2009 Pitt Preview - Offense
Pitt QB Bill Stull
Pitt QB Bill Stull
Posted May 12, 2009

CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - Pittsburgh Panther Offense

Pitt Panthers

Preview 2009 - Offense

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| 2009 Pitt Depth Chart
- 2008 Pitt Preview | 2007 Pitt Preview
| 2006 Pitt Preview

What you need to know: When new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti dubbed his move back to Western Pennsylvania a “dream job”, he obviously skipped the 2008 Panther highlight reel. The coach is inheriting a dearth of proven playmakers and a heap of problems that need to be solved. No one was shocked that RB LeSean McCoy left for the NFL after just two years, but it still cut deep into an offense that’s lacked pop for years. Actually, replacing McCoy might be easier than lighting a spark under a feeble passing attack that produced just 10 touchdown passes in 13 games. It’s a good thing Cignetti has a track record of coaching up quarterbacks because he’ll need to tap into his inner-Jeff Tedford in order to elevate the play of Bill Stull. The senior must evolve into a more consistent playmaker in order to maximize the potential of WR Jonathan Baldwin, TE Nate Byham, and a deep receiving corps.  

Returning Leaders
Passing: Bill Stull
188-330, 2,356 yds, 9 TD, 10 INT
Rushing: Aundre Wright (WR)
5 carries, 34 yds, 1 TD
Receiving: Cedric McGee
23 catches, 201 yds, 0 TD

Star of the offense: Sophomore WR Jonathan Baldwin
Players that has to step up and become a star: Junior LT Jason Pinkston
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore RT Lucas Nix
Best pro prospect: Baldwin
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Senior TE Nate Byham  2) Baldwin  3) Pinkston
Strength of the offense: The pass-catchers, experience at quarterback
Weakness of the offense: The passing game, inexperience at running back, pass protection


Projected Starter: Senior Bill Stull was not effective in his first full season, a delicate way of saying he was awful. Despite being surrounded by quality at the skill positions, he only managed to go 188-of-330 for 2,356 yards, nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He was 72nd nationally in passing efficiency and posed no threat as a runner, getting sacked more than any Big East quarterback. Yet, he remains atop the depth chart, an indication of the Panthers’ problems at the position. No one is asking the 6-3, 215-pounder to channel Dan Marino, or even Tyler Palko for that matter, but he must do a better job of making decisions and making plays. Being tough and gritty just isn’t enough for this offense, especially with the departure of RB LeSean McCoy.

Projected Top Reserves: While 6-3, 220-pound junior Pat Bostick has been unable to unseat Stull, he has tightened his grip on the backup job with a solid offseason. Named most improved in the spring, he represents an efficient option, who has the experience of nine starts over the last two years. However, when he’s had his chances, he failed to impress, throwing just nine career touchdown passes and 17 interceptions. In danger of becoming a five-star bust, he has no mobility and hasn’t anyone as a hurler.

Filling out the depth chart is 6-2, 200-pound redshirt freshman Tino Sunseri, a key recruit from the 2008 class. Lacking the experience to seriously challenge Stull, he’ll spend this fall trying to get an edge on Bostick for the 2010 job. A natural leader, he has good zip on his passes and can distinguish himself with his agility, something both of his elders are sorely lacking.

Watch Out For… more groans from the fan base. Has it only been two seasons since Palko graduated? Panther fans will swear it’s been much longer. Watching Stull and Bostick in 2007 and 2008 will have that effect. Unless new coordinator Frank Cignetti is a magician, there’s no evidence that greatness awaits either of his two main pupils.
Strength: Experience. What’s better than having your starting quarterback returning? Two quarterbacks with starting experience. Remember, when Stull missed almost all of 2007, it was Bostick who filled in and played in 10 games. Having multiple quarterbacks with game experience is a luxury few schools enjoy. 
Weakness: Overall talent. Neither Stull nor Bostick will frighten Big East opponents with his ability as a passer or a scrambler. The Panthers finished 87th nationally in passing efficiency, finished next to last in the league in touchdown passes, and wasted a lot of talented pass-catchers.
Outlook: Forget the loss of McCoy to the NFL. This is the biggest area of concern for the offense. Sunseri isn’t ready. Bostick doesn’t appear to be the answer. It’s up to Stull to cobble together a decent enough season to keep the other team from loading up to stop the run.
Rating: 6

Running Backs

Projected Starters: While there’s uncertainty over who’ll get most of the touches in a post-LeSean McCoy world, one thing is certain—true freshman Dion Lewis has already earned his place in the rotation. Heck, he has a shot to be the starter when Youngstown State visits for the opener. In a short period of time, the 5-8, 190-pounder has already gotten a grasp of the offense, and showed a knack for making plays every day in spring practice. While undersized, he actually uses his stature as an advantage, finding holes quickly and darting through before linemen can get their mitts on him.

The graduation of Conredge Collins has created an opportunity for sophomore Henry Hynoski, a powerful 6-2, 250-pounder, who is not your typical fullback. Yeah, he’ll mostly earn his scholarship by creating space for the tailbacks, but he’s also a capable and a reliable receiver out of the backfield. In high school, he rushed for 7,165 yards and 113 scores, so he’s anything but one-dimensional. 

Projected Top Reserves: The job of keeping Lewis humble belongs to sophomore Shariff Harris and redshirt freshman Chris Burns, who have just as good a chance of winning the job in the summer. At 6-1 and 215 pounds, Harris is the biggest, strongest, and most experienced of the trio. A no-nonsense, north-south runner, he’s tough enough to bounce off arm-tackles and exploit the middle of the field. If not a 20-carry guy, he’ll certainly have a role in short yardage.

Burns is a shifty, elusive runner, who gets to top gear in a hurry. At 5-11 and 190 pounds, he has good size and balance, rarely going down on first contact. After a celebrated prep career in Pennsylvania and a redshirt year to get stronger, he’s ready to start making good on his lofty expectations.    

Watch Out For… a shared responsibility. Sure, Lewis turned heads and built a little daylight, but does that mean a 190-pound rookie is ready for 25 carries a game? Unlikely. Oh, he’s going to play, but so will Harris and Burns, who bring something a little different to the running game. Heck, don’t be shocked if Hynoski does an Owen Schmitt impression as an occasional bulldozing change-of-pace.
Strength: Versatility. None of the parts is the same in the Pittsburgh backfield, which is a good thing. While Lewis and Burns have big-play potential, Harris and Hynoski have the size and strength to move piles. Together, they form a complimentary unit, with an answer for every situation.
Weakness: No proven runners. Not only is McCoy gone, but so are LaRod Stephens-Howling and Conredge Collins, the next busiest Panthers in 2008. By virtue of his 12 career carries, Harris is suddenly the veteran of a very young and inexperienced backfield.
Outlook: Obviously, you don’t get better after losing a player of McCoy’s caliber. Having said that, Pittsburgh isn’t in such bad shape at running back, thanks to some quality recruiting in the Northeast. Although Lewis is all the rage these days, neither Harris nor Burns should be forgotten. It was just last year that both players were being hailed as the future at the position.
Rating: 7


Projected Starters: The Panthers expect to bring back six of last year’s seven best receivers, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be fully utilized. Pitt quarterbacks were simply pitiful at getting the ball in the hands of the wideouts in 2008. One player that simply can’t be overlooked is sophomore split end Jonathan Baldwin, an imposing 6-5, 220-pounder, who’s just waiting to blossom into a star. Literally the next big thing in a Panther receiver, he showed flashes as a rookie, making 18 grabs for 404 yards and three touchdowns. Still a little unpolished, when he puts it all together, he’ll be a load to handle and one of the game’s premier deep threats. However, he's in trouble after being charged with harassment and disorderly conduct in an alleged incident with a woman on a bus. His status is up in the air.

Over at flanker is 6-1, 205-pound senior Cedric McGee, a tough, steady veteran of three letters and seven career starts. Mostly a special teams performer in his first two seasons, he caught a personal-best 23 balls for 201 yards in 2008. Although he won’t scare anyone on a fly pattern, he does a lot of little things to help the offense, like sacrificing his body to make a catch or laying out a safety on a downfield block.

Senior Nate Byham is the reigning All-Big East first team tight end and a third-year starter at the position. An outstanding pass-catcher and dangerous weapon down the seam, he’s better than the 20 receptions for 260 yards and a score he delivered in 2008. Especially on a team that doesn’t air it out that often, he’s capable of doubling that production in his final year of eligibility.

Projected Top Reserves: As Baldwin continues learning the ropes, senior Oderick Turner is an ideal veteran backup at split end. At 6-3 and 205 pounds, he brings a physical presence and 30 career starts to the corps. While his numbers have steadily declined since a breakout freshman campaign, catching just 21 passes last fall, a player of his experience and leadership is a luxury on the second team.

If he can return from an alcohol-induced suspension, 6-1, 195-pound senior T.J. Porter will be firmly in the rotation at flanker, if not pushing for McGee’s job. He has 65 career grabs for 704 yards, but is still waiting for his first touchdown. If he remains on the shelf, it’ll mean more playing time for a pair of sophomores, 5-11, 180-pound Aundre Wright and 6-0, 180-pound Aaron Smith.

Veteran depth is not relegated to just the wide receivers. The tight ends have it as well. Behind Byham is 6-2, 230-pound senior Dorin Dickerson, a versatile Panther and one of the best all-around athletes on the roster. A former linebacker, he’s made a smooth transition to offense, pulling down 13 passes for 174 yards and two touchdowns.

Watch Out For… the emergence of Baldwin. Now that McCoy is gone, the sophomore is the best offensive weapon in Pittsburgh. Built like a condor, he has the long arms, big hands, and enormous stride to make even marginal quarterbacks look good. He’s the best thing to hit this position since Larry Fitzgerald exited.                
Strength: Experience and depth. Although the Panthers’ best receiver is only a second-year player, he’s surrounded by seniors, who have played a ton of football in Pittsburgh. In fact, if Porter returns, Baldwin will be the only non-senior on the two-deep at wide receiver or tight end. 
Weakness: Killer speed. A very big, physical group, the Panthers will not frighten you with their straight-line speed. It’s the one trade-off for having an ensemble that averages about 6-2 and 200 pounds. Pitt also hopes to become more consistent at the position, limiting some of the drops that plagued them a year ago. 
Outlook: Over the last two seasons, Pittsburgh has been home to one of the nation’s least efficient passing teams. Don’t blame the receivers, a talented group that would be so much more productive if teamed with a better battery mate. It’s hard to argue with a unit that has star potential at wide receiver and tight end, and as much depth as anyone in the Big East.
Rating: 8

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: Developing depth on the interior has been a priority ever since Dave Wannstedt arrived. It’s beginning to pay dividends. The Panthers bring back four starters from 2008, needing only to replace All-Big East performer C.J. Davis. That void at left guard is likely to be filled by 6-3, 290-pound sophomore Chris Jacobson, a highly-regarded member of the 2007 class, who appears ready to fulfill expectations. A tenacious run blocker with a nasty streak, he’ll fit in very nicely at this program.

Returning to right guard is 6-3, 280-pound senior John Malecki, a 13-game starter and last season’s most improved player. A converted defensive tackle, he made a smooth transition to offense, using his quickness, work ethic, and guile to survive. Now that he has that first season out of the way, he figures to be even more effective this fall.

Before fracturing his ankle at the end of October, 6-2, 285-pound senior Robb Houser was doing a nice job of plugging the team’s hole at center. A transfer from Butte (Calif.) College, he’s quick off the snap and plays with more power than his size might indicate. He’s been a little slow coming back from the injury, which bears watching since Pitt doesn’t have a proven backup.

The responsibility of protecting Bill Stull’s backside will once again belong to 6-4, 300-pound junior Jason Pinkston. While he has the footwork and athletic ability to be a really good left tackle, he still lacks consistency and allows too many sacks. Plus, he’s had shoulder problems in each of the last two seasons that have required surgery.

The program hopes a future star is developing in 6-6, 300-pound sophomore Lucas Nix. After getting a few cameos in six games as a true freshman, he returned with an eye on winning the job at right tackle. So far, he looks as if he’s going to get it. One of the highest-rated linemen to ever sign with the Panthers, he plays with a blue-collar mentality, yet has the burst and quick feet needed to make it at tackle. For now, he’s on the right side, but he’s clearly being groomed to eventually take over at left tackle.

Projected Top Reserves: No, 6-5, 300-pound senior Joe Thomas hasn’t flourished as expected when he signed, but there’s something to be said for having a versatile veteran as a backup. Thomas has proven throughout his career that he’ll line up wherever is needed and give maximum. Despite starting every game at right tackle a year ago, he might be asked to bolster the depth at guard this year.

Behind Nix, 6-4, 295-pound sophomore Greg Gaskins is one of many underclassmen needing to grow up in a hurry and provide reliable depth. While still somewhat raw with his technique, he has a good frame and the athleticism to eventually grow into a starter. He also has the benefit of versatility, and could fill in at center in a pinch.

Watch Out For… the kids. Wannstedt recruited well in 2007 and 2008, which should start paying dividends to the offensive line this fall. Jacobson and Nix have the look of future all-stars, making this first season in the saddle an interesting event for both kids.                      
Strength: Run blocking. LeSean McCoy was plenty good a year ago, but he did get some help. The Panthers’ strength up front is old-school, no-nonsense blocking that takes the fight out of the other team. They’re just physical and nasty enough to control the line of scrimmage this season.
Weakness: Pass protection. The Panthers’ were awful in pass blocking last year, allowing more sacks than any other Big East team. Pinkston has to remain healthy and Nix has to play like he’s been here before, or else Stull will be on his back often once again this season.
Outlook: Consistency, especially in pass protection, will continue to escape a Pittsburgh line that’s still young and doesn’t have that one pillar to prop everyone up. Nix and Jacobson are going to be terrific down the road, but neither has any relevant experience, which will show at times this year. This is a marginal unit that won’t dominate many opponents.
Rating: 7