August 3, 2007

Five Questions

Every college football team enters training camp with questions and answers. Today the Pantherlair takes a look at the top five questions that the Pitt football team will face over the next four weeks leading up to the season opener on September 1st.

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Question #1: Who will be the quarterback?
This question has a lot of superlatives attached to it: Most obvious. Most pressing. Most intriguing. The actors are all well-known: junior Bill Stull, redshirt freshman Kevan Smith, and true freshman Pat Bostick, but what remains very unknown is which of the three will get the job.

Stull is the veteran of the group and the only one with game experience, although that experience consists of six appearances over the past two seasons. In that span he attempted 10 passes and completed seven of them for 86 yards and one touchdown; needless to say, his playing time came during mop-up duty behind Tyler Palko. Nevertheless, Stull's minimal playing time represents the whole of Pitt's current quarterbacking experience, so it has to count for something.

Bostick is the youngest player of the three, but he also may turn out to be the most talented. He has been at Pitt since May, and all reports indicate that he has fully immersed himself in the playbook; he appears to have a near-total understanding of the offense. While it's not unheard of (or necessarily ideal) for a true freshman to start at quarterback, there is a reason it's a rarity. However, Bostick may turn out to be the exception to the rule.

Smith is the undeniable dark horse in the race. He's got the physical ability and the respect of his teammates and coaches, but he seems to fall somewhere in between Stull and Bostick. Stull is entering his third season with offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh, while Smith is only entering his second, and one can't help but feel that, if Stull isn't the starter, Bostick will be. Smith may have to settle for a backup role again this season.

Most probable answer: Stull seems to be the most likely candidate, if only because he is the safe option. Starting a true freshman quarterback may be a bit too risky for this coaching staff, although the veteran group of offensive players and a favorable early schedule could make for a smooth transition should the coaches decide to go with Bostick.

Question #2: What will the linebacker two-deep look like?
If a team that runs a 4-3 defense is looking to have six competent linebackers to fill its two-deep, then the Panthers have about five riddles to solve. Coming out of spring camp, the only sure thing looked to be middle linebacker Scott McKillop. A redshirt junior, McKillop spent the last two seasons as a special teams stalwart and the primary backup to H.B. Blades. With Blades off to the NFL, McKillop has gotten the call; if the spring was any indication, he'll be just as prolific as Blades was and could hit the century mark in tackles this season.

After McKillop, though, is where things get interesting.

For most of the spring McKillop was flanked by redshirt junior Adam Gunn on the strong-side and redshirt sophomore Shane Murray on the weak-side. Gunn excelled on special teams in the past two seasons, but he rarely entered the discussion of linebacker depth last season. Murray, who played safety last season, has drawn favorable comparisons to former Pitt player Mark Ponko for his work ethic and his football intelligence. Both Gunn and Murray have positives, but Murray is slightly under-sized for the position and the coaches don't seem to have bought into Gunn as one of the top linebackers.

Most high-profile among the cast of linebackers is sophomore Dorin Dickerson. Dickerson's story is oft-told: recruited as a receiver, switched to running back and back to receiver, and finally (we hope) moved to linebacker after last season. He settled in well at the position during spring camp, although an injury cut back his practice time. He's a physical specimen with an NFL body, but his mentality remains unknown: simply stated, can he play defense?

Redshirt freshman Nate Nix was a fellow recruit of Dickerson's, but he spent last season as a force on the scout team, earning the respect of the coaches and the players. Unfortunately, the weekly responsibility of scout team defenders is learning the opponent's defense; as such, Nix wasn't as well-versed in the Pitt scheme. In spring camp he worked as the second team strong-side linebacker, although he could project at either outside position. He'll enter camp as a backup, but he could play his way into the starting lineup as his understanding of the defense continues to grow.

So that's five players, which is exactly one short of the six needed to make a traditional "two-deep" chart. The sixth spot could go to redshirt sophomore Steve Dell, who played in nine games last season on special teams but missed spring camp due to surgery on his right knee. Or it could be redshirt freshman Dan Loheyde, who missed last season with a knee injury. Or it could be one of the incoming freshman linebackers.

Most probable answer: The starting lineup will probably feature McKillop in the middle, Murray on the weak-side, and Dickerson on the strong-side. The coaches think the world of Murray and his approach to the game, and they love Dickerson's physical attributes. Confidence is high that Dickerson will grasp the finer points of being an impact player on defense; if he does, the sky is the limit. Nix and Gunn will probably start the year as the backup outside linebackers, and a healthy return should lead Dell to the backup middle spot.