Coach: Dave Wannstedt (first season) 2004 record: 8-4 (Lost to Utah in Fiesta Bowl) Big East finish: 4-2 (t-1st) 2004 I-A offensive rankings: Rushing: 105th (97.8 ypg) Passing: 24th (260.1 ypg) 2004 I-A defensive rankings: Rushing: 48th (140.2 ypg) Passing: 100th (255.3 ypg)
at West Virginia
Depth Chart: Offense
9 returning starters in red
Depth Chart: Defense
7 returning starters in red
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The sounds of popping shoulder pads and bone-jarring collisions permeated the Pittsburgh practice fields this spring. It wasn't for the faint of heart.
"It might not always be fun, but it's the way things are supposed to be," first-year coach Dave Wannstedt said. "You have to be physical, tough, hard-nosed."
Indeed, a new era of Pittsburgh football is alive and hitting.
"We want to be that team where, after the game, the other team is going to be bumped, they're going to be bruised, they're going to be sore," sophomore right tackle Mike McGlynn said.
So far, so good. Wannstedt wasted little time tossing aside former coach Walt Harris' West Coast style for an East Coast power game in Pittsburgh, which isn't surprising, considering Wannstedt is a Western Pennsylvania product with a blue-collar mentality.
The former Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins head coach is looking to toughen up a program that returns 16 starters, in addition to both specialists, from a team that finished 8-4 and captured the Big East's automatic BCS berth and landed in the Fiesta Bowl.
If the Panthers can adjust to Wannstedt's style, a dominating season could be on the horizon.
Star quarterback Tyler Palko broke into a wide smile when Wannstedt used the terms "national championship" and "Pittsburgh" in the same sentence. "He's confident about it just like I am," Palko said of Wannstedt. "He believes it. I believe it."
Palko is the linchpin for these Panthers, who return 16 starters. The ever-confident lefty should garner Heisman Trophy attention after throwing for 1,821 yards, 17 touchdowns and two interceptions in his final six games in '04.
This year, Pitt is looking to establish a running game. "If we run it well, it's going to take some of the pressure off of [Palko]," Wannstedt said.
Raymond Kirkley (560 yards last season) is the incumbent at running back, but Wannstedt won't hesitate to make changes. That means seniors Tim Murphy and Marcus Furman, or blue-chip freshman Conredge Collins could be carrying the load before long.
The Panthers return perhaps the most electric player in the Big East in junior receiver Greg Lee, who caught 68 passes for 1,297 yards and 10 touchdowns in '04.
Wannstedt asked his offensive linemen to lose weight in order to trap and pull better. He switched All-Big East guard Charles Spencer to left tackle and likes what he sees in returning right tackle McGlynn.
Linebackers H.B. Blades and Clint Session are the heart and soul of this unit. They provide big plays and timely hits, but they'll only be as good as the guys in front of them. Therein lies the problem. The Panthers lost a pair of three-year starters at the tackle spots, which is a concern for Wannstedt. He moved powerful defensive end Thomas Smith to one tackle position and could summon the help of true freshman Craig Bokor immediately.
Wannstedt plans to rebuild this unit -- which ranked 73rd nationally last season -- with speed. "We have to fly to the ball," he said.
The secondary returns three of four starters, most notably '04 freshman phenom Darrelle Revis at cornerback. The Panthers gave up 255.3 yards per game passing last season, but those numbers should improve once Wannstedt builds that defensive front. And remember -- he's made his name building defenses.
The Panthers welcome back first-team All-Big East selections in kicker Josh Cummings and punter Adam Graessle. Speedy Terrell Allen, a breakaway threat, will return kickoffs, while the shifty Revis will handle punts.
Palko pledged to win two national championships upon signing with Pittsburgh, but we won't hold him to it. Still, these Panthers have a chance to make an impact on the national stage with 16 starters returning from a team that finished 8-4 and played in the Fiesta Bowl.
The road won't be easy. The Panthers host Notre Dame in the opener and travel to Nebraska in Week 3. They also face Big East newcomer Louisville and archrival West Virginia on the road.