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August 5, 2010
The square-jawed coach has put his stamp on the program with a run-heavy pro-style offense and a smothering defense. But Wannstedt has done much more for his alma mater. He also has returned the Panthers to the top of the Big East and have them competing for major bowl berths. The Panthers were not eliminated from Big East contention last season until blowing a 21-point lead in a loss to Cincinnati in the regular-season finale.
The Panthers will look to get past the disappointing end to 2009 by contending once again for the Big East title. While the Big East appears to be up for grabs among as many as five or six teams, Pittsburgh is our pick to win the conference.
Here's a closer look at the Panthers.
THE SCHEME: Wannstedt continues to run a pro-style offense out of the "I" formation with a fullback and a tight end. Coordinator Frank Cignetti did a good job in his first season with the Panthers in '09, bringing some cohesion to the play-calling.
STAR POWER: Do you think some other programs would like to re-think their initial evaluation of Dion Lewis? He was lightly recruited out of New Jersey but became the Rivals.com National Freshman of the Year after rushing for 1,799 yards and 17 touchdowns. Only Tony Dorsett ran for more yards in a season in Pitt history. Remember how much you've heard about all the first-round picks on North Carolina's defense? Lewis rushed for 159 yards and a touchdown against the Tar Heels in the bowl game.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: TE Dorin Dickerson was a nice complement to WR Jonathan Baldwin last season, but Dickerson is gone. This season, the No. 2 receiver role likely will be filled by a wide receiver. Redshirt freshman Devin Street could be the guy.
STRONGEST AREA: Pittsburgh has reason to believe it could finish the season with a Doak Walker and a Biletnikoff finalist. Lewis is a workhorse running back who will again be the focus of the offense. Baldwin takes advantage of defenses creeping up to stop Lewis. He's a big, physical receiver (6 feet 5/230 pounds) who finished last season with 1,111 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. Beyond Lewis, Pitt has depth at tailback in Ray Graham, who rushed for 349 yards in limited duty last season. Pittsburgh doesn't have a proven No. 2 receiver, but the Panthers have numerous qualified candidates for the spot.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: LT Jason Pinkston is a potential All-American, but the Panthers have questions elsewhere on the line. Pitt will break in new starters at center and both guard spots, which has to be a concern for a team that runs the ball so much. Pitt also will have inexperience at quarterback. Sophomore Tino Sunseri looks to be the likely starter. Backup Pat Bostick does have Big East starting experience.
THE SCHEME: Pittsburgh runs a standard 4-3 defense. Phil Bennett's defense rarely blitzed last season yet led the nation in sacks. That philosophy will be tested with the departure of steady Ts Mick Williams and Gus Mustakas.
STAR POWER: Like Lewis, E Greg Romeus was a diamond unearthed by Wannstedt's recruiting. He played only one season of high school football at Coral Springs (Fla.) Coral Glades. He redshirted at Pitt become becoming the top defensive player in the league. Over the past two seasons, he has 15.5 sacks and 27 tackles for loss.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Pittsburgh has questions at cornerback. Antwuan Reed appears to have grabbed one spot, but the other remains open. Junior college transfer Saheed Imoru will battle fifth-year senior Ricky Gary for the starting spot.
STRONGEST AREA: Romeus isn't the only star lineman for Pittsburgh. E Jabaal Sheard - like Romeus, from the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area - finished last season with five sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss, though his status is in question after he was charged with assault during the summer after an altercation in Pittsburgh. Although Pitt lost its starting tackles, the line should have enough depth to weather the loss. Pitt also should be strong at safety with starters Dom DeCicco and Jared Holley; they each had three interceptions last season.
BIGGEST WEAKNESS: Pitt returns its leading tackler in OLB Max Gruder along with two 'backers who have shown potential in Greg Williams and Dan Mason. Williams is under pressure to perform as a junior or be passed on the depth chart by Tristan Roberts. Mason performed admirably in two starts for an injured Adam Gunn, but he slipped into the background after that. Both have potential to be standout linebackers, but neither has put it together for a full season.
Dan Hutchins will continue to be punter and kicker. He proved he was capable of handling both duties by averaging 41.1 yards per punt and converting 23-of-29 field-goal attempts. Cameron Saddler showed potential on kickoff returns by averaging 25.3 yards last season. Under Wannstedt, Pittsburgh has finished either or first or second in the conference in blocked kicks in each of the past three seasons. Pitt needs to improve its punt coverage after allowing 9.5 yards per return and one touchdown last season. The kickoff coverage wasn't that good, either.
If Pittsburgh is going to win the Big East, it will need to close the season strong. The Panthers have three road games among their last four, with trips to Cincinnati, USF and Connecticut. On top of that, the Panthers face archrival West Virginia on Friday night of Thanksgiving weekend in their only home game in that stretch. The early-season schedule isn't easy, either. Pitt opens the season at Utah and plays Miami and at Notre Dame out of conference before mid-October.
Reaching the BCS for the first time since 2004 is a legitimate goal, but the league appears to be fairly even at the top. Pittsburgh could have a leg up if Sunseri becomes a productive quarterback. Given the talent around him at running back and wide receiver, there's reason to believe that could happen.
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.