By Pat Taggart, Associate College Football Editor
2009 SEASON IN REVIEW: Entering his fifth season as Pittsburgh's head coach,
Dave Wannstedt had yet to win a bowl game, and many wondered whether or not he
was the right man to put Panthers back on the map.
The 2009 campaign began with three straight victories over Youngstown State,
Buffalo and Navy, but none of those triumphs converted any doubters. When the
team dropped a 38-31 decision to NC State at the end of September, it appeared
that Wannstedt was headed for yet another mediocre campaign. That's when the
team caught fire, however, ripping off six consecutive wins. The Panthers
handled Louisville, Connecticut, Rutgers, South Florida, Syracuse and Notre
Dame in succession, and they controlled their destiny in the race for the Big
East title. Unfortunately, a November 27th loss to West Virginia by three
points broke the winning streak, but Pitt still had a chance to claim the
conference crown in the regular season finale against unbeaten Cincinnati. In
what was undoubtedly one of the best games of the college football season, the
Bearcats bested the Panthers by a 45-44 final in a memorable shootout.
Dejected but determined, Pitt showed a great deal of toughness in the Meineke
Car Care Bowl, defeating a solid North Carolina squad by a 19-17 final.
"In the past, we said we could be good," says Wannstedt. "Now it's not just
words. There is proof. And there is a belief that we can keep getting better."
OFFENSE: More often than not, freshmen struggle to make significant
contributions at the FBS level, but that certainly wasn't the case for Pitt
tailback Dion Lewis in 2009. Lewis exploded on the scene and scampered his way
to 1,799 yards and 17 touchdowns on 325 carries, averages 25 totes per tilt.
Against Cincinnati in the regular season finale, Lewis carried the ball 47
times, proof of his workhorse ability despite a 5-8, 195-pound frame. Lewis
wasn't heavily recruited out of high school, but the Heisman candidate is now
a household name and perhaps the best player in the Big East.
The offensive line is loaded, featuring Jason Pinkston and Lucas Nix, a pair
of big-time tackles.
Tino Sunseri takes over at quarterback for the departed Bill Stull, and while
Sunseri is inexperienced, he has been around the program long enough to learn
the offense and earn the trust of his teammates. Sunseri nearly started a year
ago and has the talent to lead a nationally-ranked team successfully. The
signal caller will certainly benefit from the presence of stud receiver
Jonathan Baldwin, a 6-5 burner who turned in 57 catches for 1,111 yards and
eight touchdowns in 2009. Put simply, this offense is loaded.
DEFENSE: "We've got people's attention in this town, and now we have to keep
it," says Greg Romeus, standout defensive end of the Panthers. Along with
Baldwin and Lewis, Romeus is a guy who certainly has the attention of NFL
scouts. The reigning Big East Defensive Player of the Year, Romeus posted 8.5
sacks a year ago despite constant double teaming. A beneficiary of the
attention paid to Romeus was Jabaal Sheard, who posted five sacks and
generated consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Moving to the linebacker position, Dan Mason is a ferocious hitter who figures
to shine as a sophomore. He posted 11 hits in the Navy game a year ago and has
inspired Wannstedt to say that the 'backer is "one of the toughest kids I've
been around." Max Gruder is the leading returning tackler for the Panthers
with 91 stops, and he joins Mason to create a talented linebacking corps.
In the secondary, Dom DeCicco is an All-Big East performer who was close
behind Gruder in '09 with 88 tackles. DeCicco will have to help in coverage,
as the team replaces both starting corners.
SPECIAL TEAMS: While kickers and punters are sometimes overlooked, that isn't
the case with Pittsburgh, as the entire team is well aware of Dan Hutchins'
value. Now a senior, Hutchins handles both the placekicking and punting
duties, and he does so with tremendous success. He kicked the game-winning
field goal against North Carolina to end the '09 season on a high note. Keep
an eye on Cameron Saddler, who averaged 25.3 yards per kick return a year ago.
OUTLOOK: Many consider Pittsburgh the favorite to win the Big East this year,
and that is certainly understandable. However, it can be argued that
quarterback and cornerback are the most important positions on a football
team, and the Panthers feature new starters at both. If Sunseri is as good as
advertised, the Panthers will finally capture the crown. He has a safety
blanket in Baldwin, and Lewis' legs will take a great deal of pressure off