NEWPORT, R.I. -- Pitt running back LeSean McCoy had a spectacular freshman season for the Panthers.
So good, in fact, the question he's facing heading into this season is, what can he possibly do for an encore?
And more important, how does he make sure he avoids the "sophomore slump" that so many other players have seemingly fallen victim to?
McCoy isn't worried about either question because his answer is simple: Don't judge his season by what he does, judge it by what the Panthers do.
"It isn't about yards, about touchdowns, about accolades for me. The only numbers that matter are 5-7 and I want to do everything in my power to make sure we improve on that," he said of Pitt's record last season.
- When: Begins Tuesday.
- Where: UPMC South Side training facility.
- Left: LeSean McCoy ran for more than 1,300 yards in 2007.
"If we go to a bowl game, win a lot of games -- that's how you can judge my season because that's my focus. Maybe teams will key on me -- that will open stuff up for [fullback] Conredge [Collins] or the passing game.
"I don't know if I can do better individually, but as a team, we all want to and know we can do better."
McCoy said he's not worried about a sophomore slump because he is surrounded by good character players such as senior Derek Kinder, and he's also more hungry now than last season because he has enjoyed some success.
McCoy said he has been humbled by a broken ankle his senior season in high school that essentially forced him to a prep school instead of one of the big-time programs that were recruiting him. Because of that, he continues to work hard.
Kinder concurs because he has seen McCoy put in the work in the offseason.
"This is one talented individual, a special player, and the good thing is, he understands he needs to keep working," Kinder said. "I've taken him under my wing and sort of played the role of big brother to him because I want him to be as good as he can be. And he takes it seriously. He works extremely hard in conditioning and he is trying to learn the nuances and details that will make him a much better player, like all the great ones."
When asked what areas he is concentrating on the most to improve, McCoy said "ball security and upper-body strength and pass blocking -- got to block to keep coach [David] Walker happy."
Walker is the running backs coach and a former running back at Syracuse, so he, too, has filled the role of mentor for McCoy.
Last season, McCoy had a mild case of fumbleitis and he quickly found out that Walker is a tough love kind of guy. Walker stated publicly that if McCoy didn't start holding onto the ball, he would find himself on the bench watching LaRod Stephens-Howling run the ball.
Some players wouldn't have handled that kind of public chiding as well as McCoy did, but he took it to heart and didn't fumble again the rest of the season. He said he learned a long time ago that coaches who are willing to be honest are usually the most effective in getting their message across.
"I had no problem with the way coach Walker came out like that, he handled it the right way," McCoy said. "I mean, he didn't sugarcoat it and he just came out and said what he believed -- that was helpful. It was a little bit of a shock but it really got my focus on holding onto the ball."
McCoy turned in one of the most prolific freshman seasons for a running back in school history as he rushed 276 times for 1,328 yards and scored 14 touchdowns. His rushing total was a Big East record for freshmen and his 110.67 yards per game average led the country among freshmen rushers. He also broke two of Tony Dorsett's freshman records and helped lead Pitt to a 13-9 upset of West Virginia with a 148-yard effort.
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said McCoy was extraordinary during the season -- but his approach in the offseason has been far more impressive to see.
"He's been very mature, he's taken the right approach," Wannstedt said. "I like to see a talented young guy who takes the initiative to want to be the best he can be and he clearly is doing his part. I think the key for him is to understand that he doesn't have to do it all by himself, he has a lot of good players around him to help him so he just has to keep working hard and good things will happen."
Paul Zeise can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1720.