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2008 Pitt Preview - Offense
Pitt RB LeSean McCoy
Pitt RB LeSean McCoy
CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted May 9, 2008


CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - Pittsburgh Panther Offense

Pitt Panthers

Preview 2008 - Offense


- 2008 CFN Pitt Preview | 2008 Pitt Offense
- 2008 Pitt Defense
| 2008 Pitt Depth Chart
- 2007 CFN Pitt Preview
| 2006 CFN Pitt Preview 

What you need to know: In LeSean McCoy, Dave Wannstedt has a back capable of carrying the ball 25-30 times a game, while wearing out defenses in the second half. He’s a budding superstar who’ll get even better with experience and more support from the passing attack. The Panthers like to grind it out, but that doesn’t mean they’ll ignore the passing game. In fact, they need more balance to improve on last year’s paltry offensive numbers. Before getting injured in the opener, QB Bill Stull was staring at a breakthrough junior season as the starter. Now he’s trying to hold off the competition for a second straight year, while playing catch with one of the Big East’s deepest receiving corps.

Returning Leaders
Passing: Pat Bostick
155-252, 1,500 yds, 9 TD, 13 INT
Rushing: LeSean McCoy
276 carries, 1,328 yds, 14 TD
Receiving: T.J. Porter
37 catches, 329 yds, 0 TD

Star of the offense: Sophomore RB LeSean McCoy
Players who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore LT Jason Pinkston
Unsung star on the rise: Junior TE Nate Byham
Best pro prospect: McCoy
Top three all-star candidates: 1) McCoy  2) Senior WR Derek Kinder  3) Byham
Strength of the offense: McCoy, receiver depth
Weakness of the offense: The offensive line, uncertainty at quarterback

Quarterbacks

Projected Starter: Junior Bill Stull was all set to replace Tyler Palko a year ago when he injured his thumb in the opener and never returned. In the spring, he displayed an improved grip on the ball and on the starting job, holding off a stiff trio of competition. At 6-3 and 200 pounds, he’s an accurate passer who won’t blow anyone away with his arm strength, but also won’t make many mental mistakes. He has a complete grasp of the offense and is a tough, gritty leader, characteristics that resonate to the rest of his teammates. Because he was injured so early in the season, Stull still has to overcome a dearth of game experience, having attempted just 30 passes over the past three seasons.

Projected Top Reserves: When Stull went down last September, it forced the program to remove the redshirt of Pat Bostick, one of the most heralded recruits to ever sign with the Panthers. He was predictably erratic in eight starts, finishing 155-of-252 for 1,500 yards, eight touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. However, that experience plus a dedication to trimming some fat in the off-season has the 6-3, 220-pound Bostick back on track to be Pitt’s franchise quarterback. If he’s not the No. 2 guy, don’t rule out a redshirt season in 2008.

The longshot in the race at quarterback is sophomore Kevan Smith, a top recruit in 2006, but a disappointment a year ago. The first option off the bench when Stull was shelved, he failed to hold off Bostick, and threw just a single touchdown pass and four picks in five games. Smith will spend the summer trying to avoid slipping to No. 4 on the depth chart.     

Watch Out For… junior college transfer Greg Cross. The 6-2, 215-pound Cross offers something the other Panther quarterbacks can’t, the ability to beat a defense with his arm and his legs. He’s got a strong arm and is nifty outside the pocket, making him a natural fit, at a minimum, for Pitt’s wildcat package.  
Strength: Depth. This time last year, Pitt had three players who’d attempted 10 career passes between them.  Because of Stull’s injury and the signing of Cross, the Panthers now have four quarterbacks that took snaps and threw passes in 2007.
Weakness: Stull’s lack of snaps. Although he’s the veteran and the likely starter, Stull has actually thrown fewer career passes than Bostick or Smith. There’s no replacement for game experience, something the junior will have to accumulate in September.
Outlook: If you could somehow take Stull’s intangibles, Bostick’s arm, and Cross’ legs, the Panthers would have their best quarterback in years. Instead, Pitt will hand the offense over to the reliable Stull, occasionally tap into Cross’ unique talents, and hope that Bostick can be kept on ice for a year.
Rating: 7

Running Backs

Projected Starters: Pittsburgh gave birth to a new star last fall when it took the wraps off prized recruit LeSean McCoy, a Freshman All-American who rushed for 1,328 yards and 14 touchdowns and caught 33 passes for 244 yards and a score. Already a complete back at 5-11 and 210 pounds, he can pick up the tough yards between the tackles, or bounce outside and make people miss in the open field. He set the Big East freshman rushing record with no help from the passing game and a less than thorough knowledge of the playbook. With a season of experience under his belt, he’ll be even more dangerous as a sophomore.

In senior Conredge Collins, Pitt boasts one of the nation’s top fullbacks, an improving blocker who can also impersonate a tailback, if necessary. At 6-0 and 230 pounds, he’s started 16 games over the last two seasons, earning 62 carries, catching 27 passes, and scoring five times. Not your typical one-dimensional fullback, Collins will be used as an occasional change-of-pace to McCoy.        

Projected Top Reserves: A deep Panther backfield is led by senior LaRod Stephens-Howling, who’s been trumped by McCoy, but brings a spark and a veteran presence to the second team.  While not an every-down runner at 5-7 and 180 pounds, he’s an ideal third down back, who can take a swing pass and jet toward the sticks. He had a career-low 78 carries for 320 yards and a touchdown, adding 13 receptions for 73 yards.

A breakthrough spring has redshirt freshman Shariff Harris closing in on Stephens-Howling and the backup job. He almost certainly earned reps in the fall with his performance in March and April, consistently bouncing off tacklers and gaining yards after contact. At 6-1 and 190 pounds, Harris is a powerful north-south runner who wastes no time getting to the hole.

Once considered the franchise at running back, sophomore Kevin Collier is in danger of slipping down the depth chart and out of relevance. After contributing as a true freshman and flashing the speed to be a playmaker, the 5-11, 195-pounder sat out last season with a dislocated wrist, allowing McCoy to own the spotlight.

Once Collins graduates, the future at fullback belongs to redshirt freshman Henry Hynoski, a bruising 6-2, 245-pounder with soft hands and a wicked stiff-arm. While he can carry the ball if asked, his quickest path to more playing time will come from improving as a run blocker and pass protector.

Watch Out For…McCoy to be vastly improved as a sophomore. As long as the line does its job, he’s going to benefit tremendously from the season of experience, year in a college weight room, and greater stability behind center.                    
Strength: McCoy. The Big East’s premier running back now that Ray Rice and Steve Slaton are in the NFL, McCoy will be forced to weigh his future options at the end of the season.  While he’s only a sophomore, he’ll also be three years removed from high school graduation, making him a candidate to follow Rice and Slaton into the pros.           
Weakness: A definitive No. 2 back. If, as expected, McCoy logs 300 carries, it won’t matter who’s behind him.  However, if he’s ever a scratch, Pitt doesn’t have a true backup, other than the diminutive Stephens-Howling, who’s proven he can handle 20-25 touches a game.                     
Outlook: It took a few years, but in McCoy, Dave Wannstedt finally has a workhorse back that can bludgeon opposing defenses and help set up the pass.  Just in case his star bolts at the end of the year, the coach would be wise to make Harris and Collier get some developmental carries this fall.            
Rating: 9

Receivers

Projected Starters: The Panthers’ top two pass-catchers from last year are back, but the big news is the return of senior Derek Kinder from an ACL injury that forced him to miss all of 2007.  Before getting hurt, he was considered one of the Big East’s best receivers, catching 57 balls for 847 yards and six touchdowns, en route to a spot the All-Big East First Team. A physical 6-1, 210-pounder at flanker, Kinder is an outstanding downfield blocker and a receiver who can box out his man to make the catch. He ran in the spring, expecting to be at full strength by opening day.     

The starter at split end will be junior Oderick Turner, last year’s big-play receiver after Kinder went down. Like his partner, he’s a handful at 6-3 and 200 pounds, who caught 36 passes for 496 yards and five touchdowns. With Kinder back to attract some attention and the quarterback situation expected to be less erratic, Turner could have the best season of his career. 

Now that Darrell Strong is an Oakland Raider, junior tight end Nate Byham has one less obstacle to becoming a bona fide threat at the position. An outstanding downfield threat as a pass-catcher, he had 15 catches for 210 yards and a touchdown, numbers he’s capable of obliterating this fall.  At 6-3 and 245 pounds, Byham won’t open many holes for the running game, but that’s not why he was recruited to Pitt.

Projected Top Reserves: Although he’s sliding back to the second team, junior T.J. Porter proved to be a capable target when his opportunity arose last year.  With a chance to start five games, the elusive 6-1, 195-pounder had a team-high 37 catches for 329 yards.  However, Porter is too good of a playmaker to average under nine yards a catch for a second straight year.
 
Behind Turner, junior Cedric McGee is a tough, 6-1, 200-pounder who’ll sacrifice his body to make the catch or spring one of his teammates with a downfield block.  Primarily a special teams performer the last two seasons, he’s caught 14 career passes, including a career-best eight a year ago, and is coming off a solid spring.

Battling to back up Byham are juniors Dorin Dickerson and John Pelusi, two completely different tight ends. The 6-2, 220-pounder is basically a wide receiver lining up near the tackle. He’s an explosive athlete with great speed and an ability to pick up big chunks of yards after the catch. 

Pelusi, on the other hand, is a blue-collar worker, a 6-3, 255-pounder, who’ll mostly be used as a short yardage blocker.  He started three games a year ago, catching a pedestrian five passes for 46 yards. 

Watch Out For… true freshman Jonathan Baldwin. As deep as Pitt is at wide receiver, Baldwin might be too talented to keep out of the rotation. He’s a 6-6, 225-pound rookie who could split out wide or grow into a tight end.  More than just an exceptionally big target, he’s a polished pass-catcher with the potential to dominate before long in the Big East.              
Strength: Depth.  With the return of Kinder and the signing of Baldwin, it’s all there for Pitt to house as much receiving depth as any team in the league.  Byham and Dickerson have high ceilings at tight end, and the reserves, including sophomore Maurice Williams are not that big of a drop-off from the starters.                
Weakness: Consistency. On paper, the Panther receivers are big, fast, and imposing but the group is still prone to too many mental and physical mistakes. Dropped passes, in particular, are something the unit is determined to reduce in the upcoming season.
Outlook
: If the passing game doesn’t improve on last year’s 104th-place finish, it won’t be because of the receivers and tight ends. They’re big, athletic, and experienced, a balanced combination that’ll produce four receivers that haul in at least 30 receptions.
Rating: 8

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: If Pittsburgh fails to reach its goals in 2008, there’s a great chance it’ll be traced to an offensive line that lost three starters, two who were selected in April’s NFL Draft.  The veteran of the rebuilt line will be senior C.J. Davis, a seasoned veteran who’s started 30 games in-a-row at left guard.  At his best on running downs, the 6-3, 315-pounder is coming off surgery and an average junior season, so he’ll be dedicated to finishing his Panther career on a high note.

On the opposite side, the right guard will be junior John Malecki, a former defensive tackle still getting comfortable in his new surroundings. While he’s tough and very physical at 6-3 and 275 pounds, there’s no telling at his size how he’ll handle being the starter on a new side of the ball. On defense, Malecki was pretty effective, finishing second on the team with four sacks.

The biggest question mark is at center, where junior college transfer Robb Houser is hoping to make a smooth transition from Butte College to the Big East. At 6-2 and 285 pounds, he was coveted for his power and quickness getting to the second level, filling a large need for the Panthers.

Slated to play tackle will be junior Joe Thomas and sophomore Jason Pinkston, both of whom have something to prove. For the 6-5, 300-pound Thomas, he needs to show he can make a seamless move from right guard to right tackle. He can be nasty at the point of contact and has started seven games in each of the last two seasons, but hasn’t quite lived up to expectations since being a hot-shot recruit. Now would be a terrific time for Thomas to blossom.

Pinkston was on his way to becoming something special before a shoulder injury sidelined him for the final nine games. At 6-4 and 300 pounds, he has the footwork and quickness to eventually emerge into one of the league’s premier pass blockers.  Pinkston did not participate in spring drills, but is expected back in time to protect the quarterback’s backside.

Projected Top Reserves: At tackle, Chase Clowser is a 6-7, 330-pound senior who has lettered in each of the last three seasons.  Mostly used on special teams and late in blowouts, he’ll have to be ready for an expanded role if Thomas or Pinkston are unable to go.

The reserve guards are going to be 6-4, 305-pound senior Dominic Williams and 6-4, 280-pound junior John Bachman, a pair of returning lettermen. While Williams has had trouble cracking the lineup throughout his career, his experience and know-how offer value to the second team and younger Panthers.

Bachman is one of the program’s most versatile linemen, capable of playing center and tackle, as well as guard. Very agile and quick off the snap, injuries have been a factor that has kept him from reaching his full potential at Pitt.

Watch Out For…Houser’s development at center. The Panthers need him to be competent right from the opener, especially with so much uncertainty flanking the pivot. Behind Houser is sophomore walk-on Alex Karabin, so forget about a safety net.
Strength: The left side. Assuming Pinkston’s injury doesn’t linger, the Panthers will be in solid shape left of center.  While Davis is the steady vet at guard, Pinkston has the raw assets to develop into one of the Big East’s better left tackles.         
Weakness: Overall talent level.  At this moment, the first two units have far more question marks than blockers who can absolutely, positively be counted on to deliver.  Pinkston and Davis are returning from injuries, and Thomas is changing positions, adding to an already tenuous situation.    
Outlook: The Pittsburgh line was inconsistent last year, when future pros Jeff Otah and Mike McGlynn were around.  Once the Panthers conclude the MAC portion of their schedule, this unit is going to struggle badly to move opposing defensive lines off the ball.
Rating
: 6