Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
Welcome to a new weekly feature here at the blog. From now until the end of spring practice, I'll be conducting a Q&A with a coach, player or official from the Big East. I might even let you guys submit questions for me to ask in the future.
Let's kick things off with Pittsburgh head coach Dave Wannstedt:
You just hired Frank Cignetti Jr. as your new offensive coordinator. What was it about him that you liked?
Dave Wannstedt: First of all, I wanted somebody who had been a playcaller before. The second thing is, I wanted someone who could tutor our quarterbacks. The more I'm around this college game, I see these young kids come in and there's so much development that needs to take place. And there's no position that's more important than quarterback. So that's a position that's critical.
The third thing is, I didn't want to have a complete overhaul of the offense. I wanted to get somebody who believed in running the ball and doing some of the things that we had been doing. Then, obviously, to look at it and say, "What can we do within this philosophy to make ourselves better?" And then the fourth thing was ... Frank's dad, I met him when he came out of high school. He was recruiting me for West Virginia, and his dad is a legendary coach here in Western PA and Frank's from this area. When I was interviewing him, I was getting calls from high school coaches in this area telling me how excited they were that Frank might come. And it speaks volumes of what people in this part of the country and this part of the state think about him.
Will fans notice much of a difference in your offense this season?
DW: I think so, but exactly what I don't know. I think that people forget that when the regular season ended, we were the number one scoring offense in the Big East. No one would recognize that. I think the mindset that some of the alums and some of the fans have is the (Brut Sun) Bowl game, getting shut out in the bowl game. And that tarnished a lot of great things that we did offensively during the year. Do we have to get better? Sure we do. Can we get better? Sure we can. And we will. I'm looking forward to once Frank gets here and he gets a chance to see our players and gets with our other offensive coaches. We'll see what adjustments we need and how we change some things and make us better.
The biggest difference, of course, will be not having LeSean McCoy. Going back a little bit, did it surprise you when he declared for the NFL draft?
DW: It did at the end a little bit, only for the fact that in June, I made a statement to our assistant coaches that I wanted to sign three freshmen running backs. They were like, "Coach, we've got two on the roster already and Shady is three so that would make six." And I told them that I've been down this road and around this game too long, and I think McCoy will leave. And none of my assistant coaches believed me. So we ended up signing three quality young running backs, really good players, in addition to the guys we have.
And then Shady comes out, unsolicited, and says he's staying. And my comment was, "Well, we'll see." I can remember our local media coming up to me and saying, "What's wrong with you? McCoy just said he's staying and you're not doing back flips." And I said, "Let's wait and see. It's early. I hope he comes back." I didn't really overreact one way or another.
Then as time went on, he was doing interviews and telling everybody that he was coming back, and he really convinced me. We talked on the plane on the way home from the bowl game, and within a week circumstances have changed. So in the end I was a little bit surprised, to be quite honest with you, but back in the beginning of the year I kind of anticipated it. LeSean is a first-round draft pick, and those guys don't come around every day. But I think when you're not dependent on one player, now we're going to have to throw the ball a little better. We're going to have to be more effective passing it. We have some great receivers and outstanding tight ends. So somebody else has to pick up the slack, and I think that they will. That's what good teams do.
Who are some of the guys you're looking at to replace McCoy at tailback?
DW: There's a kid we recruited a couple of years ago, a good player out of Rochester, New York, named Kevin Collier. We've got Shariff Harris who we recruited out of New Jersey St. Peter's prep who was a redshirt freshman this year. And then we have Chris Burns, who was a true freshman last year who we redshirted. We have a freshman coming in who's probably faster than any of them in Dion Lewis out of Blair Academy in New York. So we've got some quality players there. We're going to be a little bit young, but I know we've got talent. And as long as you've got talent, as a coach I don't care what position it is, if you have talent to work with you have a chance to win. I believe that's where we are at that spot.
Would you like for one guy to emerge as the starter there by the end of spring?
DW: I would, but I don't know if that will happen or not. I'm really uncertain on how it's going to play out.
Let's talk about your quarterback situation. Is Bill Stull still your starter, or will there be an open competition this spring?
DW: Billy is going to be our starter. We went 9-3 in the regular season with Bill Stull. It was the best record that Pitt's had since Dan Marino was here. So people have a tendency to lose sight of that a little bit, too, because of the bowl game. Now, did Billy play at a level that we need him to play at to win a championship? No. Can he get better? Yes. He understands that.
Pat Bostick is looking for an opportunity, Tino Sunseri is looking for an opportunity and we have Greg Cross on our team, he's looking for an opportunity. So I think that with a new quarterback coach coming in, a new offensive coordinator, it's going to create a real natural sense of urgency on offense in addition to the quarterback position, which I think will be healthy.
All three quarterbacks will get equal opportunities in practice and scrimmage situations and we'll see how it unfolds. I think we know these kids well enough that we can expect someone to surface and we can hang our hat on someone and say, "OK, this is the way we&
#39;re going into the fall."
Was Stull more banged up than maybe he even let on late in the year?
DW: Oh, he was banged up. In the bowl game, his wrist was bothering him. Obviously, he was limping a little bit. When he got hurt in the Rutgers game, he had thrown for 180 yards at that point and I think he was like 18-of-22 or something. And he never really got back the remainder of the season to where he was at that point.
What are some of the other positions you'll be focusing on this spring?
DW: The middle linebacker position is the other spot, with Scott McKillop leaving, that's a concern. The tailback spot we've got to solve and the middle linebacker we've got to solve. And field goal kicker. Now we signed a kid, Kevin Harper, he was All-Ohio a year ago. We signed him to be the field goal kicker and he was redshirted last season. So that's the three spots, as I look at our team, that we have to make some major decisions on who is the guy to line up at those spots. Because all three of those spots are going to be positions that someone is going to have to perform at a high level for us to win. But we do have a pretty good nucleus. We just had three senior starters on offense and three on defense, so we're still a relatively young team, and I think that's good
McKillop did so much for you on defense. With him gone, does that change the way you do things at all, and who might replace him?
DW: No, we won't change a thing on defense. Steve Dell is a senior who's been around here a few years. Max Gruder played some last year as a redshirt freshman and played pretty good at a couple different spots. We signed an incoming freshman (Dan Mason) who was one of the best linebackers in this state and I think one of the better ones in this part of the country. He'll be coming in with a chance to compete at that position. We've got some people, and I believe someone will step up.
Hey, when H.B. Blades graduated, it was not until halfway through Scott's first year of playing that I really believed that he was the guy. At this time after H.B. left I was telling people, "I don't think we have a middle linebacker. We've got Scott McKillop to line up, but I don't know if he's a player." And I kind of feel the same way about the guys that are backing Scott up now. So we'll see.
Do you see many of your incoming freshmen or any redshirts from last season having an impact this year?
DW: We played three or four (freshmen) last year. I think maybe the linebacker kid I mentioned could have an impact. We did sign a couple of young receivers. And signing three running backs -- at least one of those kids definitely has a chance. I think you can play skill positions guys a lot faster than linemen. So a young back could come in and help us.
Will linebacker Adam Gunn be back this year after his neck injury at the beginning of '08?
DW: We applied for a sixth year but haven't been notified yet. That would be a real bonus, but I'm not counting on it.
What about Jonathan Baldwin? He had an impressive freshman year. How much better can he get?
DW: I've always thought players make their biggest jump from their freshman year to their sophomore year, and I expect Jonathan Baldwin to truly be a dominant player this year. I mean, he has the potential to be as good as anybody in the country, with his speed, his hands, his toughness and his size. I expect for him to make a major contribution this year.
How's your offensive line? Will Robb Houser be ready for spring?
DW: He'll be back in the spring and should be fine. John Malecki is back at right guard, Joe Thomas is back at right tackle and Jason Pinkston is back at left tackle. We've got to find a left guard, and we have two highly recruited kids. Chris Jacobson two years ago was the best linemen in the state of Pennsylvania and played in the Army All-American game. And then last year, Lucas Nix played in the Army game. So we've got some pretty talented young kids, and I think with a year of Tony Wise coaching these kids, I expect our offensive line to be more solid than we were a year ago.
You mentioned Greg Cross earlier. Will he stay at quarterback or move to another position?
DW: We'll start him off at quarterback then see how it unfolds. We'll see how he competes and see where his opportunities are.
You won nine games last year and went to a bowl game for the first time in your tenure. Where do you feel like the program is right now, and is it where you want it to be?
DW: I really felt like, if we don't lose Billy Stull the year before in the opening game -- and we had to play Pat Bostick, a true freshman who missed half of training camp -- there's not a doubt in my mind we could have won seven games and gone to a bowl game. And then last year we take a little step and win nine. So, yeah, I see the program taking steps. It never happens as fast as anybody on the outside would like it, and it never happens as fast as coaches would like to be honest with you.
But if you can be truly honest about it, not what the perception is and not what the influence of maybe the media and alumni is, if you can sit back as a coach and say these are the facts. And are we making progress or aren't we? I feel like we're making some progress every year, and as long as we continue doing that, I feel good about it.
We have a lot of room to improve in a lot of different areas, and obviously our goal is to win a Big East championship, and I don't think that's out of reach. I think the conference is going to be wide open. I don't know who the favorite would be right now. Probably South Florida because of Matt Grothe coming back or Cincinnati because their quarterback is coming back. But I think it's probably as open as it's been in a long time.