By Dale Grdnic
The Pitt football team will have several dozen players with freshman eligibility on its 2009 roster, including 20 first-year guys, and many will be counted on to contribute to the program this fall.
Since Pitt’s running game is an area where the most competition is expected, it’s also the position where youth will be served.
Three players with freshman eligibility, second-year player Chris Burns and freshmen Dion Lewis and Raymond Graham, should all vie for playing time there.
“We don’t have a lot of experience at the running back position, but we do have a lot of young talent,” Panthers running backs coach David Walker said. “So, it should be a very interesting camp. There’s going to be a lot of teaching, but there’s a lot of potential there. So, it should be exciting as well.”
Burns was impressive during training camp last year, but with senior LaRod Stephens-Howling and sophomore sensation LeSean McCoy in the fold he was he scout team tailback and took a redshirt.
Lewis enrolled in January and got a head start on his incoming freshman class on and off the field.
Lewis had a spectacular spring and solid Blue-Gold game, so he appears to be the front-runner when camp practices begin Aug. 11.
But don’t count out Graham, an all-state performer at Elizabeth, N.J. High School.
Two incoming freshman receivers, Todd Thomas and Ed Tinker, also will be difficult to keep off the field.
Thomas has the speed (4.59), size (6-2, 205) and toughness to make an immediate impact, but he has had academic difficulties and could end up at Milford Academy, a prep school in New Berlin, N.Y., if he doesn’t do well enough during summer school.
Tinker was a dynamic player for Brashear High School in Pittsburgh’s City League in 2007 and spent last year at North Carolina Tech Prep in Charlotte. Tinker is 6-3 and 215 pounds.
The only other incoming freshmen who could get some playing time in backup roles are either Shane Gordon from Cypress Bay High School in Weston, Fla. or Dan Mason from Penn Hills High School in Pittsburgh at middle linebacker.
Sixth-year senior Adam Gunn and fifth-year seniors Shane Murray and Steve Dell — the top three at the position — all have had medical issues to overcome, so the young guys might be needed for depth at the very least.
Offensive tackle Ryan Schlieper, defensive end Bernardo Nunez, cornerback Jason Hendricks, quarterback Kolby Gray, running back Jason Douglas, tight end Brock DeCicco, defensive end Tyrone Ezell, safety Carl Fleming, safety Kevn Adams, offensive guard Fernando Diaz, wideout Devin Street, defensive end Jack Lippert, offensive guard Juantez Hollins and offensive tackle Cory King are likely to be redshirted their first seasons at Pitt.
Other redshirt freshmen who should get playing time this fall are place-kicker Kevin Harper, battling with redshirt junior Dan Hutchins for field-goal kicking duties, Shayne Hale at defensive end, Mike Cruz at tight end, Jarred Holley at cornerback and Cam Saddler as a punt or kickoff return specialist.
Hutchins should secure the punting job in camp, while Harper’s leg strength should help him win the place-kicking spot.
Hale was moved up front at mid-year last fall, and he redshirted. But a strong spring has moved him up the depth chart behind junior starters Jabaal Sheard and Greg Romeus at defensive end.
With seniors Nate Byham and Dorin Dickerson as the top tight ends, Cruz is slated for a backup role.
However, with his size (6-4, 260) and soft hands, it will be tough to keep Cruz on the sideline.
Holley had a solid camp last summer and was redshirted due to the depth in the secondary, but his speed (4.5) and cover skills should move him into contention for a backup role behind senior starters Aaron Berry and Jovani Chappel.
Saddler was among the most electrifying players to sign with Pitt last year, but a knee injury early in camp and surgery kept him on the shelf all season.
He started running late in the year and continued to gain strength in the spring. He’s been back at full strength during summer workouts and immediately should bolster Pitt’s sagging return game if his speed is anywhere near to the sub-4.5 level it was before the injury.
*Dale Grdnic is a contributor to Inside Pittsburgh Sports, covering University of Pittsburgh football and men’s basketball programs
A Beaver County native, Dale Grdnic has covered the University of Pittsburgh football and men’s basketball programs for the past 15 years. Prior to that, he spent 10 years in Central Pennsylvania covering Penn State sports and area high school programs.
Dale also covers the Steelers and has written a book on the team: “Pittsburgh Steelers Glory Days.”