The nightmares from that game have nearly subsided, and there is as much optimism as ever for Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt, as the Panthers were chosen by Big East media members to win the Conference this year. And why shouldn't Pitt followers be optimistic?
The Panthers' defense, despite losing All-American Scott McKillop at middle linebacker, should be among the nation's best. That's thanks to a front wall with a handful of players who appear to be destined for the NFL in fifth-year senior tackles Mick Williams and Gus Mustakas and redshirt sophomore Myles Caragein, as well as redshirt junior Greg Romeus and junior Jabaal Sheard on the ends.
Backup ends Shayne Hale, a redshirt freshman, and redshirt sophomores Tony Tucker and Brandon Lindsey, provide incredible depth. Hale and Lindsey are former linebackers. If the defense's success is predicated on the performance by its front line, it will be hard to believe if it's not a rousing success.
The linebacking corps will miss starters McKillop and Austin Ransom, but healthy sixth-year senior Adam Gunn and fifth-year senior Shane Murray returning from injuries should soften the blow. Also, redshirt sophomore strong-side linebacker Greg Williams has added some size, strength and experience to his amazing athleticism. Solid redshirt sophomore Max Gruder is the weak-side backer.
Redshirt junior Nate Nix and redshirt sophomore Tristan Roberts are backups with experience. The secondary also has some tenure with senior cornerbacks Aaron Berry and Jovani Chappel being pushed by sophomore Antwuan Reed and redshirt junior Ricky Gary. Junior Dom DeCicco, a second-year starter, and redshirt junior Elijah Fields the strong and free safety, respectively.
Fifth-year senior Irvan Brown and sophomore Andrew Taglianetti will push for playing time as well. Taglianetti could beat out Fields for his spot. Redshirt freshman Jarred Holley is a backup at corner and safety on Pitt's depth chart.
There should be no concerns about the defense, as long as the line is its usual dominant self. If the D-line can't provide pressure up front, the secondary could get exposed like it did on more than one occasion last fall. But with another year experience, those guys should step up their games as well.
Offensively, while there has been much consternation about who will be Pitt's quarterback, it certainly will aid either fifth-year senior Bill Stull or junior Pat Bostick if the Panthers' offensive line is healthy from the outset and jells quickly. That is more critical to the quarterback's success than anything.
The Panthers must replace four-year starter C.J. Davis and are plugging in two new players, because Dom Williams started the second half of the season when Davis moved to center. So, right now, Pitt will go with redshirt junior Jason Pinkston at left tackle, Chris Jacobson or Joe Thomas at left guard, senior Robb Houser at center, senior John Malecki at right guard and sophomore Lucas Nix at right tackle. Jacobson and Nix have no experience. Thomas is a three-year starter, both at guard and tackle, and certainly will be a key backup at both spots if he doesn't win the left guard job. Houser has not played much, but he was coming on a little when he got hurt. His health could determine the line.
The five best guys are who Wannstedt says that he wants to play. That's why he wants to get scholastic All-Americans Nix and Jacobson in the mix. If a change is needed at center, maybe moving Malecki, Thomas could play right guard. These are things that must be finalized in camp for the offense, and more importantly the quarterbacks, to be successful during the season.
Let's look at the quarterbacks. Stull and Bostick, the two most-experienced, surely have to be better than they were previously because they had no experience before. It goes to reason that with all the hard work they put in the past year, and it's documented that they've put in the work on and off the field, should help improve performance.
Probably the most hotly-contested spots on the depth chart will be running back. Redshirt sophomore Henry Hynoski will be a force at fullback, but redshirt sophomore Shariff Harris, redshirt freshman Chris Burns and freshmen Dion Lewis and Ray Graham all have a legitimate shot to win the starting tailback job and key backup role lost when LeSean McCoy and LaRod Stephens-Howling moved on to the NFL.
The tight ends are easy to figure, on one hand, as seniors Nate Byham and Dorin Dickerson are the clear-cut starter and backup. Both will play extensively and should be integral parts of the offense. Dickerson has worked hard on his blocking, so he'll be used in numerous sets in Frank Cignetti's offense.
Fifth-year seniors Oderick Turner and Cedric McGee join sophomore Jonathan Baldwin to form a dynamic trio of receivers with unproven talent like Aaron Smith and Aundre Wright battling for playing time. And don't count out senior Greg Cross, who has worked hard in the film room and the weight room. Redshirt frosh Mike Shanahan also is looking for playing time.
The most key players to replace could be place-kicker Conor Lee and punter Dave Brytus and long-snapper Mark Estermyer with all inexperienced guys. Redshirt junior Dan Hutchins is the heir apparent at punter, and he will battle redshirt freshman Kevin Harper for the field-goal kicking duties. Harper and incumbent Lucas Briggs are the kickoff guys, while John Fieger and Mike Cruz are the long-snappers.
The punt returners and are Cam Saddler, Aaron Smith and Taglianetti, while Wright and Saddler are the top kickoff returners. If Saddler proves to be healthy about a year since his knee surgery, he should be dynamic at both spots.
Finally, what will Pitt's record be. The Panthers can win the Big East and have the talent to win every game. They have Cincinnati at home this season, as well as Notre Dame, but Rutgers, North Carolina State and West Virginia will be tough road games. Another 9-3 season should be attainable, but 10-2 or 11-1 isn't out of the question if the O-line comes together quickly and the quarterback play upgrades from the second half of last season.
Probably the best bet is to play it safe, but I'll split the difference and say that Pitt will go 10-2, win the Conference and get a BCS bid somewhere. But before any of that happens, the Panthers must go through training camp, and that begins today.
Football season has finally arrived.
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