Nine a good number for Pitt
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The Pitt football team last week concluded a spring practice, which, by most accounts, was hugely successful. Which means, if history is a barometer, absolutely nothing. Generally speaking, where there's a spring involved in something sporting -- spring training, spring football -- its value as a predictor of what's to come is pretty close to zero.
That does not mean there isn't reason to be excited about the prospects of Pitt football.
Well before spring practice began, it was clear that the time and effort coach Dave Wannstedt had put into building his program was about to pay off. Based on the talent Wannstedt and his staff have accumulated, the Panthers have a good chance of winning the Big East Conference championship this year and playing in a major bowl game. Nine wins are easily within reach.
What's more, the team is relatively young and figures to remain at or near the top of the league for the foreseeable future.
Wannstedt has made his share of mistakes since taking the Pitt job for the 2005 season, which was his return to college football since he began working in the NFL in 1989.
The learning curve might have been steeper than expected but Wannstedt had a solid background in the college game at Pitt, under Johnny Majors and Jackie Sherrill; Oklahoma State; Southern California; and Miami. Wannstedt was Jimmy Johnson's defensive coordinator for three seasons at Miami, in which time the Hurricanes were 34-2 and won a national championship.
At Pitt, which was a nationally elite program at the time, USC and Miami, Wannstedt got firsthand experience in what it takes to make a good college team and what good college players look like. When he returned to Pitt, he said he wanted to recruit the same kind of fast, athletic players who had led Miami to such great heights.
He has done just that, and although Pitt doesn't have the same quality of athletes that Miami did, the players on hand are capable of winning consistently in the Big East.
Some look down at the Big East because its level of play might not be among the best of the conferences. But as far as achieving success, the chances are just as great, if not greater, in the Big East. Winning the conference title is the goal of every college program. Once that is achieved even higher goals are possible.
Pitt was 5-7 last year, which was a third consecutive non-winning season. To bump that record up to nine wins might seem a considerable challenge, but Pitt was close that in 2007. The Panthers were close to winning games against Michigan State, Navy, Louisville and Rutgers. They could have won seven, eight or even nine games last year with a few breaks and a little better play.
No one knows where the breaks will fall this year, but Pitt should play a lot better.
Why such confidence?
For one thing, not only does Pitt have 17 starters back, it has considerably added to that mix. Five high-quality players who were on the team last year but either did not play or played sparingly will make major impacts. Those players are wide receiver Derek Kinder, defensive tackle Gus Mustakas, defensive end Doug Fulmer, offensive tackle Jason Pinkston and safety Elijah Fields. Also new and set to play major roles are junior-college transfers center Robb Houser and quarterback Greg Cross.
Pinkston and Houser will solidify the offensive line. Kinder will give the starting quarterback a wide receiver with NFL potential. Mustakas, who ranks among the best defensive tackles in the country, and Fullmer will rejoin a line that is thick with outstanding players.
Such is the depth on the team that two starting linebackers from last season, Shane Murray and Adam Gunn, will be challenged for their jobs by Greg Williams, a converted running back with outstanding speed; Tristan Roberts and Brandon Lindsey.
No one will challenge middle linebacker Scott McKillop, who is among the best in the country.
Quarterback remains a question, with Bill Stull and Cross likely to get the most playing time. But Pitt doesn't need excellence, only competence, at quarterback with the brilliant LeSean McCoy returning at running back.
It's a formidable array of talent. Wannstedt has arrived at Pitt. It took longer than expected but the wait figures to be worth it.
First Published April 23, 2008 12:00 am