August 4, 2007

Five Answers

The Pantherlair has taken a look at 5 Questions that the Pitt football team will face in training camp over the next four weeks. Now we look at five areas where the answers are known.

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1. The wide receivers
Maybe it's obvious and maybe it goes without saying, but we'll throw it out there anyway:

Pitt is loaded at wide receiver.

Led by senior Derek Kinder, the Panthers' receiving corps has a little bit of everything: sure-handed possession guys, stretch-the-field deep threats, and playmakers who add a number of exciting wrinkles to the offense.

Kinder returns after earning first team All-Big East honors and being named a Biletnikoff Award semifinalist in 2006. He caught 57 passes for 847 yards (both team highs) and 6 touchdowns and he'll be included on the watch lists for the Biletnikoff (best receiver) and Maxwell (national player of the year) awards. Rivals named him one of college football's most reliable players after last season, and as he heads into his senior season he should be as good as ever.

Right behind Kinder is redshirt sophomore Oderick Turner. As Pitt looked to replace Greg Lee in the "deep threat" role, the coaches put Turner on the field and he immediately made it a good decision by catching a touchdown pass in the season-opener against Virginia. Turner went on to catch 8 total touchdowns (tied for the best in the Big East) and was named a Freshman All-American by Rivals.

But despite Turner's accomplishments last season, he actually slipped slightly on the depth chart in the spring; that's where Pitt's group of receivers gets really interesting.

Behind and, at times, ahead of Turner in the spring, were receivers Marcel Pestano and Tamarcus Porter. Pestano, a redshirt junior, was a somewhat marginal player a year ago at this time, but he emerged last season as a playmaker who had much more poise, drive, and commitment than most previously thought. He compiled 28 catches for 424 yards and 2 touchdowns last season as the team's primary No. 3 receiver, and he continued to make a positive impression in the spring, so he'll push for receptions this season.

Porter underwent the biggest positive turnaround of any Pitt player from the 2006 season to 2007 spring camp, shifting from enigmatic malcontent to enthusiastic team player in a little under seven months. He got a handful of touches in the 2006 season, making 3 receptions for 18 yards, rushing 3 times for 9 yards, and returning 11 kicks for 244 yards. He was probably the most impressive all-around receiver in spring camp, whether he was making athletic plays or going over the middle without fear. Porter will be very difficult to keep off the field.

With those four, Pitt probably has the deepest receiving corps in the Big East. And the Panthers can add to that depth with redshirt sophomore Cedric McGee and incoming freshmen Maurice Williams and Aundre Wright, not to mention a handful of talented tight ends and running backs that can also catch the ball.

2. The tight ends
This one is probably as obvious as the receivers, but it bears repeating:

Pitt's tight ends are very, very good. So good, in fact, that the Panthers can, with little hesitation, boast of the Big East's best tight end group and one that ranks among the tops in the nation.

Sophomore Nate Byham is the top name in the group, and although he only recorded two receptions for 34 yards and a touchdown last season, Byham enters training camp as one of the team's most dangerous threats. The touchdown catch in 2006 was an athletic reception against West Virginia that included a pretty stiff hit mid-catch, and that scoring play should be a small taste of what Byham can do this season. In spring camp he showed that he really is the total package at tight end, either through blocking or pass-catching, and he should be a primary target for Pitt's first-year quarterback this season.

After Byham, the tight end position at Pitt this year features two players with divergent talents: senior Darrell Strong is an athletic pass-catcher, a wide receiver who out-grew the position and can provide a down-field threat, while redshirt sophomore John Pelusi is the quintessential blocking tight end, a talented player who has earned praise from the coaching staff since training camp of his freshman year.

Despite Strong's untimely lapses of focus and occasional off-field problems, the former quarterback-turned-receiver-turned-tight end has a world of athletic playmaking ability. He has frustrated fans and coaches alike over the past few seasons with his periodic gaffes and errors, but 2007 will be his final year at Pitt: he's got the physical attributes to play at the next level, but if he wants to get there he'll need to show that he can be a fully committed, fully focused contributor.

Pelusi appeared in all 11 games as a freshman behind Erik Gill and Steve Buches, but off-season surgery ended his 2006 campaign before it even began. He finally returned to practice this past spring, and he appears to have regained the form he showed in 2005. The coaches were pleased with Pelusi's play in the spring and he added to his abilities by showing an increased potential as a pass-catcher.

So what you have in the tight ends is a natural blocker, a natural receiver, and an all-around superstar-in-the-making who covers all bases. Combined with the wideouts, it's not too much of a stretch to say that Pitt has one of the deepest and most talented groups of receivers and tight ends in the conference, if not the nation.