August 2, 2006

A game of questions

The Pitt football team is less than a week away from opening training camp. In the three weeks of camp, Dave Wannstedt and the Panthers will look to answer a number of questions. Most of those questions are lingering queries, left over from 2005's 5-6 campaign. Other questions involve developing players, both upperclassmen and newcomers.

Below are five key questions for the coaching staff and players to answer over the next three and a half weeks. If Wannstedt and the Panthers hope to improve on last season's disappointment, solving at least a few of the following five questions will go a long way toward that goal.

1. Do you have protection young man?

No one doubts fifth-year senior quarterback Tyler Palko's abilities or his leadership. In 2004, his knack for making plays earned him early 2005 Heisman consideration. That hype didn't consider what kind of offensive line Palko would be playing behind, though, and the results were often disastrous. Palko's numbers went down in almost every respect in 2005, as he threw for 3,067 yards, 24 touchdowns, and seven interceptions in 2004 but just 2,392 yards, 17 touchdowns, and nine interceptions a year later.

While there were times when it appeared that Palko's throws weren't quite as sharp in 2005 as they had been in the previous year, it wasn't enough to overlook the lack of time he had to make those throws. The offensive line in front of Palko featured just one player, redshirt junior right guard John Simonitis, who had more than one year of starting experience. Around Simonitis were right tackle Mike McGlynn, whose first full year as a starter was 2005, center Joe Villani, a former walk-on who primarily worked on special teams in 2004, and left tackle Charles Spencer, who spent 2004 as the Panthers' starting left guard after being moved from the defensive line. That group was filled out at left guard by Dominic Williams at first and then Dale Williams before true freshman C.J. Davis finally locked down the role for the final six games of the season.

The cumulative effect of the line's inexperience didn't necessarily play out in the traditional ways. Rather than amass a large number of sacks, opponents actually got to Palko less times in 2005 (30 sacks) than in 2004 (40 sacks). Instead, Palko used his natural talents to by and large avoid the rush. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to convert those extra seconds into significant production, often dumping the ball to tight ends or running backs after eluding the pressure. The notion of those positions as safety valves played out in the stats for 2005: receivers Greg Lee and Derek Kinder led the team in receptions, but tight ends Erik Gill, Steve Buches, and Darrell Strong were third, fourth, and fifth, respectively. To find another receiver in the list of passes caught, one has to look all the way to sixth place for Joe DelSardo, whose 15 catches surpassed fullback Tim Murphy by just one. The next four players on the Panthers' top receivers list of 2005 all came out of the backfield.

The question, then, is whether or not the line in 2006 can give Palko an opportunity to find more targets downfield. Back are McGlynn, Simonitis, Villani, and Davis, with only Davis still looking for a full season as a starter. McGlynn and Simonitis are the elder statesmen of the group and, as protectors of Palko's blind-side, they will be key to the unit's effectiveness. Even though he's young, Davis could be the best of the bunch, and Villani still appears to be the option at center. Maybe the biggest sub-question of the Panthers' training camp will be the one concerning left tackle: that spot will likely fall to junior college transfer Jeff Otah. At 6-6, 340 pounds, Otah comes to Pitt after spending two notable seasons at Valley Forge. He was named the Seaboard Conference MVP in 2005 and put together two first team All-Seaboard Conference seasons. The Panthers have a rather sizable hole at left tackle, and Otah's ability to catch on at the major college level could go a long way toward determining how effective the line is this season.

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