NCF Nation: Antwuan Reed

Rather than dwell on the way Todd Graham left Pitt, center Ryan Turnley turned is mind to the future.

He watched Wisconsin play in the Rose Bowl against Oregon, just to get a first glimpse at what new coach Paul Chryst will bring to the Panthers.

"Just from watching Wisconsin play, I know he’s going to bring a physical brand of football back to Pitt," Turnley said in a recent phone interview. "We're all looking forward to it. I watched the Rose Bowl. They executed their offense so well, which means they’re taught extremely well. That's something as a player, when you watch other teams do that, you know they have great coaches, and we're looking forward to that."

[+] EnlargePaul Chryst
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar Paul Chryst said his focus is on coaching football, not when Pitt is allowed to start playing in the ACC.
Turnley was probably not alone in watching that game. It is a way of looking ahead after the distractions of the last month. The players will attempt to put all that behind them as they head into the BBVA Compass Bowl against SMU on Saturday.

"I think everybody knows what (Graham) did, and I think he took some criticism for it," Turnley said. "It’s time to move on. We’ve been through things like this before, and we’re not going to dwell on it."

Turnley was much nicer than a few of his teammates, who began bowl week interviews with more scathing comments. Linebacker Max Gruder called Graham's actions despicable, and defensive tackle Chas Alecxih said he had no desire to ever see Graham again.

Because of all the turmoil, many have wondered where Pitt would find the focus or motivation going into a bowl game it already played in last season, under similar circumstances.

"We have to do it for each other and Pitt," cornerback Antwuan Reed said. "We’re a Pitt family and we’re keeping our Pitt family together. We’ve come closer because of everything that’s happened, come closer. We've just got to play for each other and we’ll be fine. That’s the motivation."

This will be Reed's final game as a Pitt player, so ending it with a victory is something that would be special. Turnley also mentioned winning the game for all the outgoing seniors. Pitt is looking for its third straight bowl win, and also its first two-game winning streak since September.

This has been a maddeningly inconsistent team that finished the season 6-6, but one that did show signs of improvement on defense. You could make the argument that the defense is the the reason why the Panthers are in the bowl game at all, after forcing six turnovers in the regular-season finale against Syracuse.

But Turnley said he expects the offensive line to play better against SMU because it will have had the same unit playing together for the third straight game, and through all bowl practices. Expect Greg Gaskins, Ryan Schlieper, Turnley, Lucas Nix and Jordan Gibbs to start the game. Also, the Panthers have slimmed down their playbook and are not going to rush the offense.

"I think it's a good plan," Turnley said. "At times this year, we were a little out of control with our offense. If we slow down a little bit, that should allow us to execute a lot better."
Time to finish up the rankings before the frenzy of media days next week. I am going with the top five safeties and top five cornerbacks on this list of defensive backs. Safety is a much stronger position leaguewide than cornerback, where many teams lost their top players.

Safeties

[+] EnlargeHakeem Smith
Kim Klement/US PresswireLouisville's Hakeem Smith was a unanimous selection as Big East Rookie of the Year.
1. Hakeem Smith, Louisville. Smith had a breakout season as a freshman last year and was selected the Big East Rookie of the Year. He led the team with 88 tackles, including six for a loss, and became known for his ability to make big plays. Imagine what he can do as a sophomore.

2. Jarred Holley, Pitt. A second-team All-Big East selection in 2010, Holley enters his third year as a starter. Last year, he ranked third in the Big East with five interceptions. This year, he should anchor a unit that has the potential to be among the best in the league.

3. Phillip Thomas, Syracuse. Thomas is the top returning tackler for the Orange, having made 92 stops last season. He is a physical player and brings an incredible energy to the field, but has to make sure to keep his emotions in check.

4. Jon Lejiste, USF. The Bulls have one of the best secondaries in the conference, and Lejiste is a reason why. He especially excelled last season on the safety blitz USF liked to use -- he racked up four sacks from his safety position.

5. Terence Garvin, West Virginia. Garvin led the Mountaineers in tackles last season. In fact, he had five or more tackles in nine games last season. He brings great size to the position (6-foot-3, 222 pounds), and great leadership and experience as well.

Cornerbacks

1. Keith Tandy, West Virginia. Not only is Tandy the best cornerback in the league, he is one of the best in the country. Tandy was named to the Jim Thorpe Award watch list this season after a breakout 2010, when he ranked No. 5 in the nation in passes defended (17) and was named first-team All-Big East. He is moving to the left side this season.

2. Blidi Wreh-Wilson, UConn. Wreh-Wilson found his comfort zone last season and became a force. Of his four interceptions, he returned two for touchdowns. He should be even better this year in a secondary that returns all four starters.

3. Quenton Washington, USF. With Mistral Raymond gone, Washington should step in as the team's best cornerback. USF coaches are confident he is going to have a breakout season after an impressive spring. One area he can work on -- helping the secondary get more interceptions. He had just one last season.

4. Dwayne Gratz, UConn. The Huskies overcame a shaky start in the secondary last season and should be one of the best this year. Gratz and Wreh-Wilson team to form the best cornerback duo in the league.

5. Antwuan Reed, Pitt. Reed returns as the most experienced player in the Pitt secondary. Despite missing the spring as a precaution (concussion), Reed should be full-go for fall practice and much is expected of him in his second year as a starter.

Previous rankings:
We round out the defensive team position rankings with the cornerbacks. There are some teams with plenty of experience. Others are in desperate need of improvement. Where do they stack up?

[+] EnlargeBlidi Wreh-Wilson
David Butler II/US PresswireUConn's Blidi Wreh-Wilson is one of the Big East's top returning cornerbacks.
1. Connecticut. Both starters return in Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Dwayne Gratz, and the Huskies should continue to make the improvements they made in the second half of the season. The two combined for six of the team's 20 interceptions. Wreh-Wilson should be a preseason All-Big East selection and is one of the best in the league.

2. West Virginia. Keith Tandy returns after making first-team All Big East last season, though the Mountaineers have to replace Brandon Hogan, a second-team selection. They do have an experienced player in Pat Miller set to take over, with Brodrick Jenkins and Brantwon Bowser providing depth as well.

3. USF. The Bulls have to make up for the loss of Mistral Raymond, but have plenty of experienced players back in Kayvon Webster, Ricardo Dixon, George Baker and returning starter Quenton Washington. West Virginia gets the nod ahead of USF because of Tandy.

4. Syracuse. Both starters are gone in Mike Holmes and Da'Mond Merkerson. Kevyn Scott and Keon Lyn are penciled in to start. Scott has experience, while Lyn has plenty of potential. The problem is depth. Walk-on Joe Nassib is listed as a backup. Early enrollee Jaston George needs to show big improvement in the fall.

5. Pittsburgh. Coach Todd Graham has talked up K'Waun Williams and fifth-year senior Buddy Jackson after both had good springs. Antwuan Reed missed spring with injury but should be fine for the season, giving the Panthers three players with the potential to have a good year. The problem is that Williams is inexperienced and Jackson has failed to live up to expectations. Reed was inconsistent last season, too.

6. Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights lose their best cover cornerback in Brandon Bing, and David Rowe moved to safety. Both starting jobs are up for grabs. On the post-spring depth chart, Logan Ryan and Marcus Cooper were battling for one spot and Brandon Jones and Mason Robinson for another. Robinson moved over from receiver. Jordan Thomas also is in the mix after moving from running back.

7. Cincinnati. The Bearcats were pretty dismal in the secondary last season. They return everybody, and Dominique Battle should be back from a knee injury that cost him most of the season. Still, they need to tackle better and become more aggressive to help this unit improve.

8. Louisville. The Cardinals have major problems at cornerback. They lose starters Johnny Patrick and Bobby Burns, and Darius Ashley is suspended indefinitely following his second DUI arrest. Jordan Paschal, Anthony Conner and Preston Pace are in the mix. Freshman receiver Charles Gaines was moved here in the spring to provide some relief. But this is a major area of concern.

Previous rankings
PITTSBURGH -- A few quick thoughts and observations from what I got to see of Pitt's spring practice on Tuesday:
  • I was looking forward to seeing just how high-octane this offense was, to use Todd Graham's description. While the usual drills and other periods were held at the same tempo as a lot of practices I've seen, when Pitt went to an 11-on-11 drill it was pedal to the metal. The offense was sprinting to the line of scrimmage and snapping the ball in under 10 seconds. That doesn't mean it was effective. There was a bad shotgun snap from Chris Jacobson and another one mishandled by backup quarterback Anthony Gonzalez. Throw in an incomplete deep ball, and the short team period looked a little disjointed. But fast.
  • In the past couple of years, Pitt was always what Dick Vitale would call an "All-Airport" team. That is, they looked awfully good in their uniforms. The Panthers don't look quite as physically imposing this spring, but perhaps that's just because guys like Jon Baldwin, Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard are not longer around. This team still has plenty of talent, though depth looks like it could be an issue.
  • Tino Sunseri has pretty clearly established his hold on the starting quarterback job as the incumbent. He had a little trouble hooking up with receivers on deep balls while I was watching, but the coaching staff loves his poise and experience. Remember that Graham has won with quarterbacks who weren't necessarily physical specimens but who were really smart. Sunseri, as a coach's kid and with a year under his belt, fits that bill.
  • Gonzalez got the first backup QB snaps on Tuesday, though he didn't throw as much as Mark Myers in some other drills. It's hard not to like Myers' skills; he's tall and throws a very tight spiral. Is he the right quarterback for this system? That's a good question, considering he looks like a prototypical pro-style signalcaller, which is one reason why he signed with Pitt.
  • Receiver Cam Saddler was back on the field after missing some time with a leg injury. The 5-foot-7 speedster has got to love this offensive system after not really getting used much by Dave Wannstedt. He's the kind of waterbug Graham found success with at Tulsa. Devin Street and Mike Shanahan look terrific as the top two wideouts. Pitt just has to find more guys behind them.
  • The first-string offensive line, for what it's worth, saw Lucas Nix and Jordan Gibbs at tackle, Greg Gaskins and Cory King at guard and Jacobson at center. Gaskins struggled last year when he was first given a chance to start but now he's a senior. After Gaskins made a nice block in a lineman drill, offensive line coach Spencer Leftwich yelled, "If you do that, you can play here."
  • As usual in these settings, it's hard to tell a whole lot about the defense when there's not much hitting. But Graham raves about his defensive line, saying tackle Chas Alecxih in particular has had a huge spring. He also says cornerback K'Waun Williams "can be special." Some currently injured players like Brandon Lindsey, Antwuan Reed and Todd Thomas will help when they're healthy.
It's time to get back to our post-spring rankings of each Big East position group. A lot of teams have question marks in their secondaries heading into this summer; let's look at how they stand in comparison to one another:

[+] EnlargeSands
AP Photo/Jeff GentnerRobert Sands snagged five interceptions last season.
1. West Virginia: The Mountaineers play five defensive backs in their 3-3-5 alignment and should be well stocked for 2010. Safety Robert Sands should compete for league defensive player of the year honors if he continues his rapid development, while senior Sidney Glover is an experienced playmaker at one of the other safety spots. West Virginia needs Brandon Hogan to rediscover his form and for Keith Tandy to keep improving, and this could be one of the team's strongest units.

2. Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights lost the best cornerback in the Big East when Devin McCourty took his skills to the NFL, but I still like the group that's returning. Joe Lefeged should step up and assume McCourty's leadership role as a senior safety, while Khaseem Greene looks ready to become a front-line safety. David Rowe is a solid corner, and either Brandon Bing or Logan Ryan should fill the other spot. The Scarlet Knights have a lot of talented young players here to provide quality depth, as well.

3. Syracuse: The Orange officially have five returning starters in the secondary because of injuries last year, and several players gained valuable experience during 2009. There's a good mixture of veteran leadership with guys like seniors Mike Holmes, Da'Mon Merkerson and Max Suter as well as rising stars like Shamarko Thomas and Phillip Thomas.

4. Pittsburgh: Antwuan Reed helped answer a big question with a strong spring at cornerback. The other corner spot will likely be filled by either junior college transfer Saheed Imoru or Buddy Jackson, with Ricky Gary around to add depth. The safety position should be in good shape when Dom DeCicco and Andrew Taglianetti return from their injuries, while Jarred Holley established himself as a dependable safety last year.

5. South Florida: The Bulls lost a pair of draft picks in Nate Allen and Jerome Murphy and have some young players moving into key roles this season. The good news is those youngsters have talent. The key will be whether Quenton Washington and Kayvon Webster can hold down the cornerback spots.

6. Cincinnati: There's healthy competition in the secondary for the Bearcats, who increasingly gave up big plays in the passing game as the 2009 season wore on. Dominique Battle, Camerron Cheatham, Chris Williams and Reuben Johnson all vied for playing time at corner this spring. Drew Frey is a steady safety. The group needs to make more plays than it did a year ago but should embrace a more aggressive scheme this year.

7. Connecticut: The Huskies ranked last in pass defense last season and lost two senior stalwarts from the secondary. The defensive backfield was in disarray at times this spring. The return of Blidi Wreh-Wilson from his shoulder injury this summer should help out the cornerback spot with Dwayne Gratz. Jerome Junior should be solid at one safety spot, while Kijuan Dabney is trying to win the other job after moving from linebacker. The Huskies are counting on a lot of young players to improve quickly before the season begins.

8. Louisville: The Cardinals had so much trouble finding playmakers in the secondary this spring that running back Darius Ashley moved to corner to help out. Johnny Patrick is one of the league's better cornerbacks but needs help in the defensive backfield. The healthy return of safety Terence Simien would provide a boost, but this remains a trouble spot heading into the fall.
Spring football in the Big East kicks off March 16. Here's a breakdown of three issues facing each program heading into the spring:

CINCINNATI
Spring practice starts: March 17
Spring game: April 24
What to watch:

  • Building depth: New coach Butch Jones said this is the biggest key for the spring. The Bearcats have a lot of top-flight players with starting experience back, like Zach Collaros, Armon Binns, Isaiah Pead and JK Schaffer. But there's a lot of youth and inexperience in potential backup roles, especially at positions like offensive line, linebacker and receiver. All slates are clean with the new coaching staff, and the spring will be a time when new names can emerge in key roles.
  • Defensive line retooling: Jones will switch back to the 4-3 after a year in the 3-4 scheme. Both starting defensive ends from last year are gone, but the smallish line was overpowered at times near the end of the season anyway. Derek Wolfe should be a fixture inside, Dan Giordano, Brandon Mills and John Hughes step into more prominent roles. Jones will have to decide whether to make Walter Stewart a defensive end or keep him at outside linebacker. The Bearcats could use a little more strength and bulk up front against the bigger Big East offensive lines.
  • Vidal's arrival: USC transfer Vidal Hazelton is eligible after sitting out last year. He reputedly dominated practices last season, and now he'll get to go full time with the first string. A lot of people will be watching closely to see how he and Collaros connect during the spring. A big year by Hazelton will lessen the loss of star wideout Mardy Gilyard and could keep Cincinnati as the Big East's best offense.
CONNECTICUT
Spring practice starts: March 16
Spring game: April 17
What to watch:

  • Secondary matters: UConn returns a truckload of starters and looks rock solid in most areas. But the defensive backfield will be an area of emphasis starting in the spring. Gone are stalwarts Robert McClain and Robert Vaughn from a secondary that got picked apart much of the season by opposing passing games. Dwayne Gratz and Blidi Wreh-Wilson showed progress by the end of their redshirt freshmen seasons and should be the starting corners. The Huskies need someone to replace Vaughn at safety and overall better performance from the unit.
  • Frazer vs. Endres: Zach Frazer and Cody Endres have been splitting starts since the second half of the 2008 season at quarterback. Endres took over early last year and played well until he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. Frazer picked things up late after a slow start. The competition should be back on this spring, with Frazer probably holding the edge given his late-season improvement.
  • Catch as catch can: Receiver was a major question for UConn going into last spring, when walk-on senior Marcus Easley surprised everybody with his giant leap forward. He became the go-to guy in 2009, but now he's gone, along with starter Brad Kanuch. So the Huskies are basically back in the same position as this time a year ago, needing to find some reliable pass catchers. Kashif Moore may be the next to break out after some good, late-year performances. And perhaps former highly-touted recruit Dwayne Difton will emerge. UConn hopes to catch lightning in a bottle again like it did with Easley.
LOUISVILLE
Spring practice starts: March 24
Spring game: April 16
What to watch:

  • Switching to Strong: The Cardinals will have their first practices under new coach Charlie Strong, who promises to bring a much different style than former coach Steve Kragthorpe. Strong is known as being an intense guy on the field, and as a former top-flight defensive coordinator, he will likely be particularly demanding of players on that side of the ball. There will be new terminology to learn, new assistants and new standards to which the Cardinals must adjust in a hurry.
  • The quarterback shuffle: Louisville had three quarterbacks -- Adam Froman, Justin Burke and Will Stein -- start games last year. All three will be given the chance to win the job in the spring, and mid-year enrollee Luke Woodley might see some snaps as well. Don't be surprised if this competition goes into the fall and if other newcomers like Dominique Brown get a look. Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford wants to run a Florida-style spread offense, which might favor the more mobile Froman if he chooses to go with a veteran under center.
  • Line play: The trenches have not been a particularly strong suit for Louisville the past couple of seasons, one of the reasons why the program has fallen out of annual postseason play. The Cardinals have gotten very little pass rush from the defensive line and not enough of a consistent push from the offensive line. Strong asked the offensive linemen to rework their bodies to prepare for the spread, and he'll need replacements for two senior defensive tackles. Junior-college imports Randy Salmon and Tyler Harrell will have a chance to impress on the defensive line. If the holdovers don't step up, we could see more newcomers in key spots by the summer.

(Read full post)

SPONSORED HEADLINES