If one didn't know Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt's background it wouldn't take long to figure it out. Just look at the talent he's recruited on defense, especially up front, and one would know that has been his focus. This group really has a chance to be special.
Defensive ends Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard should wreak havoc on opposing O-lines and quarterbacks with their speed, strength, athleticism and long arms. And the inside guys, Gus Mustakas and Mick Williams, can be just as dominant. Mustakas appears to be approaching his status prior to his injury, which was dominant. It's still a question how he will hold up throughout the season, but what's great for Pitt is that the backups are solid as well.
Tackles Myles Caragein, Justin Hargrove and Chas Alecxih have really come a long way, and the same can be said for ends Shayne Hale, Brandon Lindsey and Tony Tucker. Caragein has been slowed by an ankle injury, but he's a future star. And moving Hale and Lindsey to D-end was brilliant.
The linebacking corps has come together quickly. Adam Gunn's recovery from a serious injury is just amazing. His faith and work ethic to get to this point should be commended, however his season turns out, but no one should count this guy out. If he is able to handle the physical punishment a middle linebacker must dish out and take on every play, Gunn should have a big season.
Redshirt sophomores Greg Williams and Max Gruder have had solid camps. Williams, at 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, is a physical specimen. He has a year's experience now and should be a big playmaker for Pitt. Gruder will be solid, but also can be a playmaker. He isn't as fast or athletic as Williams, but he is a solid run-stopper and already excellent when dropping into coverage.
Freshman Dan Mason, already getting second-team reps, will be the starting middle linebacker next season. Fifth-year senior Shane Murray is a former starter, so he has experience. Redshirt sophomore Tristan Roberts has been given a chance as a backup, but redshirt frosh Manny Williams will pass him.
The secondary has senior cornerbacks Aaron Berry and Jovani Chappel, but redshirt junior Ricky Gary, sophomore Antwuan Reed and redshirt freshman Jarred Holley should all see the field. Holley is having a terrific camp and could move up the depth chart as the year goes on.
The top three safeties are junior Dom DeCicco, sophomore Andrew Taglianetti and redshirt junior Elijah Fields. Taglianetti appeared to be ready to secure the starting free safety job before Fields was injured with his strong play, but if Fields is out for any time at all he's looking at a backup role for sure. Tags is a playmaker, and that's something that's needed in Pitt's secondary.
Offensively, it all starts up front, and Pitt's offensive line has a chance to be pretty good. It's just that it's difficult to judge how well they've performed during the first training camp week, because they can't handle the D-line. Still, one would think that it can't hurt for the O-line to play against Pitt's defensive front every day.
The starting group the majority of camp has been, from left to right, Jason Pinkston, Chris Jacobson, Robb Houser, John Malecki and Lucas Nix. Jacobson has been starting at left offensive guard on a regular basis ahead of senior Joe Thomas, but he's a three-year starter and certainly would be a key backup. Neither has stood out on an individual basis, in drills against the D-line, for example, but still have time to come together as a group before the season. The scrimmages will be crucial for that.
There is some talent among the backups, in particular redshirt sophomore Greg Gaskins, redshirt freshman Ryan Turnley and freshman Juantez Hollins, but the Panthers would be in trouble if there are any serious injuries to the starters. With the young guys getting their entire careers with Tony Wise, the ones already at Pitt and committed for next year, the future appears to be bright.
Among the wideouts, sophomore Jonathan Baldwin has a chance to be a superstar. This is not a revelation, but it is contingent on factors other than what Baldwin can control. The quarterback will need to have time to get him the ball downfield, and then he'll have to get the ball there. Also, unless there is some balance between the running game and short passing game, Baldwin will have a more difficult time getting open.
Senior Oderick Turner and Cedric McGee have been underwhelming so far, a disappointment considering they are upperclassmen, but it's not due to a lack of effort. McGee is a selfless, possession receiver who has no problem blocking for his teammates or going across the middle and taking a hit. However, he has had problems getting open against Pitt's defensive. Turner has been inconsistent, making a few big plays but dropping some as well, sort of the story of his career at Pitt. If there are more big plays than drops, he will be a perfect complement to Baldwin.
The backups are aplenty. Redshirt freshman Mike Shanahan was having an excellent camp before breaking his left hand. A return before the season is unlikely, so this is a chance for Aundre Wright, Aaron Smith and Cam Saddler, three smaller receivers, to step up. Wright probably has the edge so far. Smith and Saddler will help the Panthers on special teams as well.
Even though the running backs are inexperienced, including fullback Henry Hynoski, there is a lot of talent there. Each has made some plays, but the true determining factor should occur off their performances in the scrimmages. Freshmen Ray Graham and Jason Douglas have increased their profiles since Pitt put on the pads, but that doesn't mean they have surpassed freshmen Dion Lewis and Chris Burns (redshirt). Shariff Harris, the veteran of the group as a redshirt sophomore, could have a place as a power, short-yardage back along with Hynoski. Lewis probably is still the front-runner, but each will get a shot.
Finally, the quarterback situation could determine what Pitt does this season, and the Panthers coaching staff must decide if redshirt freshman Tino Sunseri is the quarterback of the future. If he is, then is that a good enough reason to start him this year? Not if it's to the detriment of what Pitt hopes to accomplish this season (maybe nine to 10 wins).
That's the rub, really, and a reason why Wannstedt likely will stick with Bill Stull as his starter. Junior Pat Bostick probably knows the offense as well as either of the three quarterbacks, and he's done quite a bit to improve himself on and off the field. Neither has had an outstanding camp, but Sunseri has been given more opportunities than Bostick to compete for the starting job with Stull.
But Stull will be difficult to supplant. Despite the other two outplaying him so far, it appears that Stull remains Wannstedt's guy. Coaches are loathe to go with young players, for fear that their inexperience will lead to losses. And make no mistake, Pitt needs to keep winning. After last season, a down year would be tough to take. Consistent winning is the only thing missing for Pitt right now.
So, while that likely means Stull will be the opening-game starter, I believe it also should mean a quick hook will be used if he falters. And I'm not talking about a couple games here. I mean during the second half in the opener if the offense isn't rolling by then.
This will be a change in philosophy for Wannstedt, but after the way things ended up last season it will be a necessity.
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