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Monday, January 31, 2011
Big East recruiting needs

By Brian Bennett

Signing day is now just 48 hours away. So let's take a look at the recruiting needs are for each Big East team in this class.

The positions listed reflect areas of need for the 2011 and 2012 seasons and don't take into account players who have already committed at those spots, though I try to highlight some of those notable commitments below.

Cincinnati

Offensive line: The Bearcats lose three senior starters from an offensive line that had its share of struggles in the 2010 season. Left tackle, center and right guard will all need new starters in 2011, and Butch Jones wasn't thrilled with the depth he inherited at those key positions. He needs to refill the ranks.

Running back: Isaiah Pead had a breakthrough year and might be the top running back in the Big East in 2011, but he's a senior. Backup John Goebel graduated, and Darrin Williams hasn't shown enough consistency as an every-down player. The Bearcats hope current commitment Jameel Poteat can be the next Pead.

Defensive toughness: Cincinnati returns all 11 starters from the 2010 defense, but that defense gave up the most points in the Big East. There's not a position on the defense that couldn't use more depth and more talent. The Bearcats were especially light on strength and toughness on defense, so any hard-nosed guys who can play on that side of the ball are welcome to join.

Connecticut

Linebacker: UConn returns most of its starting defense from 2010 but loses a pair of four-year starters in linebackers Scott Lutrus and Lawrence Wilson. Sio Moore is a rising star at the position, but it will be hard to replace the veteran leadership and production that Lutrus and Wilson provided. The Huskies' top two recruits right now are both linebackers.

Offensive line: The Huskies lose both starting guards from 2010, including All-Big East performer Zach Hurd. The program has had an uncanny knack for simply plugging in new starters along that offensive front and not missing a beat. It remains to be seen whether new coach Paul Pasqualoni and his staff can continue that tradition.

Wide receiver: Sure, UConn returns virtually all of its pass-catchers from the Big East championship team. But the passing game was brutally bad down the stretch, and the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl loss highlighted the need for more playmakers on offense. Pasqualoni has said he wants to throw the ball down the field to stretch the defense, and he'll need game-breakers to do so.

Louisville

Quarterback: Adam Froman and Justin Burke split the starting duties under center last season, and both were seniors. The only other quarterback on the roster with experience at the position is Will Stein, who'll be a senior this year. Dominique Brown was recruited as a quarterback last year, but his future probably lies at another position. Incoming freshmen Teddy Bridgewater and DaMarcus Smith, if he keeps his pledge to the Cardinals, could compete for the starting job right away.

Defensive back: The secondary was a constant source of concern for Louisville last year, and the Cardinals got a surprising contribution from Big East rookie of the year Hakeem Smith at safety. But both starting cornerbacks, including likely NFL draft pick Johnny Patrick, are gone. Louisville's top recruit right now is safety Gerod Holliman.

Wide receiver: The Cardinals had an excellent running game and the top pass-catching tight end in the Big East a year ago. But they had trouble going vertical in the passing game because of a lack of explosive playmakers in the passing game. Injuries and inexperience hurt the position last season, and leading receiver Doug Beaumont graduated. Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford's attack will look much different when Louisville gets some star wideouts on board.

Pittsburgh

Running back: Dion Lewis bolted for the NFL as a draft-eligible sophomore, and fullback Henry Hynoski went pro early as well. That leaves Ray Graham as the only real option for handoffs. It's no surprise that Pitt has commitments from four players identified as running backs in this class so far.

Wide receiver: Jon Baldwin took his talents to the NFL after his junior year. True, the Panthers still have plenty of talent at the position, including Mike Shanahan and the emerging Devin Street. But Todd Graham's new wide-open offense is going to need a lot of targets in the passing game, especially versatile players who can do lots of things in space.

Offensive line: Pitt's problems in the middle of its offensive line to start last season exposed a shocking lack of depth at the position, which had suffered through several recruiting misses in the past. The Panthers now have to replace their All-Big East left tackle in Jason Pinkston and find a new starting center. And Graham's offense is going to require a different kind of blocking scheme.

Rutgers

Offensive line: This is a no-brainer for a team that gave up a nation's-worst 61 sacks a year ago. It's hard to find immediate help at this position, but the Scarlet Knights did ink a junior-college player who is expected to start at center this season. Whether it's the scheme or just the players running it, Rutgers needs a change up front.

Running back: Jordan Thomas did some nice things as a true freshman, and Joe Martinek hopes to be fully healthy for his senior year. But Greg Schiano's offense has been searching for a difference-maker at tailback since Ray Rice went to the Baltimore Ravens. He hopes Savon Huggins, the top New Jersey recruit who committed late last week, is that guy.

Quarterback: Tom Savage's transfer leaves true sophomore Chas Dodd as the only quarterback with any experience. It's hard to go through a whole year with just one quarterback, so the Scarlet Knights desperately need depth. They received a pledge from Don Bosco Prep signal-caller Gary Nova, a former Pitt recruit.

Defensive line: Three of the four starters along the defensive line were seniors last year, including starting defensive ends Jonathan Freeny and Alex Silvestro. Schiano has some promising young players at the position but needs depth there so he can rotate in fresh bodies to rush the passer.

South Florida

Wide receiver: The Bulls' dearth of reliable targets in the passing game was painfully obvious most of the year. No. 1 wideout Dontavia Bogan was a senior, meaning some of the younger players at that spot need to grow up in a hurry. USF should get A.J. Love and Sterling Griffin back from injury, but it's clear that Skip Holtz needs some more deep threats.

Offensive line: Three starters are gone off the offensive line, including tackles Jamar Bass and Jake Sims and center Sampson Genus. The two returning starters will be seniors this season. The Bulls need to usher in the next wave of linemen into the program this recruiting season.

Defensive back: Mistral Raymond, who could play both corner and safety for the Bulls last season, is gone. There wasn't a ton of depth here this year, and though Quenton Washington had a great Meineke Car Care Bowl game, South Florida feels like it can upgrade its secondary through recruiting.

Syracuse

Linebacker: The Orange had one of the better defenses in the Big East in '10, and senior linebackers Doug Hogue and Derrell Smith were big reasons why. Marquis Spruill showed promise at the position as a true freshman this season, and Syracuse needs a couple more like him to stay strong in Scott Shafer's pressure scheme.

Wide receiver: Marcus Sales came out of nowhere to have a huge New Era Pinstripe Bowl performance, but it remains to be seen if he can duplicate that performance next year. Van Chew showed great improvement throughout the year, but he and Alec Lemon dealt with injuries down the stretch that often left Ryan Nassib without anybody to target.

Running back: Delone Carter's graduation and Averin Collier's dismissal thins the backfield significantly. Antwon Bailey returns for his senior year but has to prove he's an every-down back. No one else on the roster has proved anything at the position.

West Virginia

Quarterback: The good news is that Geno Smith has thoroughly established himself as The Man at quarterback. The bad news is that Smith's entrenchment at the position helped run off freshmen Barry Brunetti and Jeremy Johnson, so the Mountaineers once again have no depth behind their starter. They have brought in an intriguing under-the-radar prospect in Paul Millard, who had ridiculous numbers in Texas.

Defensive back: Jeff Casteel's 3-3-5 scheme demands the constant need for physical safeties who can play in different spots. West Virginia also lost a pair of stalwarts at the position in Sidney Glover and Robert Sands, who left early for the NFL. Add in the loss of star cornerback Brandon Hogan, and it's time to reload the secondary in Morgantown.

Linebacker: The Mountaineers got surprisingly good contributions from Anthony Leonard at middle linebacker this season, and J.T. Thomas was as solid as everyone expected. They both depart, along with top backup Pat Lazear, and only senior Najee Goode remains among the experienced players at the position. West Virginia hopes junior-college import Josh Francis can help right away.