his impact was negligible at best.
The 2009 team's success, much like these past two seasons, will be predicated on strong play from tailback LeSean McCoy and Pitt's stingy defense. McCoy, of course, can decide not to return and turn pro. But all indications are that he will come back to Pitt for his junior season. He still has a week or so to decide.
Even if McCoy does not return, although that is preferable, the Panthers certainly have enough talent in their backfield and on their offensive line to be successful as long as the quarterback play improves. Shariff Harris, Chris Burns and Kevin Collier should share the carries, as LaRod Stephens-Howling graduates and if McCoy leaves.
The offense loses starting center C.J. Davis, but Robb Houser should return to full strength from his ankle injury. And plenty of talent is on the depth chart -- Chris Jacobson and Lucas Nix among them -- to take over at left guard for Dom Williams. The tackles return in Joe Thomas and Jason Pinkston, but depth must continue to be developed.
Fullback Conredge Collins also is done, but for as little as he was used Henry Hynoski certainly should be able to step right in there. The wideouts lost Derek Kinder, but have seniors Oderick Turner, Cedric McGee and T.J. Porter, as well as sophomores Jonathan Baldwin and Aundre Turner returning. Even though none stood out, surely one or more should emerge as top-notch targets. The younger players and maybe Porter are most likely.
All three tight ends -- Nate Byham, Dorin Dickerson and John Pelusi -- will be seniors next season. They are an offensive strong point, but rarely used with any regularity for some reason.
Defensively, tackle Rashaad Duncan, linebackers Scott McKillop and Austin Ransom and safety Eric Thatcher are graduating. Only McKillop is believed to be irreplaceable, but the same was said about H.B. Blades, and the position actually was upgraded the past two seasons. That's not likely this time around, but the outside spots should be much better with starter Greg Williams a year more experienced and everybody else a year older and trying to fit in.
On the D-line, seniors Mick Williams, Tommie Duhart and Gus Mustakas will be joined by sophomore Myles Caragein to form the tackle rotation. Juniors Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard can still improve on a solid first season as starting ends, while Tyler Tkach and Tony Tucker should be better as backups.
The secondary has two senior corners in Aaron Berry and Jovani Chappel. Ricky Gary, who's broken arm sidelined him for the Sun Bowl. Safety Dom DeCicco should improve, and so should Elijah Fields -- but he is still a mystery. Andrew Taglianetti could move into a starting spot. Backups at corner are Jarred Holley and Antwuan Reed, along with Buddy Jackson -- who also is a mystery.
The punter and place-kicker, Dave Brytus and Conor Lee, must also be replaced. Kevin Harper was recruited to take over for Lee, while several walk-ons will compete for the punting position.
The outlook is still bright for Pitt, especially if McCoy returns. Sure, some players will improve their play and step in for departed starters. The depth chart should deepen in talent as well, but the key -- along with McCoy's return and maybe even more -- is the quarterback play. That must improve for the Panthers to continue to rise in the rankings.
What's Next For Pitt?
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