Pittsburgh Panthers (2000: 7-5)
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Coach and programItís kind of hard to blame Pittsburgh for throwing a net over Walt Harris during last seasonís coaching feeding frenzy. For a while there, it seemed as if every I-A school except for Florida State and Oklahoma was looking for a new boss. Relocation was the name of the game.
Not for Harris. When Ohio State politely asked Pittsburgh athletic director Steve Pederson if it could ask Harris a few questions to measure his level of interest in the vacant Buckeye spot, Pederson declined.
While the media put the pieces together and assumed that a former Buckeye assistant would eat light bulbs for the chance to coach the Scarlet and Gray, Harris had other ideas.
The Panthers are moving rapidly into the 21st century in all areas, and Harris is happy to be a part of the progress -- and happy that the Panthers are not being viewed as Saturday afternoon interlopers by the Steelers, with whom they share a new stadium.
The Steelers find themselves struggling to stay close to the big boys in what has become the NFLís best division. Pitt, on the other hand, is clearly on the rise, as last yearís bowl season proved.
Itís a progression that ought to continue this year, thanks to the return of 16 starters and both specialists. Pittís two lines will be bigger, older and deeper. And there is some star power, as well, thanks to the returns of Biletnikoff-winning wide receiver Antonio Bryant, standout defensive end Bryan Knight and fierce-hitting safety Ramon Walker.
Things look good, but not perfect. Pitt has no proven ball carriers on the roster. None. And those lines may look better, but there are still some questions and problems with injuries. And though the Panthers are on the rise, they remain a step (at least) behind Virginia Tech and Miami.
Thatís why it was so important for Pitt to keep Harris. New practice fields and stadiums dazzle recruits, but coaches put it all together on the field. Harris has been doing that for four seasons, and his efforts may just be ready to pay off in a big way.
OffenseThis time last year, the Panthers were counting heavily on 6-4, 205-pound senior quarterback David Priestley, an Ohio State transfer who had flashed bits of brilliance during the Ď99 season. But Priestley didnít make a complete recovery from off-season shoulder surgery and was unable to grab the starting job away from John Turman.
Now, the spot is Priestleyís. He played in eight games last year and made one start -- against Bowling Green. He completed 55.3 percent of his 103 passes, for 829 yards, five scores and four interceptions.
The losses of leading rusher Kevan Barlow (1,053 yards, eight touchdowns) and backup Nick Goings (296) have left the Panthers in what would appear to be dire straits at running back. Neither of the two top players listed on the depth chart -- Mike Jemison and Malcolm Postell -- has ever carried the ball in real action.
ďAt least we have some possibilities at tailback,Ē Harris said. ďItís sort of the same as our offensive line, where we are also young. But you donít need as much experience to play running back as you do to play offensive line. You have to take some snaps, read the defense and be a football player.Ē
There is no such question about the wideouts, thanks to the return of Bryant, a 6-2, 185-pound junior who had a smashing 2000 season. Bryant led the nation with 130.2 receiving yards per game, caught 68 balls, scored 11 times and averaged a whopping 19.1 yards per reception -- and he didnít even play in Pittís opener last year.
Defense and special teamsHarris was extremely concerned about this group last year, but it surprised him, leading the Big East with 35 sacks and surrendering just 99.7 rushing yards per game. Even more impressive was the 2.6 yards per carry average the Panthers allowed.
One person on whom Harris knows he can depend is senior end Knight (6-2, 230), who had 74 tackles, with an amazing 26 coming behind the line. That was a Big East record. Knight led the Panthers and was second in the league with 11 1/2 sacks, four of which came against Bowling Green.
Harris is blunt when he describes safety Walkerís 2000 season: ďHe didnít have as good a year as he did the year before."
Fair enough, but there were some mitigating circumstances, like a knee injury that limited the 6-0, 195-pound junior to just seven games. But anybody who saw Pittís bowl game knows what Walker can do. He had 15 tackles and forced two fumbles in a spectacular performance that could well be a harbinger of this year. If heís healthy, the hard-hitting Walker will be a major force in the league and could well earn first-team All-Big East honors.
The Panthers are in pretty good shape on special teams, thanks to good coverage units -- a byproduct of the teamís enhanced depth -- and some fine speed in the return game. Bryant averaged 11.3 yards on 16 punt returns last year and is a threat to go long.
Bottom lineHarris has authored an impressive turnaround on the Hill, and itís time for a new chapter. We donít know if those pages include a return to national prominence, because the Panthers still have some mighty big questions. The biggest is along the offensive front, where there is talent and promise but not a lot of experience.
The Panthers should be good for at least six wins this year, a total which could swell to eight or even nine if the line gets it together and Priestley is healthy. In a Big East that is rapidly improving, that would be quite an accomplishment. Pitt has a chance to be quite good again, and Harris ought to hang around long enough to enjoy it -- no matter who calls.