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March 18, 2009

Improved QB play will be key for Pittsburgh

Pitt rode a solid defense and the running of tailback LeSean McCoy to a 9-4 record and a Sun Bowl berth last season.

But even with McCoy in the lineup, the offense often bogged down like in the 3-0 Sun Bowl loss to Oregon State. Now, McCoy is gone.

The good news is the bulk of the defense returns. If the Panthers can adequately replace McCoy and get consistent play from their quarterback, they should challenge for the Big East title.

Here's a look at the Panthers as they prepare for spring practice.

Senior quarterback Bill Stull faces a battle this spring to keep the No. 1 job.
Coach: Dave Wannstedt
Last season: 9-4, 5-2 Big East. Lost to Oregon State in the Sun Bowl.
Spring dates: March 19-April 11
Offense (7): TE Nate Byham, C Robb Houser, G John Malecki, T Jason Pinkston, QB Bill Stull, T Joe Thomas, WR Oderick Turner.
Defense (7): CB Aaron Berry, CB Jovani Chappel, SS Dom DeCicco, E Greg Romeus, E Jabaal Sheard, LB Greg Williams, T Mick Williams.
Special teams: None.
Positions of strength

The defensive line should be the best area on the team. Three full-time starters are back, as is part-time starter Gus Mustakas at nose tackle. In fact, the defense as a whole should be a strength, with the biggest key finding a replacement for tackle machine Scott McKillop at middle linebacker. Four starters are back on the offensive line, which should be one of the best in the Big East.

Help is needed

Pitt needs better play at quarterback, especially with McCoy off early to the NFL. Expect a QB battle this spring among senior Bill Stull, junior Pat Bostick and redshirt freshman Tino Sunseri. Replacing McCoy and backup LaRod Stephens-Howling also is a high priority. Two LB spots are vacant, but the talent looks to be on hand.

Keep an eye on

MLB Steve Dell: Dell, a senior, will get first crack at replacing McKillop, but he will be pushed by sophomores Max Gruder and Brandon Lindsey. Former outside linebackers Shane Murray (knee) and Adam Gunn (neck) also could be factors if they are over injuries. Some youngsters also will figure in the mix, but coach Dave Wannstedt expects a veteran to win this key spot.

RB Shariff Harris: Harris, a sophomore, is one of several options who will audition as McCoy's replacement. He's a big back (6 feet 1/210 pounds) who is considered a strong between-the-tackles runner. Also keep an eye on redshirt freshman Chris Burns, junior Kevin Collier and true freshman Dion Lewis, who enrolled in January. The problem: The quartet has 49 combined career attempts.

QB Tino Sunseri: New offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti likes the potential of Sunseri, a redshirt freshman who has poise and a presence in the pocket. Sunseri also has good mobility, a decent arm and an aura about him. His dad, Sal, was a linebacker at Pitt in the early 1980s and currently is the linebackers coach at Alabama.

His time is now

Stull is the returning starter at quarterback, but he has been plagued by inconsistency throughout his career. That's why there's an open competition for his job. Stull is a solid leader with a decent arm, but he has yet to put it all together and is in peril of losing his job.

The buzz

Coaches are searching for new starters at weakside linebacker, tailback, middle linebacker, left guard and free safety. But the top order of business will be finding a quarterback or at least developing a pecking order heading out of spring drills. The Panthers may need to rely more on their quarterback with McCoy's departure. Cignetti's arrival from California, where he was offensive coordinator, is expected to give the offense more juice. Cignetti has an impressive background that includes stints in the NFL. And if there's one thing he does well, it is develop quarterbacks.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.

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