NCF Nation: Dom DeCicco
Quarterback: Ryan Nassib, Syracuse
Nassib, who struggled down the stretch of the regular season, took advantage of Kansas State's shaky defense to complete 13-of-21 passes for 239 yards and three touchdowns in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.
Carter ran 27 times for 198 yards and two scores in the Pinstripe Bowl. Lewis rumbled for 105 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries in the BBVA Compass Bowl before declaring for the NFL Draft.
Wide receiver: Marcus Sales, Syracuse
Sales came almost out of nowhere to record five catches for 172 yards and three touchdowns against Kansas State. No other Big East receiver had even a fraction of his stats in the postseason.
Tight end: Cameron Graham, Louisville
The league's best tight in the regular season kept it up in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl, catching three passes for 31 yards and a touchdown.
Offensive line: Jacob Sims and Sampson Genus, South Florida; Jason Pinkston, Pittsburgh; Mark Wetterer, Louisville; Justin Pugh, Syracuse.
Sims and Genus were part of a USF line that pushed back Clemson's talented defensive front in the Meineke Car Care Bowl; Sims in particular helped keep Da'Quan Bowers quiet, which is not an easy thing to do. Pinkston showed some fire in protecting his quarterback after Tino Sunseri was hit late, and the Panthers ran for 261 yards while surrendering zero sacks against Kentucky. Wetterer and Pugh helped open holes for their high-scoring postseason offenses.
Defensive line: Brandon Lindsey, Pittsburgh; Terrell McClain, South Florida; Bruce Irvin, West Virginia.
Lindsey stepped up his game in the regular season when Greg Romeus was hurt and did so again in the bowl with Jabaal Sheard out. McClain didn't record many stats but was his usual dominant self in the middle against Clemson. Irvin had two sacks and a forced fumble against NC State in the Champs Sports Bowl.
Linebackers: Derrell Smith, Syracuse; J.T. Thomas, West Virginia; Brandon Heath, Louisville; DeDe Lattimore, South Florida.
I went with a 3-4 look on defense to recognize the many strong performances by linebackers during bowl. Just about all of these guys had double-digit tackles and/or a couple TFLs.
Cornerbacks: Johnny Patrick, Louisville; Quenton Washington, South Florida
After getting burned on a play early, Patrick was all over the field. He forced a fumble and blocked a punt. Washington also blocked a punt and had a 45-yard interception return.
Safeties: Dom DeCicco, Pittsburgh, and Robert Sands, West Virginia
DeCicco had nine tackles and a forced fumble, while Sands had eight tackles and a sack.
Punter: Cole Wagner, Connecticut
Wagner punted seven times for an average of 46.9 yards -- with a long of 52 yards -- against Oklahoma in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.
Placekicker: Chris Philpott, Louisville
Philpott only got the call once, but he made the game-winning 36-yarder in the fourth quarter.
Kick returners: Jeremy Wright, Louisville, and Robbie Frey, Connecticut
Both Wright and Frey returned kickoffs for touchdowns in their bowl games. Wright's was especially crucial, as it tied the score in the fourth quarter.
Punt returner: Terrence Mitchell, South Florida
Mitchell had a 34-yard punt return against Clemson.
I realize that Miami and Virginia Tech dominated much of the late 1990s and early 2000s, but it's crazy that Pitt, with all of its tradition and advantages, has never won a league title in the clear. In fact, the Panthers own only two co-championships, and they both came in multi-way ties during arguably the worst two years the league has ever seen (2004 and 2010).
There's absolutely no reason that Cincinnati should have two more outright Big East titles than Pitt, or that Connecticut has earned as many BCS bids as the Panthers. Now that the program has pulled the plug on the Dave Wannstedt era, it needs to find the right coach who can take this team to the next level.
It figures to be a wide open search, with no obvious heir apparent. We are going to hear a lot of names in this one, including NFL guys like Russ Grimm the former Pitt player and current Arizona Cardinals assistant, and Marvin Lewis, a Pennsylvania native and former Pitt assistant who may be on his last legs with the Cincinnati Bengals. Dreamers will probably even toss Bill Cowher's name into the mix.
But the Panthers -- and especially athletic director Steve Pederson -- should have learned a vital lesson by now. They need to hire a college guy.
Pederson's last big hire, of course, was at Nebraska when he brought Bill Callahan in from the Oakland Raiders. Both of them were fired a couple of years later. While Wannstedt had some success in six seasons, it took him a while to adjust to the college game early in his tenure.
This is a job best suited for an up-and-coming assistant at a major college program or someone who has established themselves as a head coach. Louisville and South Florida both hit home runs by going that route -- the Cardinals with a talented coordinator (Charlie Strong) and USF with a head coach (Skip Holtz).
The next coach's most immediate task will be trying to hold together a recruiting class that ESPN.com currently ranks 21st in the nation. Wannstedt had already secured 18 commitments. But there is always going to be talent in the Pennsylvania/Ohio region, and Pitt should be well stocked for 2011. Though the Panthers lose Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard at defensive end, offensive tackle Jason Pinkston, starting linebacker/safety Dom DeCicco and most likely junior receiver Jon Baldwin to the NFL draft, they have a lot of talent coming back. The new coach can work with Dion Lewis and Ray Graham at tailback, Mike Shanahan and Devin Street at receiver, Brandon Lindsey at defensive end and plenty of young players ready to emerge. Tino Sunseri has a full year of starting at quarterback under his belt, and redshirting freshman Mark Myers has a world of potential.
What do Pitt fans want? A guy who's not as conservative as Wannstedt in his offensive game plans would rank high on that list. Wannstedt's pro-style, running-based power offense matched the blue-collar ethic of the Steel City, but it often seemed as if he still had the 1990s NFL coaching approach of simply avoiding mistakes and hoping to win on field position. That's the opposite of where the college game is heading; just look at the two incredibly wide-open offenses that are playing for the BCS title this year.
Pitt claims nine national titles, but it has been nearly 30 years since the Panthers were in that discussion. This program needs to focus on winning an undisputed Big East title, something that should not be that difficult. Pittsburgh is one of the better jobs in the conference, and the right coach who understands the college game can do some great things.
Both teams came into Saturday's game in unexpected places. The Panthers, after being picked to win the Big East almost unanimously, were 2-3 and teetering on the brink of collapse. The Orange stood at a surprising 4-1 and had the Carrier Dome jumping at kickoff in anticipation of a breakthrough win.
It was the kind of lopsided result you might have expected before the season, but not after the way the Panthers bumbled through the nonconference portion of their schedule. They saved their most complete performance for the start of Big East play after coach Dave Wannstedt preached all week about beginning a new season.
"We knew it was a tale of two seasons all along," quarterback Tino Sunseri said. "We had a tough out-of-conference schedule, but we still have all of our goals ahead of us. The Big East championship is ahead of us. We wanted to come out fast today and let the Big East know that we can play."
Sunseri looked like one of the team's weak links earlier in the year, never more than when he struggled so badly against Miami that many fans called for backup Pat Bostick. But the sophomore has progressed since then, and on Saturday the game plan revolved around him.
Wannstedt said when he arrived in the team hotel on Friday night, he flipped on the TV and saw Syracuse coach Doug Marrone's show. Marrone, he said, "must have said the word 'physical' 10 times during the course of the show." Wannstedt also saw how the Orange brought pressure against South Florida last week, daring Bulls quarterback B.J. Daniels to burn them with big plays.
Daniels couldn't. But Sunseri could. He completed 17 of 24 passes for 266 yards and four touchdowns. Pitt's first play from scrimmage was a short pass that Devin Street took 79 yards for a touchdown. Sunseri also made third-down touchdown throws to Ray Graham and Mike Shanahan as he stood in against the blitz.
"That was probably his most complete game," Wannstedt said. "He has showed little spurts, signs of getting better. But today I thought from start to finish, he maintained a consistency he had to have."
Pitt's improvement has coincided with its shuffling of the offensive line, moving Lucas Nix inside, Jordan Gibbs to tackle and replacing Greg Gaskins. Dion Lewis (15 carries for 80 yards) and Ray Graham (11 for 54) both found running room against a good Syracuse run defense. But neither went off, and Jon Baldwin finished with only one catch, yet the Panthers scored 45 points.
"Everybody thinks it's just Ray, Dion and JB," Graham said. "But Tino spread it out, and that's what is great."
The defense also played its best game, holding star back Delone Carter to just 38 yards before Syracuse was forced to throw nonstop in catch-up mode. The Panthers created four turnovers, including cornerback Ricky Gary's 80-yard pick-six, while moving pieces around. Shane Gordon got his first start at strongside linebacker, Dom DeCicco went back to safety and Tristan Roberts returned to start at the weakside linebacker spot.
Wannstedt was hesitant to use the "new season" theme, lest his team forget its mistakes of the past. But it was hard not to think that this looked like a different Pitt, one that could compete with West Virginia for the Big East title if it maintains this level of execution.
"We should be unstoppable," defensive end Jabaal Sheard said. "We have great athletes and tremendous talent everywhere on the field. If we play like we did today, with everybody stepping up to make big plays, we'll be all right."
If Pitt looked renewed, Syracuse appeared to relapse.
The Orange benefited from a soft early schedule, and now they face consecutive road games at West Virginia and Cincinnati that could turn that 4-1 start to a 4-4 crossroads. They don't have another home game until November, and by then the excitement they built up may have significantly eroded.
"What I feel bad about is for the people who came out to watch the game," Marrone said. "Their expectations were high, and so were ours. My expectations were high for these players to get over the this hump."
Not quite yet. What's old is new again, and vice versa.
Dom DeCicco will be back at safety after two games at weakside linebacker, with Tristan Roberts starting there. Andrew Taglianetti (knee) is not expected to play. Also, defensive end Brandon Lindsey is banged up and may be limited today. Expect to see true freshman Bryan Murphy to get his first playing time of the season. He had a foot injury in the preseason, but coaches raved about him before the injury.
Big East commissioner John Marinatto is in the house, so you know it's a big game.
What has the move to linebacker been like for you so far?
Dom DeCicco: It's different to go from a position you know so well at safety to something that's kind of new to you. But I think it's a way for our team to get our best 11 guys on the field. Jason Hendricks stepped up [at safety] and lot of teams play the spread now so you need an extra DB. And me with my size, it's an obvious fit. It's been going pretty well so far.
How different is it, really, since you've been in pass coverage a lot at that linebacker spot anyway?
DD: It's just taking on more blocks from linemen. It's different from safety because at safety you see everything in front of you. At linebacker, that nickel spot, you play with your back to receivers a lot, which is different. But the more you practice it, the more it becomes natural. I've liked it so far and all the linebackers and all the coaches have been helping me out.
DD: No, I just played corner and safety in high school. Never linebacker until now.
You're known as a good tackler. How much does that help you with the move?
DD: Starting out in college, I struggled at first a little bit in tackling. But as the years went on, that became one of the strongest parts of my game. That helps going down there because you have to do so much of it, so that helps with the transition.
There have been a lot of moves at linebacker recently, plus the injury to Dan Mason. What's the state of that unit in your mind?
DD: I definitely think it's getting better. Max [Gruder] in the middle is real smart and can make all the calls, and Greg [Williams] is getting better every game. So the linebacker corps is going to come on stronger every game. If we can get to where the secondary and the D-line is, our defense is going to be pretty good.
You're facing former Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly this week at Notre Dame. Are you seeing a lot of the same things that Cincinnati used to run now with the Irish?
DD: Yeah, definitely. You see a lot of similarities. They're pretty much the exact same as [Cincinnati] last year but with different players plugged in. They just have a lot of talent at Notre Dame at the tight end spot, wide receiver and running backs. You can play against a spread, but this is a more talented team than we've seen running the spread.
What are the challenges of trying to defend guys like Kyle Rudolph and Theo Riddick?
DD: The guy I didn't know as much about was Theo Riddick. I knew about Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph because we played against them, but Riddick adds a whole different element to their offense as a great slot receiver. And Armando Allen looks better than he ever has running the ball. So they're dangerous everywhere, and I think Riddick is really the guy you have to watch out for.
Does it help you guys that you've seen this scheme the last couple of years?
DD: I've seen it so many times playing against Cincinnati, and they do similar stuff. So the third or fourth time you're playing against it becomes, not second nature, but it's familiar to me and the guys. So I think that helps a bit.
Do you see this as a revenge game against Kelly at all for the losses to Cincinnati the last couple of years?
DD: Yeah, you know he's really had our number since I've been here. He's beaten us two times and we've really struggled playing against him and he ended our BCS hopes the last two years. That's not easy to forget and it's always in the back of your mind when you see him across the sideline. But we just have to go out and worry about playing against Notre Dame and getting a win against them.
Most of you guys have played in Notre Dame Stadium before, so does that help with not being intimidated by the atmosphere?
DD: We've played there before, but to be honest I don't think any place for us is going to be worse than playing at West Virginia. But Notre Dame, with all the prestige, the Touchdown Jesus, Rudy and all that, it is pretty neat and you could get caught up in it. But coach gets us focused and makes sure we have our eyes on what we need to do on Saturday.
3. Rutgers' quarterback situation: Can Tom Savage play despite bruised ribs and busted-up fingers on his throwing hand? Will true freshman Chas Dodd be asked to win a conference game? Will Mohamed Sanu spend the night in the Wildcat? Rutgers has all kinds of questions at the most important position as its most important games begin.
4. How real is Syracuse?: The Orange are off to their best start in years at 3-1 but now must do something they've never accomplished: beat South Florida. Ryan Nassib leads the Big East in passing efficiency, but the Bulls are tops in the league in pass efficiency defense. Both teams have feasted on the chaff of their schedules; let's see how they do with the wheat.
5. B.J. vs. the blitz: One thing we know Syracuse defensive coordinator Scott Shafer likes to do is bring pressure. You can bet Shafer saw Bulls quarterback B.J. Daniels toss four interceptions against Florida and would like to get him similarly rattled under heat on Saturday. Has Daniels' decision-making improved? He'll get Sterling Griffin back at receiver, which should help his options. But he'll have to keep his cool when guys like Chandler Jones, Doug Hogue and Derrell Smith are chasing after him.
6. Pitt vs. the spread: It's no secret that Pittsburgh has had trouble defending the spread offense and particularly Brian Kelly's brand of playcalling. The Panthers will face their old Big East nemesis in South Bend this week, but Notre Dame's attack should look pretty similar. Moving Dom DeCicco down from safety could be a boost for the linebackers trying to cover guys like Theo Riddick and Kyle Rudolph in space, but Pitt's defense will have to play a whole lot better than it did against Miami or Utah to give the team a chance.
7. Can Pitt's offense get going?: Other than Ray Graham, the Panthers' offense hasn't done a whole lot this year. Even against Florida International last week, Pitt had 16 points after three quarters. Notre Dame's defense isn't special, but the Irish have enough playmakers to cause problems if the newly restructured offensive line isn't sound. Dion Lewis will also return to the starting lineup and try to help Graham and the running game. It would be nice if Jon Baldwin, who had five catches for 142 yards last year against the Domers, could get involved, too.
8. Devine's durability: Noel Devine is still trying to recover from a bone bruise underneath his right big toe. Bill Stewart has a decision to make this week against UNLV: Let Devine work his way back or rest him for next Thursday's conference game against South Florida? Stewart will want to protect his star running back as much as possible, but job No. 1 is to beat the Rebels.
9. Cincinnati's comeback: The Bearcats finally looked like the defending Big East champs in a close loss to Oklahoma. That was two weeks ago. Can Cincinnati carry that momentum over into what should be a fairly sweat-free win against Miami of Ohio at home? Zach Collaros and the offense should slice through the RedHawks defense. At 1-3, Cincinnati needs to keep the positive vibes going, but mostly it just needs a victory.
10. Louisville over .500?: The Cardinals are heavily favored to beat a bad Memphis team at home, and their fans always enjoy defeating their old conference rivals. A win would make Louisville 3-2 for its first winning record of the season. For a team that won just four games a year ago, that would represent some pretty good work by Charlie Strong and his staff.
Settle down. The Irish aren't considering joining the Big East. But these two programs are very familiar with one another.
"I don't know if it's one particular thing where you can say, 'Boy, they don't do this well or don't do that well,'" Kelly said of holding the edge over the Panthers. "We know what their personality is, and both games we played came down to the last possession."
Kelly may have a new address, but Wannstedt said the Irish look a whole lot like his old Bearcats teams.
"Both coordinators are with him, so schematically there is a lot of carryover," Wannstedt said. "They’re not quite as far along in their passing game today at Notre Dame like they were last year at the end of the year with Cincinnati, having those kids around him a couple of years."
While Kelly might have had Wannstedt's number recently in the Big East, it's the opposite story for Pitt and Notre Dame.
The Panthers have beaten the Irish (2-3) each of the last two seasons, including an overtime win in South Bend in 2008 and last year's 27-22 victory in Heinz Field. The gold helmets won't intimidate them.
“We’ve played these guys the last couple of years so our players are somewhat familiar with the environment, their players and the scheme," Wannstedt said. "We need to go up there and play well. We still haven’t played close to what we’re capable of playing."
Pittsburgh (2-2) showed some improvement against Florida International after shaking up its offensive line, but it still led only 16-10 after three quarters before shaking free for a 44-17 win. Spread offenses have traditionally given the Panthers trouble, which is one possible reason why Kelly had the upper hand the past two years. But moving Dom DeCicco up from safety to linebacker might help the defense's ability to control the Irish passing game.
Regardless, there won't be many secrets between the two sides.
"They know what we're going to do offensively, and we kind of know what they're going to do defensively, so that's a wash," Kelly said. "I think this comes down to who's better prepared and who executes better on Saturday, because we know each other so well."
Pitt couldn't even muster a first down until its final drive of the half, which ended with a missed 52-yard field goal. Miami's defense absolutely controlled the line of scrimmage and locked down the Panthers receivers. Pitt's receivers combined for two catches for 7 yards. Jon Baldwin didn't have a single catch.
The defense, under heavy pressure to hold the fort the whole half, did a pretty good job. It was helped by pick-prone Miami quarterback Jacory Harris, who threw two interceptions, one game after tossing four at Ohio State. (And give Dom DeCicco and Jarred Holley credit for amazing catches on those INT's).
Pitt's best player on offense has been Ray Graham, as Dion Lewis has once again been ineffective. Graham has accounted for two of the team's three first downs.
Clearly, offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti needs to come up with some magic at halftime. It's not easy when your line can't block, your receivers can't get open and your young quarterback looks a little flustered. Cignetti tried one trick play with Greg Cross taking a handoff and looking to throw, and that resulted in an 18-yard loss (and there were no receivers open, anyway).
Things don't look very good for the Panthers right now. But at least they remained in striking distance after an awful offensive performance in the first half.
Defensive end Greg Romeus, the Big East's reigning co-defensive player of the year, finally returned to practice on Monday after missing more than a week of team workouts. He had been out with back spasms.
"It was very encouraging this morning with Greg," coach Dave Wannstedt told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "He came out and took every snap in full pads, inside run, team, pass rush. He did everything from start to finish and felt good afterward. We're headed down the right road there."
The Panthers have some other players dealing with bumps and bruises, such as running back Ray Graham, safety Dom DeCicco and defensive tackle Myles Caragein. They all are expected to recover quickly.
Several teams had their first full-bore intrasquad scrimmages of the preseason, which can help determine depth charts and give an early indication of how things are going. Here are some notes from those workouts:
PITT: The Panthers went through an 88-play scrimmage, but they did so without injured key players such as Dom DeCicco, Myles Caragein, Andrew Taglianetti and Greg Romeus, who continues to be unavailable with back spasms. In addition, Jabaal Sheard, Dion Lewis and Jon Baldwin played limited snaps.
Ray Graham was taken out of the scrimmage after going down with a knee injury, but it did not appear to be serious. Quarterback Tino Sunseri was just 5-for-11 for 61 yards, while backup Pat Bostick impressed by going 9-of-15 for 163 yards and three scores.
RUTGERS: Defense dominated in the Scarlet Knights' 2 1/2 hour scrimmage, which is not surprising given how strong the Rutgers 'D' looks. The offense, which played without Howard Barbieri and Joe Martinek, scored just one touchdown while the defense scored off a turnover and had two safeties.
Quarterback Tom Savage went just 8-of-15 for 52 yards as the offense managed just 74 yards on its first 29 plays. De'Antwan Williams hoped to make a push for the No. 2 running back job but finished with just 13 yards on four carries while losing a fumble. Mason Robinson scored the lone TD.
WEST VIRGINIA: Head coach Bill Stewart mostly didn't like what he saw out of the Mountaineers' first scrimmage.
"Sloppy tackling, not breaking on the ball, not doing back-side cutoff blocks, not hustling, drops, exchange snaps,'' he said. "I'm not real pleased. [We] didn't play up to our standards."
Noel Devine did, though, ripping off a 79-yard touchdown run and then taking most of the rest of the day off. And so did Bruce Irvin. The junior-college import recorded two sacks as West Virginia lined up with four defensive linemen. Coaches and teammates are singing the praises of Irvin for his quickness and burst so far in practice.
Quarterbacks Geno Smith and freshmen Barry Brunetti and Jeremy Johnson combined to complete 16 of 18 passes for 113 yards on mostly short routes.
SOUTH FLORIDA: Defense was also ahead of the offense at South Florida, as the Bulls mustered one touchdown in a nearly 150-snap scrimmage.
Quarterback B.J. Daniels missed 11 of his first 12 passes and finished 7-for-22 for 70 yards. True freshman backup Jamius Gunsby did look good, though, going 12-for-17 for 169 yards, including a 58-yard completion. But the defense had three interceptions.
"Right now we're a long way from being productive as an offensive football team," coach Skip Holtz said. "With the penalties and dropped passes and missing open receivers and inconsistencies in the passing game, it's very difficult to get anything into rhythm. We've got a lot of work to do right now, but I think the attitude is good and they're willing."
SYRACUSE: Coach Doug Marrone was disgusted by his team's lack of physicality on Friday, especially the offense, so he emphasized that in Saturday's first full-contact, two-hour scrimmage.
So the focus was on running the ball and running it hard, which Delone Carter did. Sophomore quarterback Ryan Nassib remained turnover-free. Freshman linebacker Marquis Spruill got some looks with the first-team defense at outside linebacker, where he's battling with Ryan Gillum.
LOUISVILLE: Head coach Charlie Strong held his scrimmage behind closed doors, with no fans or media allowed to attend. So details of the 90-play scrimmage were unknown. The school's official account said the Cardinals worked on situations like 1st-and-10 from their own 30, 1st-and-10 from the 12 inside the red zone and 1st-and-10 from their own 1.
"Early in the scrimmage, the offense didn't move the ball very well, but the longer we went, the better it got," Strong said. "We still have a long way to go and we still have to get better. We have to improve our tackling and we need some guys to really step up and become leaders of this team."
"That's who we're chasing," Wannstedt said. "And there's any of four or five teams that are capable of winning our conference."
Wannstedt also highlighted the fact that he has only four seniors starting right now and nine seniors on scholarship, saying it was his youngest team at Pitt. The media, however, saw Pitt's 10-win season a year ago and some of the league's brightest talent, like reigning offensive player of the year Dion Lewis, co-defensive player of the year Greg Romeus and star receiver Jonathan Baldwin. Pitt brought five players to Newport -- left tackle Jason Pinkston and safety Dom DeCicco were the others -- and all five have been nominated to various national awards lists this preseason.
"But I think we still have a lot of holes to fill," Wannstedt said. "It's not an individual game; it's a team game. The challenge will be putting a team together."
The Panthers have questions on their interior offensive line, linebacker and tight end, and they will have a first-year starting quarterback in Tino Sunseri. Their overall talent level remains extremely high, though, as well as their expectations. Question is, can Pitt meet them?
"Last year, we were sitting here as the No. 1 team in the preseason, too, and we didn't finish where we wanted," Romeus said. "So we have to understand this is a preseason thing, and we have to step up and prove that we're the best team in the conference."
Cincinnati: Derek Wolfe, DT. Virtually all of the Bearcats' question marks are located on the defensive side of the ball, and Wolfe is their best and most dominant defensive linemen. That's a position that's already thin in experience and numbers, and losing him as the run-stuffer would be tough to overcome.
Connecticut: Lawrence Wilson, LB. UConn has a lot of depth and not a ton of superstars. But Wilson had a Big East-best 140 tackles last year and is one of the Huskies' most athletic defenders. Linebacker is not a position loaded with a lot of experienced backups for UConn, making Wilson irreplaceable.
Louisville: Johnny Patrick, CB. The Cardinals' defensive backfield looked scary at times this spring -- scary for them, not opposing offenses. Patrick is the one rock back there as one of the league's better cornerbacks. Without him, things could really get frightening.
Pittsburgh: The "College Football Live" staff chose Dion Lewis, but I think Pitt could run the ball effectively with Ray Graham and others without Lewis. I chose safety Dom DeCicco earlier in the spring. But now, after seeing Pitt in practice, I'd have to vote for left tackle Jason Pinkston. The senior is an invaluable anchor on the offensive line, especially with questions at center and guard.
Rutgers: Tom Savage, QB. No-brainer here. Rutgers' only other options right now are Steve Shimko, incoming freshman Chas Dodd or moving receiver Mohamed Sanu or tight end D.C. Jefferson under center. None of those would portend good things.
South Florida: B.J. Daniels, QB. Just as obvious and correct as the Savage pick. Daniels is the only player who's taken a collegiate snap at quarterback currently on the depth chart, if you don't count receiver Evan Landi.
Syracuse: Derrell Smith, LB. Syracuse managed to beat Rutgers while Smith was injured late in the year, but his leadership and playmaking ability from the middle linebacker spot would be hard to replace for long stretches of the season.
West Virginia: Chris Neild, DT. Coley White played well enough this spring to make the Mountaineers believe they could win without Geno Smith. Tavon Austin and Jock Sanders could step in for Noel Devine if needed. While the defensive line should be deeper than it was a year ago, neither West Virginia nor many other teams have many guys like Neild who can take on two or even three blockers on every play.
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.
My colleagues Chris Low and Ted Miller have an interesting debate today over who's the best safety in college football: Tennessee's Eric Berry or USC's Taylor Mays.
Berry and Mays are getting a lot of attention this preseason, and rightfully so. But the debate made me think that the Big East has some pretty good safeties this year, too. In fact, it may be one of the deeper positions in the league.
Here are my top five Big East safeties for 2009, in no particular order:
• Nate Allen, South Florida: Incredibly athletic guy, with a prototypical NFL body. Needs to bounce back from a slightly disappointing junior season.
• Aaron Webster, Cincinnati: Brought a real toughness to the Bearcats' defense when he moved into the starting lineup after a few games last season. A big hitter who will be called upon to lead an inexperienced defense.
• Robert Vaughn, Connecticut: Flies a little under the radar, like most Huskies. All he does is produce, with nine interceptions the past two years and 27 straight starts.
• Dom DeCicco, Pittsburgh: Really came on at the end of last year, including a big Sun Bowl performance. Has a nose for the ball.
• Robert Sands, West Virginia: Unusually tall (6-foot-5) for a safety, he started nine games as a true freshman and looks like a future star.
That's a pretty good list, and I didn't even include Rutgers' Joe Lefeged, West Virginia's Sidney Glover or Pitt's Elijah Fields. There may not be a Taylor Mays or Eric Berry in this league, but the Big East has some awfully good safeties, too.
Questions remain around the Big East, but a few teams found some help this spring at certain positions. Here's a list of where that help came from for a few teams:
Cincinnati: The addition of Marcus Barnett to the defense helped solidify a secondary that lost starting cornerbacks Mike Mickens and DeAngelo Smith and safety Brandon Underwood.
Pittsburgh: Elijah Fields finally played up to his potential, and Dom DeCicco was solid as the Pitt safety position looked strong this spring.
Syracuse: Moving Derrell Smith to the inside and switching Doug Hogue from running back solidified the Orange's linebacker corps.