Previewing The Big East: Pittsburgh Panthers

Dan Kelley@DanKelleyWritesCorrespondent IJune 24, 2009

TAMPA, FL - OCTOBER 2:  Wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin #82 of the Pittsburgh Panthers grabs a pass for a touchdown against the University of South Florida Bulls at Raymond James Stadium on October 2, 2008 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

The Pittsburgh Panthers had their most successful season of the Dave Wannstedt era in 2009, winning nine games and earning a bid to the Sun Bowl. 

In 2009, Pittsburgh will look to take the next step forward and win the Big East title.

With one of the most talented defenses in the conference, the Panthers should be considered one of the favorites to win what should be a wide open Big East.

Up front, the Panthers return three starters who are sure to have opposing quarterbacks running for their lives.  Defensive tackle Mick Williams and ends Jabaal Sheard and Greg Romeus combined for 17.5 sacks a year ago. 

Romeus, in particular, proved himself to be one of the most dangerous pass rushers in the league as a sophomore, registering 7.5 sacks and earning Second Team All-Big East honors. 

At linebacker, the Panthers will have to replace All-American and Big East Defensive Player of the Year Scott McKillop.

The lone returning starter at linebacker is Greg Williams, who contributed 47 tackles, 3.5 sacks and two interceptions last season.  Pittsburgh also returns senior Adam Gunn, who missed most of 2008 with a neck injury after starting in 2007. 

The other expected starting linebacker is sophomore Max Gruder, who had a solid spring for the Panthers and made appearances in all 13 games last year.

The Panthers return a veteran group in the secondary, led by Second Team All-Big East cornerback Aaron Berry. The thing to watch for in this unit will be Berry’s status entering the season after he was suspended by the team at the end of spring practice for a violation of team rules. 

Fortunately for Pittsburgh, should Berry be kept off the field, they are still left with two solid corners in senior Jovani Chappel and junior Ricky Gary. 

Pittsburgh returns junior strong safety Dom DeCiccio, who registered 56 tackles last year and led the team with four interceptions. Rounding out the group will likely be junior free safety Elijah Fields, who played in 13 games last year and recorded 18 tackles.   

If the Panthers are to win their first outright Big East title in '09, they will need to get more production from their passing game. They'll also need to figure out how to replace star tailback LeSean McCoy.

Last year Pittsburgh’s passing game was inconsistent at best, ranking sixth in the conference in pass efficiency. In his junior season, quarterback Bill Stull threw for 2,356 yards but only nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Stull will be the signal-caller again this season. Also returning are receivers Jonathan Baldwin, Oderick Turner, and Cedric McGee. Baldwin will need to emerge as a legitimate No. 1 receiver for the Pittsburgh passing game to be more of a threat to opposing defenses. He displayed flashes of brilliance as a freshman last year but will really have the opportunity to display his skills this season.

Also returning to help out Bill Stull is First Team All-Big East tight end Nate Byham and fellow tight end Dorin Dickerson. The two combined for 434 receiving yards and three of the team's receiving touchdowns in '08.

The only thing that kept the Panthers offense afloat at times last season was the play of First Team All-Big East tailback LeSean McCoy. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, he has moved on to Philadelphia to play for the Eagles and won’t be able to help them this year. 

Trying to win the starting job are true freshman Dion Lewis, redshirt-freshman Chris Burns, sophomore Shariff Harris, and junior Kevin Collier. 

The diminutive Dion Lewis (5-foot-8, 190 pounds) impressed the staff during spring practice and could be a contributor right away. The most likely scenario will be a combination of two or three backs until someone clearly separates from the rest of the pack. Lewis looks to be ahead of the curve at this point.

Whoever is taking the carries will have the benefit of running behind a solid offensive line, which returns four starters from 2008.  If the backs live up to expectations, all the pieces will be in place for the Panthers have a solid running game again in '09.

With a ton of returning talent from last year’s 9-3 team and a year of maturation for Bill Stull and receiver Jonathan Baldwin hopefully improving the passing game, the Panthers look primed for a Big East championship run. The league appears to be as wide open as ever, but the '09 Panthers have the talent and the experience necessary to earn a spot in the Bowl Championship Series.