NCF Nation: Mark Myers

Every year dating back to 2009, at least one true freshman has played -- and started -- at quarterback in the Big East.

You have guys like Tom Savage (now at a different Big East school), Chas Dodd and Gary Nova (battling it out to start), and up-and-coming Teddy Bridgewater at Louisville. While it seems B.J. Daniels has been starting since 2002 -- a joke made by coach Skip Holtz at media day -- he actually started as a redshirt freshman in 2009. I mistakenly had him starting as a true freshman in an earlier version.

[+] EnlargeChad Voytik
Tom HauckCould Pitt's Chad Voytik be the next true freshman to start at QB in the Big East?
So now that fall camps are underway, are there any candidates to play as true freshmen in 2012? As of right now, it does not appear any Big East team will go into the season with a true freshman starting at quarterback. But several players could have a backup role, depending on how they progress. Here is a look at two with the most likely shot.

Casey Cochran, UConn. Given that Cochran is recovering from a broken wrist, the possibility exists that the Huskies just redshirt him this season. Coach Paul Pasqualoni already announced Chandler Whitmer as his starter. But the recent news that Michael Nebrich will transfer certainly makes this an interesting situation to watch. UConn is left with walk-on Johnny McEntee and Wildcat quarterback Scott McCummings, who has been absent taking care of personal matters. I think the best-case scenario for UConn is to have Whitmer make it through the entire season and play at a high level. That way, the Huskies can redshirt Cochran and give him four years of eligibility.

Chad Voytik, Pitt. With the transfer of Mark Myers, Pitt now has three scholarship quarterbacks on the roster eligible for this season. Tino Sunseri is the unquestioned starter, despite some of his shortfalls. So now the backup job will be a competition between Trey Anderson and Voytik, a four-star recruit from Tennessee. Coach Paul Chryst said the team would take full advantage of giving Voytik more reps with Myers gone. But so far through the beginning of camp, Anderson and Sunseri have gotten the majority of the reps. "Both Tino and Trey need as many reps as they can get," Chryst said. "Chad has done a great job of studying and learning and that’s not easy, no spring ball and no real reference, but I think he’s done a great job of knowing what to do and I think he goes out and works at it. So I’m pleased where he’s at.” Like UConn, Pitt would be best served to have Voytik redshirt if the Panthers can win without him.
Pitt coach Paul Chryst announced Friday that tackle Juantez Hollins has been suspended for the season for a violation of team rules, while backup quarterback Mark Myers is no longer with the team.

Also, Chryst has suspended incoming freshman receiver Chris Davis for the first week of practice for disciplinary reasons. Davis will be eligible to return to practice Aug. 12.

Hollins played in 13 games last year, and made seven starts. Losing him will no doubt hurt the depth along the line, the weakest part of the team last season.

“Even though he will not play in any games, Juantez will remain an active and valuable member of our program and be accountable every day in practice and in the classroom,” Chryst said in a statement.

Myers played in four games last year, completing 1-of-4 passes for five yards. Without Myers, the Panthers are severely limited with depth at quarterback. Behind Tino Sunseri, Pitt has true freshman Chad Voytik and sophomore Trey Anderson, who came to the Panthers as a spread quarterback. Myers was one of the top quarterback prospects in the state of Ohio in the class of 2010, but for whatever reason, things did not work out for him with the Panthers.

Pitt opens practice Monday.
AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. -- Pitt coach Paul Chryst came right out and said what had become obvious this spring -- Tino Sunseri is his starting quarterback going into fall practice.

Chryst said Tuesday during the ACC spring meetings, "He was the best quarterback we had out of spring. That's why he's the starter."

Sunseri had been competing with Mark Myers and Trey Anderson for the starting job after a pretty brutal 2011 season. The truth is that Sunseri was not really a match for the spread offense under former coach Todd Graham. But he was inconsistent the season before under Dave Wannstedt, so there are those Pitt fans probably scratching their heads wondering what Sunseri can do to be better entering his third season as a starter.

"The biggest thing for quarterbacking is being able to do it and doing it on a consistent level," Chryst said. "That’s your normal progression. He clearly was the best this spring that we had. You’re aware of the history but it doesn’t really matter for us. What do you have right now? It’s our job to coach them and how can you help everyone get better? He’s got a great opportunity. He has played in a lot of games, he does have experience. He’s got room to grow. If he chooses to grow, and I know it’s easier for us to say last year or two years before that doesn’t matter. It matters in the sense that you should learn from all of it, positive or negative. But it doesn’t matter going forward.

"Right now, if you were to say who gives you the best chance to have success, it would be him. So coach the heck out of him."

Chryst said nobody grabbed the backup quarterback job. As for what he anticipates for Chad Voytik once the four-star prospect arrives this summer, Chryst said, "First he's got to get here. Then we've got to see how he picks up things. I anticipate him getting work. Legitimately getting work and then we'll see."

Now here is a quick update on running back Ray Graham, coming off a knee injury. Chryst said Graham is "progressing" and anticipates his star back will be ready for the start of fall camp.

"The plan is he will be ready," Chryst said. "We’ll have him practice. He needs it. They all need it. I’m not going to project too much until it’s time. But we’re planning on it. We’re going full steam ahead."

Chryst anticipates he will have all his players available for practice when fall camp opens.
With nearly every Big East team having wrapped up spring practice, one constant remains -- open quarterback competitions.

Unless coach Kyle Flood makes a last-second decision following the Rutgers spring game Saturday, four schools will go into the summer without a starter at perhaps the most important position on a team. Here is a quick look at how those competitions stack up:

Cincinnati. Munchie Legaux and Brendon Kay are the top two players vying for the job. Coach Butch Jones has decided not to name a starter, but all indications point to Legaux as winning the job once the fall rolls around. Legaux said during an interview this spring he had been taking most of the reps with the first team.

UConn. Five players remain in the competition -- Junior college transfer Chandler Whitmer, freshman Casey Cochran, Michael Nebrich, Scott McCummings and Johnny McEntee. Nobody distinguished himself through the spring or in the spring game, though Whitmer had the "best" performance of the three. Don't be surprised if Whitmer is the starter, Cochran is redshirted and McCummings continues in his role as Wildcat quarterback.

Pitt. Coach Paul Chryst has not named his starter, either, but he has indicated that incumbent Tino Sunseri has separated himself from Mark Myers and Trey Anderson. Now we'll see what happens when true freshman Chad Voytik enters the mix when he arrives in the summer.

Rutgers. Chas Dodd and Gary Nova went back and forth at quarterback last season for the Scarlet Knights, and neither one has really stood out this spring. Defense has dominated the scrimmages so far. Flood has said he would not make a decision until one player stood head and shoulders above the rest, but would like a starter in place a week to 10 days before the start of the season.

Pitt turns to ... Sunseri?

April, 17, 2012
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Pitt coach Paul Chryst has not definitively declared Tino Sunseri as his starting quarterback headed into fall practice.

Does he need to?

Chryst said last week that Sunseri had separated himself from Mark Myers and Trey Anderson, which seemingly points in the direction of Sunseri winning the starting job. True freshman Chad Voytik enrolls this summer, so there is a chance that he could come in and blow everybody away with his amazing talent and grasp of the offense.

[+] EnlargeTino Sunseri
Charles LeClaire/US PresswirePittsburgh coach Paul Chryst has hinted that Tino Sunseri will be his starting quarterback in the fall.
But right now, it appears Sunseri will go into his third straight season as the starter.

That is hard to believe for many, considering the lackluster results along the way. It is no secret that Sunseri has struggled with the deep ball, and clearly cannot run a spread offense. He should never be asked to do that again. I truly believe Sunseri should be given a pass for what happened last season, and I think the longer time goes on, perhaps more Pitt fans feel the same way. Todd Graham deserves the blame for what happened last season.

The point is that Chryst must believe Sunseri truly gives his team the best chance to win, given his experience and current understanding of the new offense. While the passing game was nothing to write home about -- Sunseri went 13-of-27 for 147 yards with a touchdown and interception in the spring game -- you wonder how much of an ask is going to be made of the quarterbacks with the potential for such a strong running game.

Perhaps the quarterback for Pitt this season will be more of a game manager. Sunseri has been good at times throughout his career. Look back to the USF, UConn and Louisville games for recent examples. Give him time in the pocket, and he does not implode. I can guarantee the offensive line will be miles better this season.

The short passing game works for him, along with play action. Does he need to make 80-yard throws every game? Obviously a home run ball is nice every once in a while, but there have been quarterbacks without the greatest command of the deep ball that have fared just fine.

With the development of Isaac Bennett and Corey Davis, along with the return of Ray Graham and the arrival of Rushel Shell, Pitt has the perfect opportunity this season to just ground and pound, and let Sunseri throw it as a change of pace. Obviously, any great team wants to have balance with their running and passing attack. Obviously, teams will want to stack the box to force Pitt to throw. Sunseri has to learn how to beat the blitzes and make the clutch throws with games on the line.

But Ray Graham was so good last season, teams loaded the box and still couldn't stop him. The potential exists for the same to happen again this season with so much talent in the backfield. Pitt needs its ground game to work for Sunseri to work.

"(The run game) has a chance to be good," Chryst said after spring ball wrapped. "But it all starts with the line. The line made some improvements this spring. Ray's working, we need to get him back healthy and Rushel, we all know what he is ... There's also a lot of quesitons, but that will be a good problem if we have a bunch of running backs."

Especially if it takes pressure off Sunseri.

Big East recruiting needs

January, 23, 2012
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National signing day is inching ever closer, so it is time to take a look at the biggest recruiting needs for every team in the Big East.

Cincinnati

Defensive line. Cincinnati loses a host of seniors from this position, including Co-Defensive Player of the Year Derek Wolfe, John Hughes, Monte Taylor, and Rob Trigg. Factor in the key contributors for 2012 will be seniors in Dan Giordano, Brandon Mills and Walter Stewart and it is time to reload at this position.

Receiver. There is some promising young talent on the roster, but several guys are going to be leaving in the next few years. The Bearcats really need a guy who can stretch the field and make some big plays to join Anthony McClung and Alex Chisum.

Secondary. The Bearcats are going to take a hit at this position after 2012, losing a ton of seniors-to-be, including Cam Cheatham, Drew Frey, Dominique Battle and Reuben Johnson. Senior safety Wesley Richardson is already gone. The lone four-star commitment the Bearcats have is from a safety, Marcus Foster.

UConn

Quarterback. This need has been addressed in this recruiting cycle, with junior college transfer Chandler Whitmer and Casey Cochran already enrolled in school.

Tight end. With the impending departure of Ryan Griffin and John Delahunt, the Huskies could use another young player to be groomed to take over. Tight end is a critical part of the UConn offense.

Offensive line. UConn is losing its two best linemen in Moe Petrus and Mike Ryan. Of the 16 linemen currently listed on the roster, seven are juniors or seniors. Linemen generally take a redshirt season, so it never hurts to sign more to be able to restock.

Louisville

Linebacker. The Cardinals are losing Dexter Heyman and have a lot of juniors and seniors on their roster at this position. It is no surprise, then, that three of the top players coming in are linebackers -- Keith Brown and James Burgess are already enrolled; four-star recruit Nick Dawson has given a commitment.

Offensive line. Louisville has young players here, but not much depth, as evidenced this season when several true freshmen were forced to play much earlier than anticipated. It never hurts to build depth here, and the Cardinals have gotten a huge commit from four-star guard Abraham Garcia out of Miami.

Running back. This was an area the Cardinals struggled in this season, having to move quarterback Dominique Brown to the position. Victor Anderson is gone, and this team could really used another back to carry the load.

Pitt

Quarterback. This one is pretty self explanatory if you watched Tino Sunseri play. Mark Myers and Trey Anderson are also on the roster, but the Panthers are in definite need here -- which is why so many fans are looking forward to commit Chad Voytik coming to town.

Linebacker. This has been an area of inconsistency for the Panthers, who lose their best player in Max Gruder. There are some young players with talent in Todd Thomas and Ejuan Price, but this position could definitely use an upgrade.

Receiver. The play of the offense was disappointing this season, and that includes the receivers. Pitt could use some players to stretch the field. Ronald Jones was a start this season. But when you consider that Cameron Saddler, Mike Shanahan and Devin Street will all be upperclassmen in 2012, this is a definite area of need.

Rutgers

Receiver. Mohamed Sanu is gone, and Mark Harrison is a senior to be. There is plenty of young talent, but there is a reason Rutgers has commitments from four athletes. This gives the Scarlet Knights the flexibility to try them at receiver or running back, another area of need.

Running back. Once Savon Huggins got hurt this year, Rutgers had Jawan Jamison and Jeremy Deering at running back and that was about it. Depth has to be developed here.

Offensive line. Strides have absolutely been made at this position, but coach Greg Schiano likes to reiterate that the Scarlet Knights aren't going to pull themselves out of the hole they were in overnight. They need another solid draft class at this position to keep building.

USF

Secondary. Injuries and inconsistent play this season showed the Bulls really lacked some depth and need some immediate help in this area, which is why they signed junior college cornerbacks Fidel Montgomery and Josh Brown. One of their top four-star commitments is cornerback Chris Bivins.

Quarterback. Beyond B.J. Daniels, a senior in 2012, the Bulls have Bobby Eveld and Matt Floyd as the two heirs to take over. Eveld has been less than impressive, and we don't know much about Floyd. The Bulls would be served to get another quarterback in as they prepare for the future.

Running back. Darrell Scott is gone, and the Bulls are really in need of a game breaker at this position. Demetris Murray is going to be a senior, and nobody else really has stepped up at the position. Depth has to be built here, because USF goes into spring practice with four running backs on the roster.

Syracuse

Defensive line. The Orange are losing Chandler Jones and Mikhail Marinovich and could really used some difference-makers up front who can help get after the quarterback. Depth is an issue here. One of their big commitments so far has been defensive end Josh Manley out of Georgia.

Secondary. This was one of the weakest parts of the team and now the Orange lose Phillip Thomas and Kevyn Scott, and there was a lack of depth when injuries hit this position in 2011. Brooklyn prep safety Wayne Morgan would be a huge get to add to this unit.

Receiver. Alec Lemon is a senior, Van Chew is gone and who knows what happens with Marcus Sales. The bottom line is the Orange are in major need of a game-changer to turn 15-yard passes into 40-yard receptions.

West Virginia

Quarterback. Geno Smith is a rising senior and after him it is crickets in the form of one player behind him in Paul Millard. So consider this need majorly filled with Ford Childress, ranked No. 139 on the ESPNU 150.

Offensive line. The most inconsistent part of the team in 2011, West Virginia has a major need here. The Mountaineers struggled so badly here they started converted defensive lineman Curtis Feigt late in the season. Don Barclay is gone, and Joe Madsen, Jeff Braun and Josh Jenkins are all upperclassmen.

Defensive line. Julian Miller, Josh Taylor and Bruce Irvin are gone, and there are depth concerns here. West Virginia has four commitments from defensive linemen already.
We continue our look at team position rankings with quarterback. This is a position of strength for the league with so many starters returning, and the addition of two very high-powered offensive attacks. Should be quite fun to watch.

1. West Virginia. Geno Smith is about the closest to a Heisman candidate as the Big East has going into the season. He had a solid sophomore season, and now with the addition of Dana Holgorsen to the offense, should be the pre-eminent quarterback in the league. Three of Holgorsen's past six quarterbacks passed for 5,000 yards. Not many folks can throw that stat around. Depth is a bit of a concern. The current backup is invited walk-on Paul Millard, a true freshman. True freshman Brian Athey is listed No. 3.

[+] EnlargeZach Collaros
Mark Zerof/US PresswireCincinnati's Zach Collaros is part of a strong group of returning quarterbacks in the Big East.
2. Cincinnati. It is really close between Zach Collaros and Smith. Collaros is the defending first-team Big East quarterback and certainly has what it takes to throw for 3,000 yards this season. He has tremendous wide receivers with a lot of talent as well. The offensive line has to step up to give him some more time to throw. But either way, Collaros is in line to have another great season. The backup spot also is uncertain here, with the departure of Chazz Anderson. Munchie Legaux and Jordan Luallen will battle in the fall.

3. Pittsburgh. I know Tino Sunseri has taken his share of lumps, but he has the potential to have his best season yet with the new offense coach Todd Graham plans to install. Yes, there are questions about Sunseri and whether he can throw the deep ball, but look for him to be asked to make more high-percentage passes than chucking 70-yard bombs. There also is uncertainty here with the suspension of Anthony Gonzalez. Both he and Mark Myers are redshirt freshmen and were competing for the backup job.

4. USF. B.J. Daniels was inconsistent and banged up last season, but closed the year with a nice game against Clemson. Will that translate into a season that knocks people's socks off in 2011? What should help is the fact that he is going into the season with the same offensive coordinator as the previous one. There is continuity there for him. There are questions at receiver and on the offensive line, but Daniels could have his best season. Backup Bobby Eveld has experience -- and was the hero of that big win against Miami.

5. Rutgers. The next three spots in the rankings are a bit murky for me. You could make an argument for each team to be in either the 5-6-7 spot. I chose Chas Dodd here because I think he has the potential for a good season. The Scarlet Knights have a clear vision on offense, and they also have some of the most talented receivers in the league. Going back to a more pro-style attack should help, and Dodd made some serious strides in the spring. Depth is an issue, with true freshmen Gary Nova and Mike Bimonte expected to be in the mix for the backup job.

6. Syracuse. Ryan Nassib made some strides in his first season as a starter, and seems to be poised to take the next step. He has a solid receiving crew and a solid offensive line. His performance against Kansas State could serve as a launching point for him going into this season. But this is a team that has struggled to make big plays in the passing game, and that is going to have to change for Nassib to climb up this list.

7. Louisville. This ranking is a mere reflection of the uncertainty around the position. The Cardinals and Huskies are the only two teams with this position unsettled, hence the rankings. There is no denying the potential that Teddy Bridgewater brings. But he is a true freshmen, and true freshmen are simply wild cards. Will Stein is steady, but is he the man to guide this team to a league championship? Both will play, but who is going to step up and take charge?

8. UConn. The Huskies have no starter right now and have a four-man race between Michael Nebrich, Scott McCummings, Johnny McEntee and Michael Box. Coach Paul Pasqualoni hopes to get this resolved as quickly as possible, but since this is the only team with major uncertainty, the Huskies land here.

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.
I had a chance to catch up with new Pittsburgh coach Todd Graham on Wednesday for a forthcoming spring preview Q&A.

I also had to ask Graham about the Sports Illustrated/CBS News story last week that highlighted all of the program's legal problems in the past year, all of which occurred on Dave Wannstedt's watch. Graham said he is confident that those problems have been addressed and won't continue to plague the team.

[+] EnlargeTodd Graham
AP Photo/John HellerTodd Graham has instituted rules against cursing and wearing earrings and bandanas in the locker room.
"We've talked about character, integrity and discipline, and that's how we're going to do everything we do," he said. "We're a yes sir, no sir, yes ma'am, no ma'am crew. I've been impressed with the young people here. We have guys with great character."

Graham instituted several rules when he came in, including barring the wearing of earrings and bandanas in the locker room and meeting areas and outlawing cursing.

"I told them that no one in the country is going to do this, but we're going to do it," he said. "It's a physical symbol that it's not about me, it's about the team. Our guys have responded in every way. I think kids will meet whatever expectations that you set for them.

"Things have happened here that were unacceptable, but we've addressed those and are moving forward. I told the kids that I started off 26 years ago coaching 7th grade football, and I don't want to win by taking shortcuts and cutting corners. It's about winning every day, not just on Saturday and not just one season."

As for the story itself, Graham said, "My vision is that next year they will write an article about all the great things our kids are doing."

A couple of other quick notes:
  • Graham said Brandon Lindsey, No. 13 on my Top 25 player countdown, will make the perfect "Panther" linebacker -- the hybrid position in Graham's 3-4 defense. Lindsey, who played defensive end at 250 pounds last year, is excited about standing up as a linebacker and will move around the field. But Lindsey won't do much this spring after offseason shoulder surgery, and Pitt will try to identify other players who can fill that role in his absence.
  • Linebacker Dan Mason, who dislocated his knee in last year's Miami game, won't be back for the spring either. Graham called his injury a "month-to-month" thing. And if you saw it, you know how gruesome the injury looked.
  • Graham said incumbent starter Tino Sunseri holds the edge at quarterback, but that he's excited to see Mark Myers and Anthony Gonzalez this spring, too. He said Sunseri, being a coach's son, has an excellent chance to grasp his no-huddle offense and will benefit from being in the shotgun.

Big East spring preview

February, 23, 2011
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Spring practice is just around the corner -- South Florida will be on its new practice fields next week, while other Big East teams will follow suit shortly after.

So here's a look at what to expect from each league team this spring.

Cincinnati

Spring practice starts: March 29
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Fixing the defense: There's little doubt that improving the defense is the first order of business in Clifton. The Bearcats ranked last in the Big East last season while giving up 28 points per game. The good news is that all 11 starters on that side of the ball are back. The bad news is those are the same guys who couldn't get it done a season ago. An extra year of maturity should help, and Butch Jones expects more depth and competition on defense, including the arrival of junior-college import Malcolm Murray at safety.
  • Restocking the Binns: Cincinnati should still be strong on offense with the return of senior quarterback Zach Collaros and senior Isaiah Pead, the leading returning rusher in the Big East. Yet the loss of the league's most productive receiver in 2010, Armon Binns, means the Bearcats need to find a few more guys to make plays at receiver. D.J. Woods is an obvious choice as the new go-to guy, but he'll have to solve his fumble problems. Transfer Kenbrell Thompkins, who couldn't get eligible last season, will look to step forward. Another sidelined receiver, freshman Dyjuan Lewis, won't be cleared to join in team activities until the summer.
  • Looking for leaders: One of the problems during the 2010 4-8 season, as voiced by departing senior Jason Kelce and implied by Jones, was a lack of leadership on the team. Hey, it happens sometimes when your program has been to back-to-back BCS games and young players feel an undeserved sense of entitlement. Jones has been trying to change that, and we should be able to tell during the spring whether some new leaders have emerged.
Connecticut

Spring practice starts: March 15
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Back to the future: For the first time since the end of 1990s, and for the first time ever as an FBS-level program, the Huskies will have someone other than Randy Edsall leading them through practice in March. Former longtime Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni took over when Edsall left for Maryland, and Pasqualoni hired new coordinators (George DeLeone on offense and Don Brown on defense) to mix in with the holdovers from Edsall's staff. UConn has been doing things the same way for a long time, and with pretty strong results. How will the team react to Pasqualoni's new-look, old-school ways?
  • Backfield in motion: Quarterback Zach Frazer is gone. Star tailback Jordan Todman left early for the NFL. Fullback Anthony Sherman graduated. Everything behind center is new. The quarterback position looks pretty wide open, with sophomore Michael Box perhaps having the edge after making one (very unsuccessful) start in 2010. Early enrollee Michael Nebrich is one to watch. How will the Huskies replace Todman? Good question. Robbie Frey decided to concentrate on graduate school, leaving USC transfer D.J. Shoemate as the only experienced ballcarrier. Freshman Lyle McCombs' status is unclear for spring after his offseason arrest, and the two running backs in the signing class won't arrive until summer. Right now, it's anybody's guess as to who might carry on the UConn running back tradition.
  • Reloading at linebacker: The Connecticut defense brings a lot back, but one position that needs refilling is linebacker. Lawrence Wilson, who led the Big East in tackles the past two seasons, and Scott Lutrus, a four-year starter and solid leader, both exhausted their eligibility. Sio Moore looks like a rising star and had some huge games in 2010, but the other two positions have large shoes to fill.
Louisville

Spring practice starts: March 23
Spring game: April 15

What to watch:
  • Smooth sailing for Bridegwater?: The Cardinals' most pressing issue is at quarterback, where senior co-starters Justin Burke and Adam Froman are gone. Highly-touted recruit Teddy Bridgewater will participate in the spring, and how quickly he picks up the college game and coordinator Mike Sanford's system could go a long way to determining what happens this fall. If he needs more time, senior Will Stein will happily take the reins.
  • Rebuilding the O-line: The key to Louisville's offensive success was its senior-laden line, which proved to be the best in the Big East a year ago. But now four new starters must be found to go along with center Mario Benavides. The new guys must get up to speed and develop chemistry quickly for the running game and presumed new starter Jeremy Wright to duplicate last season's progress.
  • Last line of defense: Louisville's defense was most vulnerable at its back end at times last season, and now the Cardinals must replace both starting cornerbacks (including All-Big East first team performer Johnny Patrick), no to mention two senior linebackers. An obvious candidate to take over some leadership is safety Hakeem Smith, who was the Big East rookie of the year. The plus side is that Charlie Strong and coordinator Vance Bedford will have more young talent to work with.
Pittsburgh

Spring practice starts: March 15
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Golden Graham?: There will be no more drastic change in the Big East this spring than the offense at Pittsburgh, which will go from a run-based pro-style attack to Graham's no-huddle, wide-open, points-per-minute machine. Can the Panthers get this new offense up and running this spring? Does Graham have the players to make it work? And how will his offense, so successful in Conference USA, translate into the more rugged Big East? All those questions will be fascinating to follow.
  • Quarterback competition: Junior Tino Sunseri started every game in his first year at the controls in 2010, and he played well at times. But a new style and new coaching staff means that he might have an edge, but not necessarily an insurmountable one, in this spring's competition. Redshirt freshman Mark Myers is multi-talented and will be given a look, along with classmate Anthony Gonzalez and Kolby Gray. The current staff has no loyalty to Sunseri, so he'll need to perform at a high level this spring to keep his job.
  • Shoring up the 'D': It's no secret that Pitt struggled in defending the pass last season. Graham's offense may be more explosive, but he doesn't want to have to get into shootouts all the time. He and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson have experience running 3-3-5 and 4-2-5 formations and may go to more of those kinds of looks to counter the increasing spread offenses throughout the league. First Pitt will have to get better play from its secondary and linebackers in pass coverage, and that starts this spring.
Rutgers

Spring practice starts: March 29
Spring game: April 30

What to watch:
  • Line change: The first thing to focus on this spring for the Scarlet Knights is the front five on offense. The offensive line has been a mess for the past two years and was an utter disaster a year ago. Head coach Greg Schiano is counting on junior-college center Dallas Hendrickson to provide some immediate help, and that another year will lead to better things for the returnees. Rutgers needs answers at right tackle, especially, and if the line can't block its own defense in spring practice, you'll know there's trouble.
  • A Frank re-assessment: Former Pitt offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti takes over the Scarlet Knights' playcalling duties this spring, and his pro-style background seems like a perfect match for what Schiano likes to do. Look for Cignetti to try to establish a stronger running game this spring (while waiting for mega-recruit Savon Huggins to arrive this summer) and abandon the Wildcat formation and other gimmicks that Rutgers desperately turned to the past two years. His work with sophomore starter Chas Dodd will also be critical, since there are no other experienced quarterbacks on campus.
  • Recharging the defense: You always expect a Schiano-led defense to be rock solid, but that defense wore down last season and ended up allowing more points in conference play than anybody. Three of the starting four defensive linemen are gone, as well as the team's leading tackler -- linebacker Antonio Lowery -- and safety Joe Lefeged. Schiano has recruited well and has lots of young players ready to step into bigger roles. Spring will be the time we start to learn who's ready to handle increased responsibilities.
South Florida

Spring practice starts: March 3
Spring game: April 2

What to watch:
  • Transfers accepted: Running backs Darrell Scott and Dontae Aycock have strong credentials; Scott was one of the more sought-after recruits in the country before disappointing at Colorado, while Aycock was set to play for Auburn. Both become eligible this year and will show their stuff this spring. The two big-bodied ballcarriers could add some power and explosiveness to the Bulls offense. Notre Dame transfer Spencer Boyd should bring depth, at the very least, to the secondary.
  • B.J. still the main Bull?: Junior B.J. Daniels seemed to reassert himself as the starter with a big performance in the Meineke Car Care Bowl win over Clemson. But before that, there were serious questions about whether sophomore Bobby Eveld might unseat him. Daniels goes into the spring with an obvious edge, but he'll be pushed by Eveld and redshirt freshman Jamius Gunsby. He'll need to perform at a consistent level to stiff-arm questions about his job security.
  • Receiver reconstitution: No doubt, receiver was the position that needed the largest upgrade a year ago. The bad news is, the Bulls lost leading pass-catcher Dontavia Bogan, who was nearly a one-man show at wideout in 2010. On the flip side, A.J. Love and Sterling Griffin return from injury. And Skip Holtz hopes getting thrown into the fire last season sped the development of guys like Evan Landi, Joel Miller and Lindsey Lamar. At the very least, the position has a lot more experience and depth than it did a year ago at this time.
Syracuse

Spring practice starts: March 8
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Displacing Delone: Senior Delone Carter brought the thunder to the Syracuse running game the last two years, and he may have been the least favorite ballcarrier for opposing tacklers to bring down. With him gone, it remains to be seen whether the smaller Antwon Bailey can be an every-down back, or if youngsters like Prince-Tyson Gulley and Jerome Smith are ready for an increased role in the offense.
  • Linebacker makeover: It would be hard for any team to lose a more productive linebacker tandem than the Orange did with seniors Doug Hogue and Derrell Smith. They were both crucial to what defensive coordinator Scott Shafer liked to do. The lone returning starter is Marquis Spruill, who played as a true freshman last year. Could a newcomer like junior-college transfer Siriki Diabate be ready to help immediately?
  • Wideout wonders: Marcus Sales helped rescue an ailing passing game with his breakout performance in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. Is Sales ready to play like that all the time now, or was he a one-game wonder? Will Van Chew continue the improvement he showed last season before getting injured? Can the Orange get more out of Alec Lemon? What new faces might help at receiver? The answers to these questions will be key to the attack under Nathaniel Hackett, who was promoted to offensive coordinator this offseason.
West Virginia

Spring practice starts: March 28
Spring game: April 29

What to watch:
  • Dana days: Mountaineer Nation is salivating at the thought of what Dana Holgorsen will do to revive the offense. Holgorsen has had an immediate and incredible impact at the last two places where he called plays, and some solid work in the spring is required to do the same in Morgantown. A couple of things are for sure: the Mountaineers will be throwing it around a whole bunch during practice, and fans will breathlessly gobble up every small detail. Another thing to watch will be the chemistry between Holgorsen's hand-picked offensive staff and Bill Stewart, the man he'll replace at the end of the season. That relationship will also be dissected relentlessly.
  • Defense reload or rebuild?: Most people assume West Virginia will continue to field an excellent defense because of coordinator Jeff Casteel. That may be true, but no team lost more defensive talent than the Mountaineers, who must replace frontline players like tackle Chris Neild, linebacker J.T. Thomas, safety Robert Sands and cornerback Brandon Hogan, among others. There's still a lot to like here, including ends Julian Miller and Bruce Irvin and corner Keith Tandy, but for Casteel must find new contributors to keep his 3-3-5 humming along.
  • Who's in the backfield?: It's not yet know just how much quarterback Geno Smith will be able to do during spring practice after his offseason foot surgery. Obviously, the more reps he can take, the better he'll be able to get Holgorsen's system down. And there's no experience behind him. West Virginia will be cautious with Smith, though, because the fall is way more important. With Noel Devine gone and Tavon Austin seemingly making his move to receiver permanent, there will be competition for the starting running back spot. Shawne Alston and Ryan Clarke are bulldozers who could add an interesting wrinkle to Holgorsen's spread if they get the job done.
It's hard to win in college football without a good, experienced quarterback. So perhaps it should have been no surprise that several Big East teams struggled on offense at times in 2010.

Remember last offseason, when we talked about how South Florida's B.J. Daniels and Rutgers' Tom Savage were the most experienced league quarterbacks in terms of starts despite coming off their freshman seasons? Even that wasn't a great indicator of success, as Daniels had to adjust to a new system and Savage got hurt, benched and eventually decided to transfer.

The good news for the Big East is that there will be many more experienced signal-callers ready to open the 2011 season. First, let's take a look at which quarterbacks will have the most career starts under their belts when next season rolls around:

[+] EnlargeZach Collaros
Frank Victores/US PresswireZach Collaros should be Cincinnati's starter in the fall.
1. Daniels, South Florida, junior: 22 career starts

2. Zach Collaros, Cincinnati, senior: 15

T-3. Ryan Nassib, Syracuse, junior: 13

T-3. Geno Smith, West Virginia, junior: 13

T-3. Tino Sunseri, Pittsburgh, junior: 13

6. Chas Dodd, Rutgers, sophomore: 8

7. Will Stein, Louisville, senior: 2

8. Michael Box, Connecticut, sophomore: 1

Daniels will be the graybeard as a third-year starter, but Collaros, Nassib and Smith all saw significant time in the 2009 season. Smith, Sunseri, Dodd and whoever Connecticut's starting quarterback is will all be playing for a new offensive coordinator this season.

Now let's look at the likelihood of potential quarterback battles this spring at each school:

Cincinnati -- Chance of competition: slim to none. Collaros is the established guy and a great leader who shouldn't have to worry about job security.

Connecticut -- Chance of competition: high. Box made only one start and it was a disastrous one against Louisville. With new coach Paul Pasqualoni coming in, recruit Michael Nebrich enrolled and several other candidates on the roster, this one looks wide open.

Louisville -- Chance of competition: guaranteed. Stein, a former walk-on who's under 5-foot-10, has a ton of moxie. But he'll have to hold off highly-touted early enrollee Teddy Bridgewater for the gig.

Pittsburgh -- Chance of competition: medium to high. Sunseri started every game last year and improved during the season, but new coach Todd Graham brings an entirely new offensive system. Don't be surprised if redshirt freshmen Mark Myers and Anthony Gonzalez get a serious look this spring.

Rutgers -- Chance of competition: slim. At least for the spring, Dodd should be safe. His only real competition will come from a pair of incoming freshmen this summer.

South Florida -- Chance of competition: good. Daniels may have more starts than anybody, but Skip Holtz is at least going to let Bobby Eveld push him in the spring. And don't forget about redshirt freshman Jamius Gunsby.

Syracuse -- Chance of competition: possible. Nassib started every game in 2010 and had an excellent bowl performance. But Syracuse has a lot of quarterbacks on the roster, including once-hyped recruit Jonny Miller. Nassib has the definite edge but can't get complacent.

West Virginia -- Chance of competition: tiny. Smith is the man in Morgantown, and his two freshman backups in 2010 transferred. The only concern is his foot injury that may hold him out of spring practice drills as Dana Holgorsen installs his new offense. But only a monumental upset or further injury would prevent Smith from starting the opener in 2011.
As Pittsburgh sat in the driver's seat for the Big East title in early November, one stat always jumped out at me: the Panthers were shooting for their first-ever outright Big East title.

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).

[+] EnlargeDion Lewis and Tino Sunseri
Charles LeClaire/US PresswireDion Lewis (left) and Tino Sunseri are two of many talented Pitt players returning next season.
Pittsburgh is an excellent school located in a talent-rich area. Though the Panthers will always play second fiddle to the Steelers in their own city (and probably the Penguins, too), there are some advantages to being in a pro town. Pitt piggybacks off the Steelers' facilities and shares training space with the NFL team. Imagine the treat it must be for college players to walk by guys like Troy Polamalu on a daily basis.

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.

Halloween in the Big East

October, 29, 2010
10/29/10
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The Big East knows Halloween.

You want scary? Just check out the league's nonconference record. The best story in the Big East right now is a team (Syracuse) whose mascot looks conspicuously like a giant pumpkin. And Pitt's quarterback of the future is named Mark Myers, which sounds an awful lot like you know who.

Here are some more Halloween tie-ins:

Dave Wannstedt
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicPittsburgh's home loss to Miami was a nightmare for coach Dave Wannstedt and the Big East.
Scary movie: Pitt's 31-3 loss to Miami at home was as frightening as it gets, both for Panthers fans and the Big East in general. The league's supposed best team got mauled by a former friend. Sounds like a horror-film plot. Runner-up: Rutgers' home loss to Tulane.

Night of the living dead: Cincinnati started just 1-3 after winning the past two Big East titles and going 12-0 in the regular season last year. The Bearcats crawled back to life, but another damaging loss to South Florida last week has them clinging to bowl hopes by their fingernails.

Cursed team: Connecticut. It's been a nightmare season for the Huskies, with injuries, suspensions and tough losses turning a promising season into a horror story.

Graveyard: Read the last rites for: Cincinnati's 13-game Big East winning streak; Syracuse's eight-year drought against West Virginia; UConn's Big East title chances; the Big East's Top 25 residency; Dion Lewis's Heisman and repeat Big East player of the year hopes; West Virginia's dominant run attack; South Florida's October weeknight road flops.

Thriller: The best and most exciting player in the Big East this season hasn't been Dion Lewis or Noel Devine. It's Louisville's Bilal Powell, who runs like there are ghouls and goblins chasing him and who attacks linebackers like a zombie hunter.

Jack-O-Lantern: If the light ever goes on for the Rutgers offense -- that is, if the line can protect the quarterback, the running game takes off and the young receivers mature -- the Scarlet Knights could be dangerous because of their already strong defense and special teams.

Twilight Zone: South Florida fans had to feel like they were trapped in some hellish cosmic time warp when quarterback B.J. Daniels kept making costly mistakes in losses to Florida, Syracuse and West Virginia. Daniels finally busted through his own shackles last week at Cincinnati, and the Bulls hope that's the end of the episode.

Costumes: And finally some suggested costumes this year for Big East personalities:
  • Charlie Strong: Dr. Frankenstein. He's stitched together some leftover parts and made Louisville come alive.
  • Doug Marrone: Lazarus. He has helped raise Syracuse from the dead.
  • Rutgers' offensive linemen: Swiss Cheese. With a nation's worst 33 sacks allowed, this group has plenty of holes.
  • Skip Holtz: The Joker. The South Florida coach always has a smile and is quick with the one-liners, but don't underestimate his killer instinct.
  • John Marinatto: Houdini. The Big East commish and his league have escaped conference realignment unharmed. For now (to be continued ...)

Pittsburgh recruiting analysis

February, 4, 2010
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Analyzing the 2010 Big East signing classes ...

Pittsburgh

View class here.

Signees: 24

Heavy on: Defensive backs (six)

Geographic trend: Pitt has, surprisingly, no players from Florida. But the Panthers landed four from Ohio after getting none from that state last year. And it opened up a route to powerhouse DeMatha Catholic in Maryland, with two prospects from there signing on.

Headliners: QB Anthony Gonzalez (four stars), DT Aaron Donald (four stars), DE T.J. Clemmings (three stars).

Sleeper: QB Mark Myers is only rated a two-star prospect by Scouts Inc. But he's tall (6-foot-4), played for a top program in Cleveland's St. Ignatius High School and is a pro-style passer who could fit Dave Wannstedt's system well.

Best potential for immediate impact: Cornerback Saheed Imoru is a junior college transfer who enrolled early and may earn an immediate starting job.

Needs met: Pitt had a pressing need at cornerback, and the numbers tell you that Wannstedt aggressively attacked it. The Panthers also had to restock the defensive line, and Clemmings and Donald should help in that regard.

Analysis: This is as strong a class as there is in the Big East, full of potential impact players who also fit into Wannstedt's style of play. The fact that Pitt was able to wrap up this class extremely early and hold off late challengers is even more impressive. Wannstedt is turning Pitt into a program that just keeps churning out talent.

What Wannstedt said: "I think it's our deepest class. ... The key for us is to make sure we continue to uncover the Dion Lewises, the Andrew Taglianettis, the Greg Romeuses and the Mike Shanahans. ... Nine of our players played on state championship teams last year ..."

Scouts Inc. grade: B-minus.

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