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March 18, 2010

Pitt on the rise, but there are holes to fill

Pittsburgh won 10 games last season for the first time since the Dan Marino era, but the Panthers are justified in wanting more.

First, Pittsburgh started 9-1 overall and 5-0 in the Big East before falling in back-to-back games to West Virginia and Cincinnati to lose a chance to play in the BCS. Only a couple of plays stopped the Panthers from matching or exceeding the 11-win season of 1981. Pitt's three losses came by a combined 11 points. And just four points separated the Panthers from a Big East title.

The Panthers will be in good position to contend for the BCS again, building around running back Dion Lewis and wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin on offense and end Greg Romeus on defense.

PITTSBURGH AT-A-GLANCE
Dion Lewis was third in the nation at 138 rushing yards per game last season.
THE BASICS
Coach: Dave Wannstedt
Last season: 10-3 overall, 5-2 in the Big East. Beat North Carolina 19-13 in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
Spring dates: March 18-April 17
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum of six starts)
Offense (5): WR Jonathan Baldwin, FB Henry Hynoski, TB Dion Lewis, T Lucas Nix, T Jason Pinkston.
Defense (6): SS Dom DeCicco, LB Max Gruder, FS Jarred Holley, E Greg Romeus, E Jabaal Sheard, LB Greg Williams.
Special teams (1): K/P Dan Hutchins
Pitt also got a boost by hanging onto coordinators Frank Cignetti and Phil Bennett. Both were rumored for other jobs.

The Panthers also have their challenges this spring, starting with finding a quarterback to replace Bill Stull. The defense also took some hits that will need to be addressed. Here's a look at the Panthers.

Positions of strength

The offense will be built around Lewis, who was third in the nation at 138 rushing yards per game. Whoever ends up being the quarterback will be asked to be a game manager, the same way Stull was a year ago. In addition to having a Heisman contender at tailback, the quarterback will have an elite receiver in Baldwin. Both starting tackles also are back. On defense, Romeus and Sheard return to a team that led the nation in sacks.

Help is needed

Pittsburgh certainly has been the type of blue-collar team the Steel City loves. That image, though, will need a bit of a makeover this season. The Panthers are rebuilding in the trenches. The interior offensive line is gone, as are both starting defensive tackles. One of those losses is DT Mick Williams, who shared conference defensive player of the year honors with Romeus. The new starters at tackle are expected to be Myles Caragein an Chas Alecxih, who had ample playing time as backups last season. Cornerback might be more of a concern. Both starters are gone, including veteran Aaron Berry. It's a young position that was not all that productive a year ago.

Three guys to watch

LB Dan Mason: Mason got a September call-up as a freshman last season, starting in place of an injured Adam Gunn against Navy and North Carolina State. Mason responded with 17 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss in those games. Mason could be a full-time starter as a sophomore if he has a good spring.

QB Tino Sunseri: Sunseri, a sophomore whose dad, Sal, was a Pitt linebacker in the 1980s, ended the season as the backup to Stull and will start the spring as the No. 1 quarterback. He was 10-of-17 for 114 yards with two touchdowns last season in mop-up duty. He will compete with former highly touted prep star Pat Bostick, who was forced into starting duty as a true freshman in 2008 and has nine career starts under his belt. Sunseri may have better tools, but Bostick has the edge in experience.

WR Mike Shanahan: The Panthers lost TE Dorin Dickerson and WR Oderick Turner, who were the second- and third-leading receivers after Baldwin. Shanahan (no relation to the NFL coach of the same name) could emerge as the No. 2 guy after amassing 15 catches for 211 yards last season. All of that came in the final eight games.

The pressure is on

LB Greg Williams: He appeared destined for stardom after a standout freshman season in 2008. But his sophomore season was a mixed bag. As a junior, Williams will face pressure to deliver on his potential. Sophomore Manny Williams and junior Tristan Roberts will vie with him for starting spots at outside linebacker during the spring.

The buzz

Wannstedt's recruiting has increased the talent level in Pittsburgh. That should be evident during position battles during the spring. But the Panthers still are looking for the school's first outright Big East title. Before Pitt can be considered a favorite, the Panthers need to show they're fine at quarterback and in the secondary.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.



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