By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — Even though media members covering the Big East voted the Pitt football team as the one to beat for the Conference title this season, Panthers coach Dave Wannstedt admitted that there were as many as five teams which could receive the league’s BCS berth with his group certainly in the mix.
Wannstedt, addressing a large crowd during Pittsburgh’s football media day Monday morning, added that he was as confident as ever in the Panthers going into his fifth season at the helm of his alma mater.
“I think we’ve got a good feel for things,” Wannstedt said. “The quarterback position a year ago, Billy (fifth-year senior Bill Stull) was coming in as a first-time starter. Now, Billy has started. We know what were dealing with, and we have a better feel for him.”
Stull, the incumbent starter, joins junior Pat Bostick as the only two Pitt quarterbacks with any experience. But Stull edged Bostick in what Wannstedt termed a “very fair” competition during the spring.
“I opened it up in the spring,” Wannstedt said. “We rotated all three guys with the first and second groups, and it was clear, not just by my opinion and Frank Cignetti’s opinion, but from a production standpoint — completions, mental mistakes, interceptions — that Billy had the best spring.
“And he is the starter going in. We’ll continue to work all those guys. Pat and (Redshirt frosh) Tino Sunseri are going to get a lot of work. No question about that, but Bill is the starter. … Billy has started 13 games, and Pat has started nine games. (And) we have a young quarterback with a lot of talent who’s going to be a heck of a player for us, Tino Sunseri.”
Stull admitted that he was a changed player after he received a concussion against Rutgers last season. He did not play well at the end of that game and sat out the next week at Notre Dame, as Bostick started and got the win.
“You realize that every day you can come out and be injured,” Stull said. “And I’ve had some pretty bad luck with some serious injuries here. A thumb injury that other guys might have been able to play with, I had to miss the entire year. Then, there was another freak accident against Rutgers. (But) think they just make you mentally strong and tough, and you have to deal with it.
When you consider that I got a couple dings and bruises after that, I wouldn’t say that I was too healthy the rest of the way. But if we can walk, we want to play, and that’s what I did. And after the season, I got as healthy as I could to be ready for a big season as a senior.”
Wannstedt said that there were 19 seniors on the team this year, the biggest group of upperclassmen in his tenure. And after several years with Buddy Morris, Wannstedt mentioned that some players increased their bench press and speed extensively and generally were in much better shape.
“Joe Thomas weighed in (Sunday) at about 280 pounds and took his bench (up),” Wannstedt said. “He benched 460 pounds. You’re talking about players who have either made a commitment to lose weight or get stronger.
“I didn’t think Jonathan Baldwin could jump any higher or get any stronger, but he increased his vertical jump. He increased his 40 speed. So, you have players who have made strides in the offseason.”
Redshirt sophomore Chris Jacobson, who will be battling Thomas for the starting left offensive guard spot, noted that 12 Panthers can bench press more than 400 pounds this season. Only Mick Williams could do that last year.
Along with Williams, Thomas and Jacobson, center Robb Houser, right offensive guard John Malecki, defensive tackle Myles Caragein, defensive end Greg Romeus, tight end Dorin Dickerson, defensive tackle Craig Bokor, tight end Nate Byham, defensive tackle Justin Hargrove and middle linebacker Steve Dell have maxed out on the bench at more than 400 pounds.
But it wasn’t all wine and roses for Wannstedt, who said the tailback spot and the kicking game were the two areas that had him the most concerned.
“We have to run the football, and we will run the football,” Wannstedt said. “But getting that player or committee of players ready to go and perform at the level they have to in a few weeks time, that’s a challenge.”
Pitt’s starting tailback should be either redshirt sophomore Shariff Harris, redshirt freshman Chris Burns and freshmen Dion Lewis and Ray Graham.
The kicking game, where Pitt lost place-kicker Conor Lee, punter Dave Brytus and long-snapper Mark Estermer, will have a lot of competition as well.
“The first time we go out to kick a field goal between Kevin Harper and Hutch (Dan Hutchins), it’s going to be the first time they’re lining up and performing when it counts,” Wannstedt said. “We’re going to have a new long snapper. … John Fieger and Mike Cruz right now are the top candidates at long snapper.”
The position battles begin Tuesday with Pitt’s first practice sessions. The squad will be split for two days with practices at 8:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. so freshmen can get more reps.
The regular-season opener is against Youngstown State at 1 p.m. at Heinz Field.