Pittsburgh, coming off a more than two-decade best 10-3 record with a victory in the Car Care Bowl, must replace starters at 11 positions that includes all three interior offensive linemen, the quarterback, a wideout, two tight ends, both defensive tackles, the middle linebacker and both cornerbacks.
"The kids have worked very hard, and they're excited,'' Wannstedt said. "And since we had a large senior group leaving, there are a lot of opportunities for all the guys coming back. So, most of these guys are looking at this as an opportunity to get in there and an opportunity to play.''
"(The message is that) everyone has something to prove this year. Some want to prove that they can be a top draft pick or they're trying to prove that they're trustworthy enough to be put into a ball game. So, every scenario is a little different, and there are a few out there. So, we'll see what happens.''
As with any team, solid quarterback play is critical, and Pitt got a first-team All-Big East performance last season from Bill Stull, who led the Conference in passing efficiency and was second in yards passing per game. Redshirt junior Pat Bostick, who sat out last season, has played in 16 career games with nine starts. Redshirt sophomore Tino Sunseri was Stull's backup last year and had mop-up roles in five games.
"Pat has started, obviously, but Tino had a lot of work with the first group a year ago,'' Wannstedt said. "So, I like where we're at right there. Both those kids have enough experience, practice time and knowledge of the offense that I'm really looking forward to seeing what they can do once we get going.''
Wannstedt previously has noted that even though he expects a spirited competition between Bostick and Sunseri this spring, the Pitt head coach believed a front-runner will be clear after the annual Blue-Gold Game April 17 at 2 p.m. at Heinz Field. Therefore, he has other things to worry about with the Panthers before the regular season begins.
"The offensive line's the biggest concern,'' Wannstedt said. "Center, both guards, Tony Wise has a very challenging job this spring and camp to determine not just the starters, but the depth. From there, the secondary. We graduated both corners, and that's a critical spot. So, we have some holes to fill, but if you recruit well and have good kids, amazing stories happen every year.
"A year ago at this time, I didn't know if we had a (starting) running back, and I didn't know who our quarterback was going to be. And I don't think anybody brought up Dorin Dickerson's name. So, those three positions, obviously, were major bright spots when looking back at the success we had.''
The offensive line was a surprise success last year. Well, at least a surprise to the fans, but four-year starter Joe Thomas and two-year starters Robb Houser and John Malecki will be difficult to replace nonetheless. Fifth-year senior Jason Pinkston is expected to be an All-American at left tackle, while junior Lucas Nix should take his game to the next level as a second-year starter.
Redshirt junior Chris Jacobson is a star in waiting after nearly beating out Thomas for the left guard spot last fall. And redshirt sophomore Ryan Turnley is slated to move into Malecki's right guard spot after being the backup last year. Two redshirt freshmen, Juantez Hollins and Fernando Diaz, should provide depth at guard even though they are inexperienced.
Center was the biggest concern on the offensive line with only fifth-year senior walk-on Alex Karabin -- a two-year backup to Houser -- the front-runner for the starting spot. That's why Pitt moved redshirt freshman Jack Lippert, a defensive lineman last fall, to center. Lippert is 6-foot-4 and 275 pounds now, up 25 points since he arrived last summer, but he has a lot of work to do.
Even though Pitt lost co-starters Nate Byham and Dorin Dickerson at tight end, the Panthers should be all right this year with redshirt sophomore Mike Cruz, redshirt junior Andrew Devlin and redshirt frosh Brock DeCicco ready to pick up right where the others left off.
Junior Jonathan Baldwin and redshirt sophomore Mike Shanahan are the top receivers with redshirt frosh Ed Tinker and Devin Street adding depth. And sophomores Dion Lewis and Ray Graham are the top tailbacks again this season. Baldwin and Lewis are budding All-Americans. And redshirt junior fullback Henry Hynoski was a key blocker, pass-catcher and runner by the end of last season.
Defensively, junior-college transfer Saheed Imoru, fifth-year senior Ricky Gary and junior Antwuan Reed are the top cornerbacks and also should be ready to take the next step. Aundre Wright, a former wideout, has been moved to corner and could provide depth. Safety, however, is another story. At least this spring there is some concern, as four players counted on to be starters and key backups this fall basically are limited or not available.
First, enigmatic Elijah Fields was kicked off the team during the offseason. Fields was expected to start alongside Dom DeCicco, but the senior two-year starter is recovering from offseason hand surgery. Also, redshirt sophomore Andrew Taglianetti, who initially beat out Fields for a starting spot, is recovering from in-season knee surgery.
Redshirt freshman Jason Hendricks also will be limited this spring as well after offseason shoulder surgery. And former quarterback recruit Kolby Gray, who also had in-season shoulder surgery, has been moved to safety. His rehab is completed, so Gray will get a lot of playing time this spring. And walk-on Pat Costello, a former punter, did so well on special teams coverage last year that he was moved to safety. He could be a surprise this spring as well.
Dan Mason will take over for Adam Gunn at middle linebacker, and the dynamic sophomore should not miss a beat. Redshirt juniors Greg Williams and Max Gruder return as the starters at strong- and weak-side linebacker, respectively. But redshirt freshmen Shane Gordon and Carl Fleming, and redshirt sophomores Manny Williams and Jon Taglianetti are battling for playing time.
"Mason's in the middle, while Max and Greg Williams all will start at the beginning,'' Wannstedt said. "And the guys we moved (Gray, Wright and Lippert) ... this gives them the best opportunity to play and to help us quickly. They played those positions in high school, so we'll see what happens.''
The Panthers will start the spring slowly in just shorts and shells, but there will be two scrimmages and the spring game among the 15 total sessions to gauge the team's progress along with the other practices.
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