By Dale Grdnic
The Pitt football team is going into the 2009 regular season the same way that it did the previous two, with Bill Stull as the starting quarterback.
A fifth-year senior, Stull earned the No. 1 job in 2007, but was injured in the opener and missed the entire season. He won the top spot last year and was ineffective after the Rutgers game with an especially poor performance in the Sun Bowl.
So, Panthers coach Dave Wannstedt decided to throw junior Pat Bostick and redshirt freshman Tino Sunseri into the mix in the spring.
“We went into spring practice, and I opened it up,” Wannstedt said. “We obviously keep track of everything every day. And I thought coming out of the spring, that all our quarterbacks got a little better. But when we evaluated completions, interceptions, decision-making, everything involved with it, checks at the line of scrimmage, Billy came out with the nod.
“So, that was the fair thing to do going into camp. … Has Billy made the big strides? I would say, probably, no. But has Billy performed at the level where you would say that he’s the starter? I would say yes. So, I’m just trying to be as honest about it as I can. He’s got 13 starts under his belt, and he’s our starting quarterback. I feel good about the other guys, and I feel good about Billy.”
Bostick has played in 16 career games with nine starts, including eight as a freshman in 2007 when he replaced Stull and backup Kevin Smith. Stull started all but one game last fall, as Bostick opened the game at Notre Dame.
“I feel that, obviously, if I don’t play well,” Stull said, “then, I’m not going to play. … It’s good to hear that (I’m the starter), but like I’ve said before, I have to prove them right. I have to do my job every single day. (And) the things I do mess up on, I have to check it out and not make the same mistake again.”
After the first week in training camp this year, Stull and Sunseri basically split reps with the first team, while Bostick handled second-team duties. By the end of the second week, Stull and Sunseri probably had twice as many reps as Bostick overall. And Bostick got no reps with the first team.
Bostick could be headed for a redshirt season. He said he would be up for it, if that’s what the coaches want him to do, but he appeared to be frustrated with the entire situation and just wanted to move on. Whether that’s as a redshirt or as an active player, Bostick was ready for the season to begin.
“I’ve never been around a training camp where we rotated two and three guys with the first group like we did (this year),” Wannstedt said. “We’ve had a lot of offsides with our offensive line because of rotating those guys in there. And Tino has had as many snaps with the first group as Billy has had. … Pat has gotten a lot better.
“Tino has shown the type of ability that he has and the type of player he’ll be. (So), I think our quarterback position as a whole is better than it’s been the last couple years, even when we had Tyler (Palko). We had Tyler with Billy behind him and no experience. So, we’ve improved the depth of the position and the experience (level).”
There are several starting positions still undetermined, according to Wannstedt, as training camp ended this past week.
Dan Hutchins, a redshirt junior, made a 47-yard field goal to possibly win the starting place-kicking job ahead of redshirt freshman Kevin Harper. Hutchins also won the starting punter job with a solid performance during the spring and training camp, while Harper has missed a couple long field goals here and there in practice, even though he supposedly has the stronger leg.
“We’ll see how the offensive line played today,” Wannstedt added. “We’re still working through the left-guard position. That would be the No. 1 position. The rest of them we feel good about.
“(That’s) even though we have Elijah Fields and Andrew Taglianetti working together, and Oderick Turner and Cedric McGee as well. We feel good about all those guys so we look at that as a positive. They’ll all play and help us.”
Redshirt sophomore Chris Jacobson started the past few days at left guard, while senior Joe Thomas was the backup. Taglianetti, a sophomore, also has been starting ahead of redshirt junior Fields. Fifth-year seniors Turner and McGee likely will join sophomore wideout Jonathan Baldwin when the Panthers go to a three-wide set.
Wannstedt also discussed Pitt’s situation at tailback freshmen Dion Lewis and Ray Graham leading the way.
“Dion is the starter, but we could play Ray and we could play Chris Burns,” Wannstedt said. “He came out of the spring as the starter, and he did nothing to say that he doesn’t deserve that today. We thought Chris Burns was always a good player, but during the course of camp that we solidified that Ray Graham can play. And he’s going to play a lot this year.”
The punt- and kickoff-return groups are also being set, and redshirt freshman
Cameron Saddler will play a large role in both spots.
“I thought we started off the season doing a poor job with our return game in general,” Wannstedt said. “We ended up first in the Big East in punt returns, but we started off not very good.
“So, we did spend more time with that and we tried to create more situations where they would have to make decisions and handle the ball under pressure, and they’re both doing a good job. Right now we probably have four or five guys that can do it, Aaron Smith and Cam Saddler would be the top two.”
Along with Saddler, Wannstedt said that redshirt sophomore Aundre Wright, Lewis and sophomore Antwuan Reed are the kick-return candidates. Saddler and Wright are the best two options for big returns.
Wannstedt noted that the Panthers went into camp with several objectives.
“No. 1, to come out conditioned,” Wannstedt said. “I don’t know if we’ve had a 70-degree day in three weeks. It’s been hot, and we conditioned them hard and they worked hard. Second, we wanted to practice physical. This was the most physical camp I think we’ve had since I’ve been here.
“We did some type of live contact every day full speed, ones against ones. So we got the physical work in that we needed. From an execution standpoint, we’re not there yet. We made progress. That’s what we need to clean up, and we’re going to need every day we can between now and game day to get comfortable with what we’re doing.”
“We’ve been beating up on ourselves for couple weeks now, and you can tell that the guys are looking to turn their focus onto another opponent,” Wannstedt said. “Friday we’ll start working on some basic things for Youngstown State.”
The Panthers face Youngstown State Saturday at 1 p.m. at Heinz Field.