One more day and it all gets started - Pitt to training camp and we (well more accurately, me) here at the Redshirt Diaries writing about the Panthers every step of the way. Keep checking in with the Redshirt Diaries as we will update them several times per day during camp (and perhaps even more if I could figure out this whole blogging from a Blackberry thing......)
So let's get's started the easy way: By looking at ten important questions about the Panthers as they head into camp along with the potential answers.
Q: When push comes to shove, will the offensive line be able to push and/or shove anyone around?
This, to me, is the number one question facing the Panthers and frankly could be the difference between an 11-win season and say a 7-win season. Yes, I said it - a 7-5 season is possible if the offensive line doesn't get it straight. There is the known - tackles Lucas Nix and Jason Pinkston -- and the "we think we know" in left guard Chris Jacobson. But that is where it ends. The center spot belongs to Alex Karabin and we just don't know how good he will be. He works hard, has a great attitude but he is limited at least in terms of his size. The right guard spot is going to be a great way to determine just how good of a coach Tony Wise really is because he's had the candidates in the program for a few years. From where I sit, offensive line recruiting and development of the offensive linemen has left something to be desired. As a result there is no real quality depth on the offensive line right now and that means the Panthers better have another season where all five of their starters stay healthy.
Q: Can Tino duplicate what Bill Stull did last year?
Bill Stull went from a journeyman who people wanted to boo out of town to a guy who was pretty competent, ran the offense and made some big plays while leading the Panthers to a lot of wins and he did it in just one season. If Tino Sunseri can make that kind of a leap - from a back-up who was shaky when he did play to a confident starter who can make some plays and get the ball into the hands of the right people at the right times - the Panthers have the kinds of weapons to be a very good offense.
Q: Will the linebackers truly take a step forward and become an asset instead of a liability?
Dan Mason is obviously a talented player with a nasty disposition and he seems to have everything in place to become the next great Pitt middle linebacker. But when the lights come on and the games begin, how do we know what to expect from him because the last time we saw him playing extensively was the N.C. State game last year and that didn't turn out so well. It is one thing to be a great prospect. It takes time to become a great player. The quicker Mason learns how to play the position and comes to understand all the nuances of it, the quicker the defense will reach its potential. Now, on the outside, Max Gruder improved greatly from the start of the season to the end and should continue to get better so he is as close to a known quantity as there is on this corps. But which Greg Williams is going to show up and if the one we saw last year - who was not very good - shows up, will Manny Williams or Tristan Roberts step up and fill that spot? In other words, this group, like the interior offensive line, has a lot of improving to do and a lot to prove before anyone can feel comfortable about the defense.
Q: Can Dion Lewis avoid the sophomore slump?
Dion Lewis had an unbelievable freshman season, better than anyone could have imagined. But the bottom line is he was somewhat of an unknown commodity last year and he took a lot of teams by surprise. Now, he's going to be facing eight and nine-man fronts, defenses lined up to stop him and he is going to have to work harder for the yards and touchdowns he gets because the offensive line is not likely going to be as good. That's especially true if the passing game doesn't develop into a legitimate threat like it did last year, which is not a given. Lewis has talent, no question, and he's proven he can get it done when he needs to -- but there are plenty of things which could derail his run to a second consecutive Big East offensive player of the year award.
Q: Who is going to take the pressure off of Jonathan Baldwin?
Dorin Dickerson emerged as a big-time weapon last year and that made it difficult for teams to focus all of their efforts on stopping Baldwin. Dickerson is gone though and while Mike Shanahan showed some promise at the end of the year, let's not forget he did only catch 15 passes last year. And beyond that Cam Saddler, Greg Cross, Todd Thomas and Devin Street all have ability but none are proven or really tested so it is hard to determine how much of a factor they will be. Baldwin will be a big-time player again, but receivers can be taken out of the equation with a good scheme and game plan so someone else has to emerge and become a steady, consistent playmaker for the passing game to succeed.
Q: Are the corners as good as they showed in the spring?
If there was one pleasant surprise and development of the spring it was the way the corners - specifically Antwuan Reed and Saheed Imoru -- played. The two were very good, very consistent and frankly Reed showed he has the ability to be a legitimate number one corner. And Imoru still has some learning about the defense to do but he really made a lot of plays in the spring. Obviously Ricky Gary comes into the mix and you'd hope Buddy Jackson can help some, so this position appears to improved from last year. But again, that was the spring and that was against a team with a new quarterback trying to find his way and once the season begins these two will certainly be tested.
Q: Can this team survive with two defensive tackles?
While it is true that Myles Caragein and Chas Alecxih should be very good at the defensive tackle spots - the difference between this year and last year is easy to see: There aren't a Myles Caragein and Chas Alecxih to back up the starters. Last year Mick Williams and Gus Mustakas were very effective from start to finish because they were able to take some series off as coaches could give them breaks without the fear of a drop-off in production from the tackles. That luxury isn't available to them this year or at least it doesn't appear to be. Tyrone Ezell had a good spring and has a lot of potential but he is very raw and has a lot to learn. Ty Tkach and Justin Hargrove are both solid but neither has distinguished himself.
Q: Can this team make it two years in a row of - knock on wood - good luck with health?
One of the secrets of the Panthers success last year is this -- they didn't lose any significant player to a sustained injury. Not one. Adam Gunn missed two games with an ankle injury. Andrew Taglianetti missed most of the season with a knee injury but as it turned out the player who replaced him, Jarred Holley, was an upgrade and probably should have been the starter all along. I think Mick Williams may have missed one game with some shoulder thing or something (he played in 12 of 13). Oh and Joe Thomas missed the bowl game with an ankle or something. And that was about it. I bet you'd be hard pressed to find another team that had the same starting five offensive linemen for 12 consecutive games like Pitt did. Dion Lewis and Jonathan Baldwin stayed healthy, so did Bill Stull and Dorin Dickerson and just about anyone else you can name. It is hard to believe the Panthers can be this fortunate in back-to-back years but even if they just get close to this kind of good fortune it will be an incredible year.
Q: Can this team avoid the killer hiccups which have held the Panthers back from reaching their full potential?
The Panthers last five losses have all been by a touchdown or less. That tells me that this team is very competitive and clearly has the talent to play with and beat every team on its schedule. The talent base is strong and the foundation of a top program is in place. But guess what -- every season of the last five has left fans and those who observe the Panthers with the "could have been better" feeling and that is disturbing. Think about it -- in 2005 the Panthers lost to a bad Ohio team because, in large part, the quarterback kept throwing the ball to the other team and because they played for a tie instead of the win at the end of regulation. The next week they couldn't execute a simple blocking scheme on a field goal and lost to Nebraska. That's the difference between 7-4 and going to a bowl game in year one and 5-6. In 2006, Pitt couldn't hold onto a 14-point lead against a crappy Connecticut team..And one reason was because the Panthers stopped passing the ball even though the Huskies were down to smoke and mirrors in the secondary and were powerless against the Panthers passing game but were stacking up against the run. Again, 7-5 gets Pitt to a bowl game but instead they finished 6-6 and stayed home. The 2007 season was a disaster but still should have ended at 6-6 (as opposed to 5-7) as the Panthers couldn't get two yards against Navy. And they couldn't get those two yards because instead of using their second round draft pick running back and have him follow their first round draft pick left tackle (twice if necessary) they decided to throw fade patterns to journeymen tight ends. In 2008 there were the meltdowns against Bowling Green and the disaster that was the Sun bowl game -- which would have left the team at 11-2 instead of 9-4. And last year, well, there was the blown 14-point lead against a bad N.C. State team and then blown 21-point lead against Cincinnati. That is an 11-1 regular season and a trip to the Orange or Sugar Bowl. Instead it was a 9-3 season with a trip to Charlotte. Honestly, all of those games I just mentioned were as much the fault of the coaches as they were the fault of a "lack of execution" and honestly, there is no reason the Panthers shouldn't have won all of them. Again, five seasons, five seasons where the Panthers didn't achieve what they were more than capable of achieving and think about how differently things would feel if this team was coming off ten consecutive bowl appearances and had two Big East titles (last year and 2004) under its belt not too mention back-to-back 11-win seasons. Simply put, the time is now for Pitt to win the games it is supposed to win. There are no longer any acceptable excuses. This has to be the year and in order to do that it means not slipping up to a mediocre Rutgers team at home, it means beating a Connecticut team that is far more gritty and resourceful than actually good and it means not losing to South Florida even though it is on the road. It just means avoid the meltdowns and the hiccups which have really been the difference between this program winning championships and this program talking about winning championships.
Q: Is the rest of the Big East going to cooperate with the Panthers?
All of these things can go right for the Panthers and if they do, the Panthers will win the Big East. Presumably. But every other team in the league has a set of questions as well and some - like West Virginia and Cincinnati - appear to have just as many answers for them as the Panthers do. So while it seems like Pitt should be the cream of the crop in the league, there is no guarantee that they will win the championship because there are at least a few teams capable of beating them. West Virginia should be the Panthers toughest test as the Mountaineers have a lot of players back on both sides of the ball. I think Connecticut will be very good, but they again seem to have a lack of offensive weapons and that will likely cost them. The Bearcats are an interesting team for this reason - they have a new coach and lost some key players but they might have the league's best quarterback and a lot of athleticism and nobody is really sure just how good they'll be. Rutgers appears to again be the definition of mediocrity they've become -- they will beat up a bunch of nobodies on an embarrassing non-conference schedule and win three games or so in the Big East to get to seven or eight wins then beat some nobody in a nothing bowl -- but they have beaten Pitt four out of the past five years so there is no reason to thnk that game will be an easy win. South Florida has a lot of work to do to get past the debacle and the fall-out of the Jim Leavitt dismissal but there is some talent left on the roster and first-year coach Skip Holtz is a winner so they will surprise some people. Syracuse and Louisville, well, there is always next year. In other words, Pitt has some very tough competition this season so they'll likely have to play well AND get a little lucky in order to win the conference championship.