Twenty Questions: New Starters

There are a number of players in the fold who are contending for starting jobs. Some have worked their way up from special teams, or even shared a few reps here and there. In 2010, these players will be making a jump from just a ‘regular' to being 'the guy.' Here's a look at a few of the players we feel are in contention to make the biggest jump.

MYLES CARAGEIN, Defensive Tackle
With Mick Williams and Gus Mustakas starting inside, and being valuable members of the Pitt defense for a number of years, it was pointless to bring in another defensive tackle to add some extra reps. Wrong. Myles Caragein proved otherwise in 2009. Caragein not only contributed to the defensive line play as a redshirt sophomore, but made an impact as well. He started the Louisville game and played in all 13 games. We saw how much an impact Caragein can have on a game--one when he forced a fumble at Louisville that night, which was followed by a 71-yard touchdown pass from Bill Stull to Jon Baldwin on the next play. Against Notre Dame, he recovered one--this time on the Notre Dame 27 with two minutes left to play, which helped clinch the win over the Irish. Caragein is not your typical jump from rotation to starter type of player. This transition he is going to face should be a minimal thing. If anything, because he'll be out there for more reps, his numbers should explode from what they were in 2009. By season's end, he should be in the mix for all-conference honors if he keeps at the pace that has brought him this far. He finished 2009 tied for second on the team with five sacks, with three other players--Jabaal Sheard, Mick Williams and Adam Gunn--all of whom were starters.

ANTWUAN REED, Cornerback
Everyone knows Reed was the defensive recipient of the Ed Conway Award, for being Pitt's most improved player. Playing every down in the spring helped him a lot, and the amount of reps prepared him to be in a training camp battle. When fall camp resumes, he will have to fend off Ricky Gary in competition. In two years, he has played in 22 games, including all 13 in 2009. Of the four true freshman who played in 2008, Reed was the biggest surprise. He's gone from playing in a few defensive packages and playing special teams, to now having to be an every-down corner. He'll certainly get the best preparation in fall camp, as he gets to square off against Jon Baldwin every day. Though both starting corner jobs--whoever wins them--have to replace two graduated seniors in Aaron Berry and Jovani Chappel, any playmaking ability that Reed can add will be welcome. Berry and Chappel combined for one interception all season, while the backups Gary and Reed each had one.

DAN MASON, Middle Linebacker
Mason made three starts as a true freshman, and earned Big East Defensive Player of the Week for his performance in the start against Navy. Two of those starts came at middle linebacker, where Mason has the lead heading into camp. The other start came at outside linebacker in the bowl win over North Carolina. Much like Caragein, Mason has proven he can make plays that can alter a game's outcome. He picked off a pass at the goal line against North Carolina, that took the Tar Heels out of the red zone. Though Mason struggled in pass coverage in a loss at N.C. State last season, that interception is evidence that he is improved in that area. While he may have a better idea of the scheme and his responsibilites, the bigger question may be can he replace the leadership in the middle that Adam Gunn had. His character proves he is capable of doing so. The only knock is that he is just a true sophomore on paper. Gunn, and Scott McKillop before him, were both seniors. Mason will be the first true sophomore to start at middle linebacker since H.B. Blades started in 2004.

It seems like a long time coming for this, but Chris Jacobson is finally a starter. He battled tooth and nail for the starting job at left guard last season, eventually losing the job to senior Joe Thomas. That battle, however, was close all the way. When the time came for Jacobson to start, which came in the bowl win over North Carolina, he proved he could get the job done. Jacobson was the sixth guy in Pitt's offensive line last year. Now he's clearly in that top five, probably in the top three along with Jason Pinkston and Lucas Nix.

This position is still up for grabs. If it goes like it did in the spring, then sure, Gaskins will be the starter at right guard. There may be a position battle between him and Ryan Turnley in camp, and there's always the possibility of someone getting moved. But, if all goes like it did in the spring, Gaskins is the favorite to have this one wrapped up. This individual position may be the biggest hole to fill anywhere on the team. The player who previously started in this position, John Malecki, was an instrumental component--not just for the offensive line, but for the team as a whole. Gaskins will face enormous pressure, having to replace a player of Malecki's will and physical style. Still, of all the linemen who have not started a game, Gaskins appears to be the next guy in line. One nice thing here is that Malecki showed Nix the ropes, while learning to start on that right side. Perhaps Nix now returns the favor.

MIKE CRUZ, Tight End
Of any receiver not named Jon Baldwin, Cruz may have the surest hands. Aside from his 6-5, 270-pound frame, and his mobility for being that size, he has a great set of hands which will now be on display every down. Cruz played in 11 games last season--a season that saw a combined 59 receptions by Dorin Dickerson and Nate Byham. Still, when the ball was thrown to Cruz for the first time, he caught it--a two-yard touchdown reception against South Florida. Will Cruz be expected to catch 59 passes to make up for the loss of Byham and Dickerson? That would be nice to think, but with Baldwin coming back, a host of receivers such as Mike Shanahan, Cameron Saddler and Greg Cross, in addition to running back Dion Lewis, there won't be as much pressure on Cruz to fill the void left by NFL‘ers, Byham and Dickerson. In fact, anything Cruz can contribute outside of that kind of weaponry will be much welcome.

The Panthers are on their fifth starting center in Dave Wannstedt‘s tenure. Joe Villani, Chris Vangas, Robb Houser and C.J. Davis have all started at center for Wannstedt. Now, the Panthers look to Karabin, a former walk-on who begins 2010 as a redshirt senior. He has only one year before the reins are turned over to Jack Lippert, who will have three years as the starting center, if all goes well. Karabin is the missing piece of the offensive line. He has waited his turn, and played in all 13 games last season on special teams. If he performs up to standard, Pitt's offensive line will be good once again in 2010. Karabin is also a natural center, making the transition from Houser-to-Karabin a little simpler. Whoever succeeds Malecki on the offensive line still has the biggest shoes to fill.

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