Football: Young Panthers look to open season with a win

By Jay Huerbin

The 2009 Pitt football team takes to Heinz Field tomorrow coming off its most successful season… The 2009 Pitt football team takes to Heinz Field tomorrow coming off its most successful season under coach Dave Wannstedt. Last year’s team finished tied for second in the Big East with a 9-3 overall record before falling to Oregon, 3-0, in the Sun Bowl.

But last season is over and the football team is ready for this year when the Panthers host the Youngstown State Penguins tomorrow at 1 p.m.

And for the man who knows the players the best, they’re ready for this season.

“I would just start off by saying that I know our players, our staff, everyone involved with this program, our fans are all excited about getting this season kicked off,” Wannstedt said at his first weekly press conference of the year.

This year’s team was picked by Big East coaches to finish atop the conference — but it wasn’t unanimous, and the battle for the best team is expected to be a hard fought one.

There is no LeSean McCoy and there is no Scott McKillop — All-Big East first team selections in 2008 — but that doesn’t worry the coaching staff. This year’s team is younger, but has quickly grasped how the program is run. That’s good news as the future of Pitt football will soon learn what it takes to win.

True freshmen Dion Lewis and Ray Graham will replace McCoy, who left Pitt early to enter the NFL after last season. While starting such a young player at such an important position might not be the most ideal situation, the coaching staff knows the best players — regardless of age and experience — will be starting.

“You would like not to be in that scenario [of playing freshmen], but at the same time, these two kids came out of camp and had the most productive camps,” Wannstedt said. “You want to play the best players that give you the best chance to win.”

Lewis and Graham aren’t the only the true freshmen expected to play this season. Middle linebacker Dan Mason, listed as Adam Gunn’s backup on the depth chart, showed consistency and power throughout training camp. For Wannstedt, typically a coach with much to say about his players, few were needed to describe Mason’s play this early into his college career.

“He’s the real deal,” he said simply.

No other freshmen are expected to play much this season, and Wannstedt hopes to redshirt any freshmen who doesn’t play — but that’s not always possible because of injuries.

Heading into the season opener, redshirt senior Bill Stull will again be the starting quarterback. But Wannstedt hinted that his backup, redshirt freshman Tino Sunseri, will still play a lot this year.

“We want to get him in as many games as we can,” Wannstedt said. “We’ll take it one week at a time.”

Stull threw for 2,356 yards, nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 12 regular season games last season. Sunseri, as a redshirt, did not play in a game in 2008 but showed the ability to play the position well during training camp.

With Stull as the starter, the Panthers are hoping to not have a repeat of last season’s opener. In 2008, Bowling Green upset then-ranked No. 25 Pitt, 27-17, at Heinz Field. Mistakes and turnovers plagued the Panthers, who were never able to control the visiting Falcons.

Wannstedt knows what went wrong last year and knows his team isn’t going to take the Penguins lightly.

“We’ve got to go out there and protect the football and we need to tackle,” he said. “If you do those things, you’re going to have a chance to win every week, whether it’s Youngstown State or West Virginia. That’s the key.”

This is just the second time that Pitt will play Youngstown State. In 2005, the Panthers defeated the Penguins 41-0.

Youngstown State, a member of the College Football Subdivision, FCS, is one of the more successful subdivision teams. It won four national championships during the 1990s.

After playing the Penguins, Pitt will travel to Buffalo for a game against the Bulls on Sept. 12. The Panthers don’t begin Big East play until their Oct. 2 matchup at Louisville.