The Pitt football team will begin spring drills tomorrow and coaches will have two priorities -- sorting out the depth chart at quarterback and on the offensive line.
And how well they succeed in shoring up both areas will go a long way toward determining whether the team lives up to its lofty expectations.
The Panthers are expected to be ranked in the top 25 in several preseason polls. There is no question there will be a lot of pressure on them to get to a bowl game for the first time since 2004.
Pitt has 15 returning starters, as well as its kicker and punter, and should have one of the best defenses in the country as virtually every key member of last year's unit returns. There will be plenty of quality depth as well.
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt knows there are some questions facing his team on offense and knows they will be expected to win this season. But, he is excited to get started because he believes the pieces are in place for the team to not only meet -- but perhaps even exceed expectations.
He believes that, despite the fact that the Panthers do have questions at the two of the most critical positions.
"I'm really excited about this group of offensive linemen we have -- they are young, but they are talented and I think we have a group that is mentally tougher than they've been in the past and ready to go get it," Wannstedt said.
"And at quarterback, we have four guys on scholarship and a fifth coming in the fall and I believe any one of them can get the job done. It is just a matter of who plays the best and who works the hardest."
Here is a quick look at the five most pressing issues facing the Panthers as they enter the spring:
• Quarterback: Sophomore Pat Bostick, last year's starter, returns and Wannstedt said he has had a great offseason working on his strength and conditioning as well as his arm strength and mechanics. Bostick is smart and knows the offense, but needs to develop as a passer to hold onto his job.
He will battle redshirt junior Bill Stull, who injured his thumb in last year's opener and was lost for the season, redshirt sophomore Kevan Smith and junior college transfer Greg Cross.
• Offensive line: Wannstedt said the Panthers starting unit to begin the spring will be -- from left tackle to right tackle -- Jason Pinkston, C.J. Davis, Robb Houser, John Malecki and Joe Thomas. That unit figures to undergo plenty of changes since only Davis, who is a three-year starter, and Pinkston, who is the team's best tackle, are secure at their positions.
Houser will have to battle redshirt junior John Bachman to win a starting job and Malecki, who moved from defensive tackle to offensive guard, and Thomas will face plenty of competition from a young group of highly recruited players that includes Dan Matha, Jordan Gibbs and Chris Jacobson as well as seniors Dom Williams and Chase Clowser.
• Dorin Dickerson position change: The talented junior is on the move again, this time from linebacker to tight end where Wannstedt believes he can become an impact player.
"I feel bad about how his career has unfolded, especially since he got hurt his first season and never really had a chance to get going," Wannstedt said.
"But he has two years for us and I'm still expecting him to do some great things. He's a talented guy"
• Injuries: Pitt has plenty of players who will be limited in the spring because of injuries. Some of the key players include receiver Derek Kinder (ACL), defensive end Doug Fulmer (ACL), Pinkston (shoulder), tailback Kevin Collier (wrist) and tight ends Nate Byham (knee) and John Pelusi (toe).
All of them will participate in spring drills, some on a much more limited basis than the others, but Wannstedt said all are ahead of schedule and will be ready to go once training camp begins.
One other talented player who returns after missing last season is safety Elijah Fields, who was suspended.
• Breakout players to watch: Redshirt freshman Buddy Jackson should make a major push for the starting corner spot left vacant by Kennard Cox. Coaches have said that redshirt freshman defensive tackle Myles Caragein almost couldn't be blocked as a member of the scout team last year.
Wannstedt has always been a big fan of redshirt freshman receiver Aundre Wright, who could become a force as a kick and punt returner. Redshirt freshmen Greg Williams, a converted tailback, and Tristan Roberts could push the starters at outside linebacker.
Paul Zeise can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1720.