Football: Position breakdown

By Staff Report

Football season arrived quickly: the Panthers will take on Utah in their opening game of the season at 8:30 p.m. today. The rigors of two-a-days and summer camp have come to a close, and players have worked hard day in and day out to secure their spots on the depth chart. This is what the team will look like when it lines up on the field tonight… Football season arrived quickly: the Panthers will take on Utah in their opening game of the season at 8:30 p.m. today. The rigors of two-a-days and summer camp have come to a close, and players have worked hard day in and day out to secure their spots on the depth chart. This is what the team will look like when it lines up on the field tonight:


The story of spring ball and much of the summer centered on quarterback and Central Catholic alumnus Tino Sunseri, who is taking over for the departed Bill Stull. It’s a job the redshirt sophomore is more than ready for. “I’ve focused most on the mental side of my game in the offseason,” he said.

Sunseri is known for his arm strength and is primarily a pocket quarterback but also has some speed. Sunseri describes himself as a “buyer-timer.”

“I do see myself as a pocket guy, but as soon as that pocket starts to collapse a little bit, I want to get out of the pocket, let the receivers get some separation and move the ball downfield,” Sunseri said.

Backing up Sunseri will be redshirt junior Pat Bostick, who in years past has played valuable minutes for the Panthers in Morgantown and South Bend, making him a player who knows the offense and has real game-time experience.

-Kelly Flanigan, Staff Writer

Running Backs

Dion Lewis, who has quickly become a front runner for the 2010 Heisman Trophy, returns as the starting running back this year for the Panthers. Last year, he was named Big East Offensive Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year.

Lewis resembles the perfect combination of shiftiness and brute power. Last season, he scored 18 touchdowns and rushed for almost 1,799 yards on 325 carries, breaking Tony Dorsett’s freshman record. He rushed for more than 100 yards in 10 games last season, tying Dorsett’s record from the ‘70s for most 100-yard games.

Next on the depth chart is Ray Graham, who suffered a knee injury in training camp and was listed on the team’s injury report this week as probable for tonight’s game. Last year, he averaged 5.7 yards per carry, racking up a total of 349 yards on 61 carries and four touchdowns in all 13 games. He and Lewis provide a tandem at running back that is unmatched in the Big East.

Coaches will decide shortly before game time whether the running back can play tonight. If Graham is not healthy enough to back up Lewis against Utah, redshirt freshman Jason Douglas will assume Graham’s responsibilities in his first active season. Douglas is a very elusive runner who can make defenders miss and took snaps with the first second team offense throughout the last few weeks of training camp. He will also be a part of Pitt’s kick-return game.

-Kelly Flanigan, Staff Writer


This year’s Panther team is very deep at the receiver position. Most notably, Jon Baldwin, widely recognized as one of the best wide receivers in the nation, stands at 6-foot-5 and weighs in at 230 pounds. A 1,000-yard receiver last year, Baldwin stands as a potential candidate for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation’s top receiver.

“The wide receivers have been working with me all summer,” Sunseri said. “[Having confidence in your wide receiving corps] is huge, whenever we can get signals down and we know what each other is thinking it makes the game run so much more smoothly.”

Another big receiver, Mike Shanahan, will line up as the No. 2 receiver. Shanahan, who also stands at 6-foot-5, had a productive season for the Panthers in 2009 and looks to build on the progress he made late last season when he made critical catches in both the Connecticut and North Carolina games. Shanahan will anchor the Panthers at the split end position.

Also at receiver is speedy redshirt sophomore Cam Saddler who contributes to the return game on special teams as well. Fans can expect to see redshirt senior Greg Cross, coming off an excellent offseason, make plays for the Panthers at wide receiver along with redshirt freshmen Devin Street and Ed Tinker.

-Kelly Flanigan, Staff Writer

Tight Ends

Mike Cruz isn’t looking into the past.

The redshirt sophomore out of Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown, Pa., isn’t trying to replace former Panther tight ends and current NFL players Nate Byham and Dorin Dickerson. He just wants to make sure that one of the offense’s most important positions doesn’t have a drop in productivity.

“I’m not trying to make people forget about [Byham and Dickerson],” Cruz said. “I focused a lot on the run game, my blocking techniques and speed. I also worked on my route running this offseason so I can bring back the best of both [Byham and Dickerson].”

Cruz will be the starter this season but played in just 11 games last season. His only reception was a two-yard touchdown to put Pitt up 7-0 against South Florida. He is a nice combination of a blocking tight end as well as a good pass-catcher.

The tight end position boasts potential depth, albeit with little experience. Redshirt freshman Brock DeCicco, the younger brother of starting safety Dom DeCicco, has impressed people this camp.

“Brock is doing very well,” Cruz said. “His footwork is amazing, and that’s what I need to work on the most. People say I am teaching him, but the truth is I’m learning just as much from him as he is from me.”

Andrew Devlin, who did not play last season after transferring from the University of Virginia, stands at 6 feet 6 inches and weighs 265 pounds. He is an exceptional blocker and will add depth. He played in 12 games for the Cavaliers in 2008.

-Donnie Tasser, Staff Writer

Offensive Line

Senior preseason All-American Jason Pinkston returns for his third year as a starting left tackle, and junior right tackle Lucas Nix will start for a right offensive tackle. The two starting tackles should provide big running lanes for Dion Lewis as well as time for quarterback Tino Sunseri to pass.

Pinkston’s backup is Jordan Gibbs and Nix’s is Cory King, both of whom have minimal game experience but have the skill sets to be successful.

The interior of the line was a big question going into this season, since the team is replacing three starters there from last season.

Junior Chris Jacobson will be the new starting left guard, while junior Greg Gaskins will take over at right guard with Alex Karabin at center.

There was a competition for those starting spots in camp as Ryan Turnley and Jack Lippert pushed them for playing time.

That competition might be useful since those two players got a lot of reps in training camp and are the primary backups who might have to step into a starting role if an injury occurs later in the season.

As for the inexperience, the team isn’t worried.

“Right now we have five starters set in stone. We can build from here. Everyone’s a little worried about the interior, and rightfully so — there are three new starters,” Nix said. “I consider those guys veterans because they know the offense, they know what they’re doing and don’t make too many mistakes.”

-Alex Oltmanns, Sports Editor

Defensive Line

Once again, Pitt’s defense is expected to be one of the best in the country. The guys up front are a major reason for this.

At defensive end, senior All-American Greg Romeus returns for his senior season after recording 43 tackles with 11.5 for a loss and eight sacks on his way to being named Co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year.

Lining up at the other end of the line is senior Jabaal Sheard, who, combined with Romeus, could form the best defensive end duo in the nation.

Sheard had 42 tackles last season with 10.5 for a loss and five sacks last season.

He had one of the most impressive training camp performances of any player this summer and looks to be primed for an All-Big East senior season.

Junior Brandon Lindsey is the primary backup at both defensive end spots, and after him Shayne Hale, Nate Nix and Justin Hargrove provide quality depth.

At defensive tackle, the Panthers have to replace two starters from last season — Mick Williams and Gus Mustakas.

But redshirt juniors Chas Alecxih and Myles Caragein look to be more than ready to step up as starters, as both got in some playing time last season.

Both Alecxih and Caragein broke into the backfield often last season, with Caragein recording five sacks and Alecxih registering four.

Backing them up will be redshirt freshman Tyrone Ezell and true freshman Aaron Donald. Both have a lot of potential, and Donald was the surprise story of training camp as he seemed to dominate just about every day.

Also, senior Tyler Tkach will get playing time as he has the ability to play both defensive tackle positions.

-Alex Oltmanns, Sports Editor


The middle linebacker position is looking like it will not miss a beat from last year. Sophomore Dan Mason takes over for the graduated Adam Gunn. Mason started two games in place of the injured Gunn last season as a true freshman, and responded with dynamic performances.

During the Meineke Car Care Bowl, Mason made a goal-line interception that ended a North Carolina scoring opportunity. In his first starting assignment against Navy, Mason recorded 11 tackles and two sacks, earning Big East Player of the Week honors for his performance.

Mason finished last season with 26 tackles — 3.5 for a loss — and an interception. He has taken more of a leadership role this summer too, as he was one of the most vocal players in camp.

Looking to back up Mason is redshirt freshman Shane Gordon. Gordon displayed a great amount of athletic ability and always seems to be around the ball.

At strongside linebacker, junior Max Gruder returns as an incumbent starter after recording a team-leading 91 tackles last season.

Backing up Gruder are promising young players Manny Williams and Kevin Adams. Adams, who switched to linebacker just before training camp, made a seamless adjustment to the position this summer.

Weakside linebacker has no definitive starter at this point, as redshirt juniors Greg Williams and Tristan Roberts will both see plenty of playing time there this season. The two split reps in training camp and that trend will probably continue into the season.

-Donnie Tasser, Staff Writer


The cornerback position was one of the team’s biggest question marks going into training camp. After camp, however, those question marks were set aside.

Pitt lost two starters from last season in Aaron Berry and Jovani Chappel. Antwuan Reed secured his starting position earlier in the spring, whereas senior Ricky Gary and junior college transfer Saheed Imoru had to battle for the second starting cornerback position. Gary emerged early in training camp as the clear choice for the second starting slot and continues to improve as he faces Baldwin every day in practice. Redshirt junior Buddy Jackson will be the third cornerback while freshman K’waun Williams and Imoru will be the corners behind him.

-Kelly Flanigan, Staff Writer


Safety once again looks to be a strong suit for the Pittsburgh Panthers in 2010.

Three-year strong safety Dom DeCicco returns to anchor the secondary during his senior season.

DeCicco, out of perennial Pennsylvania powerhouse Thomas Jefferson High School, is a ball hawk who has seven interceptions over the past two seasons and is the unquestioned “quarterback” of the defense.

“Being the quarterback of the defense just comes with the position,” DeCicco said. “It’s [the safety’s] job to make sure everyone is lined up properly and the right calls are made.”

Adding depth to the strong safety position is redshirt sophomore Andrew Taglianetti, who started the first two games at free safety last year before suffering a season-ending knee injury and receiving a medical redshirt. He had four tackles and a fumble recovery last season after playing in all 13 games on special teams as a freshman and blocking three punts.

Penciled in to start at free safety is redshirt sophomore Jarred Holley. Holley, originally a cornerback, switched to free safety midseason last year after Taglianetti’s injury. He recorded three interceptions and had several impressive performances last year. Behind Holley is redshirt freshman Jason Hendricks.

“I think it will be the best defense I have been a part of since I’ve been here,” DeCicco said. “There are a lot of talented guys, fast guys and veterans to compensate for any lack of experience.”

-Donnie Tasser, Staff Writer

Special Teams

Lou Groza Award candidate Dan Hutchins returns for his senior season as both the starting punter and kicker.

He was an All-Big-East kicker last season after making 23 of 29 field goals.

The team’s return men are Cam Saddler, Ray Graham and possibly redshirt freshman Jason Douglas.

Saddler averaged 25.3 yards per return on kickoffs last season, and 11.7 yards on punt returns.

Andrew Taglianetti knows the importance of special teams, and he blocked three punts his freshman year.

“A lot of people may overlook special teams as just a secondary part of the game, but it’s one third of the game,” Taglianetti said. “One big play on special teams can make the difference between winning or losing.”

-Alex Oltmanns, Sports Editor