Everyone knows what Dion Lewis can do. Not many defenses knew what he could do last year, and if they did know, they still couldn't find a way to stop him. A year ago, Pitt opponents figured with LeSean McCoy gone, all they had to do was blitz Bill Stull, and who ever ran the ball wouldn't be a factor. Instead, Stull rebounded to have one of the most efficient seasons in Pitt history, and Lewis had one of the most productive seasons on the ground of any running back in Pitt history.
Now, opponents know who Lewis is. They are going to game plan for him. They might not game plan for Graham. Lewis is still slated to get the bulk of the carries, but Graham has shown some playmaking abilities in some limited carries, that might be worth putting on display at some point. He came through when given the ball last year. He carried a lot in games such as Louisville and Notre Dame. His run against Notre Dame late in the game was one of the more underrated plays of 2009.
The only question here is can Pitt--with an effective Lewis, still give Graham a fair amount of carries where he too can be a factor.
The bigger question may be who will start opposite Baldwin, but it's likely that on the way to finding that starter, a few other receivers could play a vital role in the offense. Of all the returning receivers not named Baldwin, Mike Shanahan returns the most receiving yards in 2010. He even started two games--one of which was the Meineke Car Care Bowl. In that game, it was Shanahan who led the team in receiving. That performance in itself is a microcosm of how Shanahan can contribute. In that game, Dorin Dickerson had four catches for 21 yards. Baldwin had three catches for 31 yards.
Because of Pitt's prime receiving threats being limited, Shanahan became the go-to guy, finishing with five catches for 83 yards. This of course supplements Dion Lewis' MVP performance. You can certainly look at Shanahan's performance against the Tar Heels as a breakout game for him, but also a precursor to being a breakout player for this team.
Outside of Lewis and Graham, no one on the team had more total yards than Cameron Saddler, who averaged 65.8 all-purpose yards a game. Saddler may still make an impact in the return game, but his goal for this year is to make more of an impact at the receiver position. The offense will need him a little more this year thanks to the graduations of two tight ends and two receivers. The 2009 season was a learning one for Saddler. He caught just three passes for 41 yards as a freshman, but scored his first career touchdown in just his third game.
As evidenced by that first touchdown--where he improvised off a screen pass at N.C. State, and his dazzling returns, Saddler has playmaking ability. Saddler drifted out of the offensive game because of the experience ahead of him. Now, he's one of the veterans that will be counted on to step up. Much the way Graham provides a nice change of pace back from Dion Lewis, Saddler has some shiftiness and some other moves that give Pitt a change of pace receiver from some of the others.
Cross earned the Ed Conway Award for the most improved offensive player during spring drills. The most refreshing thing about Cross, will be seeing him take the field. The first time Cross touched the ball--on a quarterback sneak, he scored a 17-yard touchdown run against Iowa. He only played in one other game in 2008 (South Florida), and rushed four total times. After redshirting in 2009, not only does Cross have a full year of better understanding the receiver position, but he provides some veteran leadership to the position. Interestingly, of any of the returning skill players, Cross is the lone senior. If he can demonstrate the go-to ability he showed the first time he carried the ball in a Pitt uniform, it will be hard to keep him off the field.
Cruz isn't much experienced, but much like Saddler and Cross, has made plays in limited opportunities. With the corps of receivers coming back, it's unlikely Cruz will see as many passes as 2009's tight end corps saw. However, if Pitt employs the same attention to the tight ends they showed a year ago, Cruz will get a lot of passes thrown his way. With no previous starting experience, it's a matter of how comfortable, and how matured Cruz looks when he steps on the field.
Why not throw an offensive lineman in there? Nix made an impressive jump a year ago, starting every game as a sophomore, after being a top reserve in his true freshman year. Jason Pinkston has a chance to be one of the country's most decorated linemen this season. With all the attention on him, people might forget about Nix, and how he paved the right side of the line, with John Malecki, for a big chunk of Dion Lewis' 1,799 rushing yards a year ago. With the loss of Malecki to graduation, Nix steps into more of a leadership role on the right side of the line, and may gain some of that star power that Malecki earned.