NCF Nation: Pat Bostick
As a placekicker, Justin Tucker abides by the philosophy of focusing on the action and not the consequence. On Thanksgiving Night 2011 in College Station, Texas, as he lined up with a one-point deficit and just three seconds left in the Texas-Texas A&M rivalry as all knew it, Tucker couldn't help but betray that creed.
"I can tell you in that particular situation it was very difficult to put those emotions into the back of my mind and just focus on the task at hand," said Tucker, now with the Ravens. "But we were able to do it, and I'll tell you what: That place shut up real quick; 88,000 people -- you could probably hear a pin drop in there."
This is the lasting memory of one of several college football rivalries that has gone by the wayside in the era of realignment. This is, on a smaller scale, the opportunity that awaits Michigan and Notre Dame on Saturday night in their final scheduled meeting.
Just ask those from other dormant rivalries, Pittsburgh-West Virginia among them.
"When I think back of all the frustrating losses of my career, and we had a few, that's the worst by far," former Panthers defensive tackle Chas Alecxih said of the 2011 finale of the Backyard Brawl.
Pitt entered Morgantown looking to upset the eventual Orange Bowl champs. The Panthers were ACC-bound in two years; the Mountaineers Big 12-bound the next fall. Todd Graham, in his lone year coaching Pitt, relayed how he'd been told he could lose 11 games in a year so long as he beat WVU. Former players talked to the team about how important it would be to end the series on top.
A 13-point Pitt lead eventually gave way to a 21-20 defeat, punctuated by a Tino Sunseri fumble on the last play.
"I just remember as the clock ran out I just fell on my face, I just hit the ground for about 30 seconds, man," Alecxih said. "I just remember that agony, and just knowing that that was going to be the last game, and we were always going to say we lost the last Backyard Brawl."
All this from a player and program that, four years earlier, had been part of an upset that changed the college football landscape.
WVU was a four-touchdown favorite and a win away from a BCS title-game berth when the three-win Panthers visited to close 2007.
"It was just so gloomy, and all I really remember is just getting whacked with beer cans," then-freshman quarterback Pat Bostick said of the bus ride in. "I go, 'OK, this is everything people say it's going to be.' There weren't necessarily batteries being thrown or nickels or dimes being thrown, but there were certainly some obscenities."
Bostick threw a wrench into the Mountaineers' plans, orchestrating a 13-9 win that knocked WVU out of title contention. Coach Rich Rodriguez bolted for Michigan less than three weeks later.
For the entirety of the hour-plus ride home, Bostick and his teammates sang "Take Me Home, Country Roads," the official song of the state they were departing.
"To be honest with you, I don't know if I can count on one hand how many people I actually saw after the game," Bostick said. "It was like the place died. It was just a ghost town after. I don't know where they all went, how fast they (left), but they got out of their quick."
Bostick was at the 2011 finale in his current role as the team's radio analyst, and he joked he wasn't sure he'd make it down to the locker room alive in his Pitt polo.
The intensity was considerably less hostile the last time Missouri and Kansas faced off, a 24-10 Tigers win in 2011. Part of that can be attributed to the neutral-site atmosphere at Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium, where the game was played from 2007-11. Part of that can also be attributed to the overall apathy of Kansas fans, former Missouri receiver TJ Moe said.
"They were so horrible in those days," Moe said. "We were trying to get a win and move along there. We certainly didn't like those guys, but they came in so defeated after losing nine games before they even got to us that it really wasn't that bad."
An O'Fallon, Mo., native who grew up on the Border War, Moe said it still remains a point of pride that he went 3-0 against the Jayhawks during his career. He finds it hard to believe the game is no longer played after the Tigers moved to the SEC. From his perch, the ball is in Kansas' court.
"We just want to play you guys because the rivalry is fun, so if you don't want to play, fine, we'll get somebody else," Moe said. "It's a rivalry that's a big deal to fans on both sides. Everybody at Kansas is saying, 'You guys left us. You screwed us. We're not playing you anymore.' Which is fine."
Michigan-Notre Dame lacks the longevity of the others, as it has been played just 41 times, thanks to several interruptions. The Backyard Brawl was played 104 times, the Border War was played 120 times and Texas-Texas A&M was played 118 times before the Aggies' SEC move.
Realignment might have other ideas, but everyone interviewed for this story expressed hope his rivalry would return.
"What is truly lost at its core is a great football matchup between two -- I won't say two 'great' teams -- I'll say one great team and their little brother," Tucker said, laughing.
For now, he has his forever moment in rivalry lore, and that could be at-stake again this weekend should the Michigan-Notre Dame matchup resemble those of recent past.
"The fact that we got to end it with a bang, the Texas Longhorns got to put the dagger in that 118-year rivalry," Tucker said, "that's a great feeling."
3. UConn's rush to victory: Notice I called Vanderbilt an SEC defense in the last item, and technically that's true. But the Commodores rank 105th in the FBS in rushing defense, allowing 206 yards per game. We don't know yet if Jordan Todman will play after missing last week's game with an arm injury. But clearly there should be some running room for a team that loves to move the ball on the ground.
4. Macho Man Savage?: Rutgers quarterback Tom Savage is dealing with bruised ribs, and if you ever experienced an injury there, you know how painful that can be. It remains to be seen whether Savage, who has gotten off to a rough start while healthy, will play or be able to be effective against Tulane. If he can't go, then true freshman Chas Dodd may be forced into action, or Mohamed Sanu will see a whole lot of Wildcat time. That could make an already scuffling Rutgers offense even more sketchy.
5. Pitt's new-look line: Pittsburgh shook things up this week with its offensive line, moving tackle Lucas Nix inside and installing Jordan Gibbs at right tackle. The Panthers are desperately trying to get the line right and open up room for their running game, which is key to everything they want to do. The reshaped line gets its first challenge against Florida International, which gave Rutgers all it could handle in Week 2. FIU likes to blitz from different angles and has Florida athletes, so this will be a good litmus test for Pitt's makeover.
6. Sunseri in the spotlight: Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri did not look good against Miami, and when reserve Pat Bostick came in during the fourth quarter some fans were ready to make the change permanent. Dave Wannstedt isn't ready to make a switch and still believes in Sunseri. But clearly, the first-year starter needs to get on track, because the Panthers don't have much room for error. And they have a veteran in Bostick waiting in the wings.
7. Bulls on the run or in the air?: South Florida escaped Western Kentucky last week by running the ball almost exclusively. Now the Bulls play a Florida Atlantic team that ranks last in the country in rushing defense. So expect some more of the power I-formation look, and potentially a big day for Demetris Murray and Mo Plancher. At the same time, however, receivers Dontavia Bogan and Sterling Griffin could be back from injury, and both could use some work before next week's Big East opener against Syracuse. So USF needs to air it out a bit, too.
8. New Cardinals catchers: Louisville has suffered all kinds of injuries at the receiver position, the latest knocking out leading pass catcher Doug Beaumont. The Cardinals need to find people to make plays in the passing game this week at Arkansas State, and they could look to junior college transfer Josh Bellamy, sophomore Andrell Smith or freshmen Kai Dominguez and Jarrett Davis. None have much experience, and Louisville will likely need to get plays out of them against a Red Wolves team that's averaging 28 points per game.
If the Panthers are the best the Big East has to offer, well, the league may be even worse than anybody feared. Pitt was simply atrocious offensively and in other areas in a 31-3 beatdown at home to Miami. Dave Wannstedt's team falls to 1-2 and looks like a program in crisis mode at this point.
Just a quick rundown of Pitt's main problems right now:
- An offensive line that can't keep defenses from charging up the middle;
- A wildly disappointing campaign from Dion Lewis (12 carries for 41 yards on Thursday night). Ray Graham outperformed his backfield mate for the second straight game;
- An injured Greg Romeus;
- An injured Dan Mason, as the middle linebacker suffered a gruesome-looking leg injury in the third quarter. He's got a dislocated kneecap and is likely gone for the year;
- Lack of discipline both on (penalties -- unofficially nine on Thursday) and off (arrests -- officially four since the summer) the field;
- A young quarterback whose confidence might have been shaken. Tino Sunseri looked like he got happy feet under the heavy pressure by the Miami defense, and Pat Bostick relieved him midway through the fourth quarter.
Look, Miami could be really good, and better defensively than any team left on the schedule. There's a lot of season left. But Pitt needs to fix its problems, and fast.
A FIU team that gave Rutgers and Texas A&M fits comes to Heinz Field next week, and then comes a trip to Notre Dame. If the Panthers play like they did Thursday, they could easily have three losses heading into Big East play. And that means that even a 5-2 record in league action -- which last year's 10-win team produced -- would equal a 7-5 record. Or it could be worse.
It's a vastly disappointing season for the team that was the overwhelming preseason conference favorite. Wannstedt tried to warn us that this team had issues, but most of us saw that as merely a coach downplaying expectations. It looks like Wannstedt knew something after all.
Pitt fans better hope he knows how to cure these ills.
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."
Well, it's only spring practice, but at least there will be some actual gridiron action to talk about starting next week in the Big East. Four league teams -- UConn, South Florida, Cincinnati and Pitt -- all begin spring drills next week. I'll be following all of the developments and hitting the road to see as many teams as I can in person.
1. Whither B.J. and Geno? South Florida and West Virginia fans anxiously await the status of their sophomore quarterbacks. B.J. Daniels will go through only limited drills after offseason shoulder surgery, while Geno Smith's availability after a January foot injury is questionable. Neither team has any depth at the position, and both quarterbacks need as much seasoning as possible to make 2010 a success. Just how much will each do this spring?
2. Who'll catch on at UConn and Rutgers? We were asking the same question at this time last year, wondering who would emerge at receiver for both the Huskies and Scarlet Knights. The answers came in the form of Marcus Easley (Huskies) and Mohamed Sanu (Scarlet Knights), who both came out of seemingly nowhere to make big spring impressions that led to great 2009 seasons. Both teams are back in the same boat this year, with Easley having graduated and Sanu needing some help like Tim Brown did a year ago. Each team has several young candidates who should be more mature and wiser than in the spring of '09. Each is looking for a spring success story like Easley and Sanu.
3. Who will lead Pitt and Louisville? The Pittsburgh quarterback battle might be the most interesting and most important competition of the spring, seeing as how the Panthers are potential Big East favorites. Dave Wannstedt has said he'd like to have a starter named between Tino Sunseri and Pat Bostick going into the summer. Louisville has a free-for-all competition with Adam Froman, Justin Burke and Will Stein all having started games a year ago, and whoever emerges from the field might have to go and win the job again in the fall against a newcomer.
4. What do the offenses at Cincinnati and Syracuse look like? New Bearcats coach Butch Jones runs a similar offense to predecessor Brian Kelly, preferring a high-tempo, no-huddle spread. Still, he will bring subtle differences, and with Zach Collaros under center you can count on more quarterback runs. The chemistry between Collaros and highly touted USC transfer Vidal Hazelton will also be something to watch. At Syracuse, head coach Doug Marrone takes over the offense as his own coordinator. Will the Orange run a lot of motion and misdirection stuff like they did in an upset of Rutgers near the end of the year, when some suggested Marrone was calling the shots? And which receivers will step up to help Ryan Nassib and the passing game?
5. Who are the new stars? By April of last year, the buzz was high on guys like Dion Lewis, Sanu and Easley, who ended up having great falls. Who will be the spring sensations and breakout names of this spring?
Those are my biggest questions, and I'd like to hear what pressing questions you have for your teams this spring. Fortunately, we'll all start getting some answers next week.
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.
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.
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.
Jones wondered how the team would respond to such a demand from the new guy in town. After all, the Bearcats have won the last two Big East titles. Maybe they felt they were too good for this kind of punishment.
"I almost had to slow them down because of their competitive nature," Jones said. "Right then and there, I got excited because it showed me the type of individuals we're working with here."
There figure to be a lot of those discovery type moments in the Big East this spring. Three of the eight league teams -- or 37.5 percent for you math geeks -- changed coaches in the offseason. If you include Syracuse, half the conference teams have hired new staffs since before the 2009 season. So there's a general sense of change and perhaps a shifting of the power structure in the Big East.
"I certainly hope that's the case," new South Florida coach Skip Holtz said. "The only unfortunate part is I'm one of the transition guys. It might go a little better for me in a couple more years when I've had a little stability here and a chance to put it all together."
The key question is whether Cincinnati -- which has won its past 12 conference games -- can continue its domination after losing three-time Big East coach of the year Brian Kelly to Notre Dame. While Jones insists "I don't think we'll take a step back," history shows that programs find it difficult to maintain a championship level immediately after a coaching change.
That may mean a team like Pittsburgh, which could have won the Big East the past two years if it had beaten the Bearcats head-to-head, might be ready to step into the vacuum of power. Pitt returns the league's offensive player of the year in Dion Lewis and the co-defensive player of the year in defensive end Greg Romeus, plus star receiver Jonathan Baldwin and a wealth of other talent. But the Panthers will have to settle on a quarterback to replace Bill Stull between Tino Sunseri and Pat Bostick this spring.
Or perhaps West Virginia will reclaim its place atop the league. The Mountaineers have the fewest question marks of any league team this spring with 18 returning starters, though they'll need sophomore quarterback Geno Smith to shorten his learning curve.
Don't forget about UConn, which ended the 2009 season playing as well as anyone in the Big East and has 17 starters back. Randy Edsall's team looks poised to make a run at its first BCS bid with a few improvements on defense.
While several coaches are new, plenty of familiar faces will be back this spring. The league returns four 1,000-yard rushers -- Lewis, West Virginia's Noel Devine, UConn's Jordan Todman and Syracuse's Delone Carter. Young quarterbacks like South Florida's B.J. Daniels, Rutgers' Tom Savage and Cincinnati's Zach Collaros established themselves last season and look to build upon their early success. In all, 22 players who were named either the first- or second-team All-Big East are back on campus this spring, a far cry from 2009 when the league lost a plethora of stars to the NFL.
Every team has some reason for optimism this spring, even recent cellar dwellers Syracuse -- in Doug Marrone's second season -- and Louisville, which is excited about new coach Charlie Strong's arrival.
"The Big East doesn't have just one team carrying the torch," Holtz said. "I think there are eight really good football teams, and over a three-year period, probably anybody in this league is capable of winning it."
The question that will begin to be answered this spring is how quickly the new guys in town can get their programs up and running.
Here's a look at how the league quarterback situations stand heading into next season, from most to least experienced presumed starters:
1. Tom Savage, Rutgers. Career starts: 11. Yes, it's hard to believe, but a guy who was a true freshman in 2009 enters the season as the most experienced quarterback in the league, at least in terms of starts. Savage has a solid year, especially considering his youth, and is a strong candidate to make The Leap this year.
2. B.J. Daniels, South Florida. Career starts: 10. Another freshman last year (though he was a redshirt frosh) who took over early and gained lots of valuable experience. Daniels still has a lot to learn, especially with a new coaching staff, and his development may be slowed in the spring because of his shoulder injury.
3. Zach Frazer, Connecticut. Career starts: 9. Frazer might actually be considered the graybeard of the Big East quarterbacks, since he's a senior who transferred from Notre Dame, started a couple of games in 2008 and spent the bulk of last season as the main guy. He'll have to fend off Cody Endres in the spring and needs to improve his accuracy while limiting his turnovers. But he played well down the stretch and could be in store for a big campaign.
4. Adam Froman, Louisville. Career starts: 7. Froman is a senior after coming over last year from junior college, but who knows if he'll win or keep the job for the Cardinals this season. Louisville also has Justin Burke and Will Stein, who combined to start five games in '09.
5. Zach Collaros, Cincinnati. Career starts: 4. Collaros started less than half the season as a sophomore but was incredibly impressive during that stint, completing 75 percent of his passes, throwing 10 touchdowns against only two interceptions and running for 344 yards and four scores. He also performed at that level while leading an undefeated team. The concerns would be that he's entering a new system and that many of his stats came against weak passing defenses (Syracuse, UConn, Louisville). Still, Butch Jones runs a very quarterback-friendly offense, and Collaros looks like a bona fide star.
T-6. Ryan Nassib, Syracuse. Career starts: 0. Nassib was named the starter in the spring but took a backseat to Greg Paulus in 2009. Yet he appeared in 10 games and was virtually splitting time with Paulus late in the year. Don't put it past Doug Marrone to make some unconventional choices, though, as he showed last year with Paulus.
T-6. Geno Smith, West Virginia. Career starts: 0. Smith hasn't started, but he played basically the entire game for an injured Jarrett Brown in the win over Marshall and finished the second half in the Gator Bowl. He looked extremely poised as a true freshman and should be very good if he can stay healthy. There's no experienced depth behind him.
T-6. Tino Sunseri, Pittsburgh. Career starts: 0. I'm working under the assumption that Sunseri beats out Pat Bostick, who has nine career starts under his belt. Sunseri hasn't played much but has been impressive in practice. Given the work offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. did with Bill Stull last year and the fact that he has a good O-line, Dion Lewis and Jonathan Baldwin to work with, Sunseri figures to be just fine.
So the question I pose to you is this: How confident do you feel in your team's quarterback situation, and how would you rate these presumed starters going into 2010?
- Pittsburgh quarterback: Pitt may well be the preseason Big East favorite, but the Panthers have to figure out their quarterback situation first. Sophomore Tino Sunseri came close to winning the job in a heated three-way battle last year and settled in as Bill Stull's backup. Pat Bostick, however, has improved his mechanics and has won big games in the past. This should be a good competition that might not be settled until the fall.
- Louisville quarterback: Three players -- Justin Burke, Adam Froman and Will Stein -- all started games under center for the Cardinals, and none of the trio distinguished himself as heads and shoulders above the rest. Whoever wins the job in the spring might not necessarily be the guy in the fall, as new coach Charlie Strong is bringing in some promising freshmen quarterbacks as well.
- South Florida running back: Skip Holtz has suggested he'd like to have a real No. 1 tailback, something the Bulls haven't had in a long time. Mike Ford had a huge game against Northern Illinois in the International Bowl and may finally be ready to assume that go-to-guy role as a senior. Sophomore Lindsey Lamar will push for the job, as well as possibly Jamar Taylor and several newcomers.
- Rutgers receiver and cornerback: Like last year, the Scarlet Knights go into the spring with one proven wideout (this time, Mohamed Sanu) and a bunch of question marks. It's time that someone from the group including Julian Hayes, Tim Wright, Keith Stroud and Marcus Cooper separate himself. At corner, Rutgers needs a replacement for Devin McCourty. Will a guy like Brandon Bing step forward, or will one of two redshirt freshmen -- Darrell Givens and Logan Ryan -- make a move in the spring?
- Cincinnati's defensive front seven: With a new coaching staff and probably a change back to a 4-3 scheme, the Cincinnati players have basically been told they're back to square one this spring. Add to that fact that both defensive ends and two starting linebackers were seniors this past season, and there are a lot of jobs up for grabs. The constants appear to be defensive tackle Derek Wolfe, linebacker JK Schaffer and Walter Stewart, who could either play linebacker or on the line. After that, it's one big competition.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
Backup quarterbacks are not just the most popular guy on campus -- sometimes they're the most important. Just ask South Florida and UConn, who have each had to go to their No. 2 signal-callers this season already; neither team has lost since the backup has taken over. And in the most famous recent example in the Big East, Tony Pike stepped in for an injured Dustin Grutza last year. The rest, as they say, is history.
So let's take a look at how each team's backup quarterback situation stands right now, with a series of three categories:
Ready to roll
Cincinnati: The Bearcats went through a full deck of quarterbacks last year, and though Pike might be the best player in the league, at least Brian Kelly knows he has replacements at the ready. Zach Collaros would probably get the first call if something happened to Pike, but Chazz Anderson won games under center last year as well.
Pittsburgh: Though Tino Sunseri has barely played, he was in a heated three-way competition throughout the preseason to replace Bill Stull. And if Sunseri wasn't the answer, Pitt could call upon junior Pat Bostick, whose last two starts were wins at West Virginia and at Notre Dame.
Rutgers: Dom Natale was the starter on Labor Day but lost that status by halftime to rookie phenom Tom Savage. Natale stepped in for Savage last week at Maryland and may have to do so again as Savage overcomes a concussion. Natale is a fifth-year senior, but he's merely a game manager at this point; he was just 4-of-12 for 42 yards against Maryland.
Has the hype
South Florida: B.J. Daniels may turn out to be the story of the season in the Big East. As everybody knows by now, the redshirt freshman took over for conference all-time yardage leader Matt Grothe and promptly delivered a victory at Florida State. What if Daniels, who runs the ball a lot, gets banged up? The Bulls would turn to another redshirt frosh: Evan Landi. Jim Leavitt touted Landi just as highly as Daniels all spring and summer. Landi, who has gotten in at receiver this season, would have to prove Leavitt right a second time.
West Virginia: True freshman Geno Smith was one of the Mountaineers' prized recruits of the offseason, and he saw time late at Auburn when Jarrett Brown suffered a bruised shoulder. Smith has worlds of talent, but he's very raw.
Connecticut: Cody Endres has filled in superbly for the injured Zach Frazer and may hold onto the job. If Endres got hurt now, though, the Huskies would have to turn to freshman Mike Box. UConn coaches love his talent, and he might be the future of the program. But right now, he's completely green.
Louisville: Adam Froman might have won the starting job if he hadn't gotten hurt in training camp. Now he's backing up Justin Burke -- and seeing time as a blocker on kicking teams. The junior-college transfer drew praise for his offseason leadership, but he's an unproven commodity at this level.
Syracuse: Ryan Nassib was the designated starter this spring -- until Greg Paulus decided to return to the sport. Nassib has gotten in a few snaps this year and looked pretty sharp, but he's still a redshirt freshman who hasn't been in many pressurized situations.
When the assignment came down to rank the backup quarterbacks in each league, I had an obvious concern. We're not even entirely sure who the starting quarterback will be for five Big East teams come Labor Day weekend.
In order to do this, I'm going to assume the players currently leading the competition for each team will in fact be the starter, and the rankings will reflect the other quarterbacks in the mix. As Cincinnati showed last year, having capable backups can come in quite handy.
2. Pittsburgh: Surprised? Don't be. Pat Bostick was maybe the most improved offensive player the Panthers had this spring, and he's won at West Virginia and at Notre Dame his last two starts. Tino Sunseri is coming on as well. There would be little dropoff if one of these two had to replace Bill Stull. The problem is that none of the three have separated themselves as a big-time starting quarterback.
3. South Florida: It's not fair that the teams with the most settled starting quarterbacks also have two of the top three backup situations. But the way B.J. Daniels and Evan Landi played this spring gave Jim Leavitt confidence in the unlikely event that Matt Grothe actually misses some time.
4. Rutgers: Assuming Dom Natale holds onto the starting job, the Scarlet Knights would have a senior (Jabu Lovelace), a stud true freshman (Tom Savage) and a talented if raw redshirt freshman (D.C. Jefferson) behind him.
5. West Virginia: Coley White made strides this spring, and hotshot recruit Eugene Smith arrives this summer. But the Mountaineers are ranked this low for now because neither has ever played a down in college.
7. Syracuse: The Orange currently have last year's starter, Cam Dantley, backing up Ryan Nassib. And then there's the enigma that is Greg Paulus.
PITTSBURGH -- Some observations from a beautiful spring day spent watching Pitt practice:
• The Panthers turned in a spirited, two-plus hour workout that included lots of 11-on-11 drills. The talent that Dave Wannstedt has assembled through recruiting is obvious, as this is a team chock full of athletes.
The big question mark remains at quarterback, and none of the three contenders had a great day. Part of the blame can be placed on a blustery wind that made long throws an adventure, but the quarterbacks struggled to complete passes even in skeleton drills. Bill Stull got the first-team snaps, with Pat Bostick on the second team and Tino Sunseri running the threes. Sunseri is the best athlete, but he's smaller in person than I expected. He's listed at 6-foot-2 but looks a good couple of inches shorter than Stull and Bostick, who are each listed at 6-3.
• Interesting developments on the offensive line. Alex Karabin, a junior walk-on who played primarily on the kicking unit last year, took the first-team reps at center. Robb Houser started there the first seven games of 2008 before breaking his ankle. Houser was playing on the second team. Sophomore Chris Jacobsen got a lot of run today with the first-string as well.
• Wannstedt told me earlier in the day that he was preparing to use a committee approach at running back this year. But true freshman Dion Lewis, who enrolled in January, got most of the looks with the first team and could very well end up as the starter there. He's explosive and made some nice plays in the passing game. The run of the day, though, came from Shariff Harris, who dashed up the middle almost untouched for a 45-yard touchdown.
• Greg Cross has been moved to receiver and had a long touchdown catch on a busted coverage. The Panthers are deep at wideout, even with T.J. Porter currently suspended. Aundre Wright is lightning quick.
• Watching Aaron Berry and Jonathan Baldwin match up was a lot of fun. Each has a chance to be the best in the Big East at his position this fall.
• Defensive end Greg Romeus isn't going through contact drills right now because of a back problem, and after practice defensive coordinator Phil Bennett was busting his chops for missing so much practice time. "You might end up as a three technique," Bennett joked.
• Basketball coach Jamie Dixon watched practice from the sidelines, less than a week after his team's heartbreaking, last-second loss to Villanova in the Elite Eight.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
Fear not, Big East football fans. In less than a month, South Florida will be back on the practice field, with the rest of the league teams starting their spring drills shortly afterward.
There will be no shortage of situations to follow during the spring. There's a new head coach at Syracuse, new coordinators almost everywhere and no fewer than five teams seeking a new quarterback.
We've got all the story lines covered here in our team-by-team spring primer:
Spring practice starts: March 31
Spring game: April 25
What to watch:
• Defense, defense, defense. Safety Aaron Webster is the only returning defensive starter from 2008, so this spring will be about finding out who's ready to step into bigger roles. Several backups have experience, including linebacker Andre Revels and defensive end Curtis Young. But all jobs should be open. And with this week's firing of defensive coordinator Joe Tresey, the Bearcats could be working under a new scheme.
• Cincinnati brings back quarterback Tony Pike, receiver Mardy Gilyard and its top two rushers in Jacob Ramsey and John Goebel. But the spring will be time to find new playmakers as well. Isaiah Pead averaged 6.6 yards a carry in limited duty as a freshman and should see his role increase. The bubble wrap will come off promising redshirt freshman Quentin Hines. Receiver D.J. Woods had a solid freshman season and will need to build upon that to help replace Dominick Goodman.
• You don't normally pay much attention to punters in spring practice, but this is an exception. The Bearcats have to find a suitable replacement for two time All-American Kevin Huber.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
Three links today, all quarterback related:
• Pitt quarterback Kevan Smith has left the team and will instead play baseball for the Panthers. The sophomore, who played five games in 2007, was fourth on the depth chart behind Bill Stull, Pat Bostick and Tino Sunseri and had been asked to switch to another position this spring.
"I think my opportunity with football is dead right now, unless there is some kind of miracle," Smith told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Kevin Gorman.
• Former Miami quarterback Robert Marve is strongly considering four schools, including South Florida, Brett McMurphy reports in the Tampa Tribune. But Marve likely won't make a decision on where to transfer until after signing day.
|AP Photo/LM Otero|
|Pittsburgh quarterback Bill Stull is sacked by Oregon State's Casey Noack (50) and Victor Butler (90) during the first half of the Sun Bowl. Stull was sacked six times in the loss.|
Pittsburgh had hoped to use the Brut Sun Bowl as a springboard into big things next year, possibly even a preseason top 10 ranking.
What the Panthers ought to do now is find every available tape of the game and burn it, then hope no one remembers what happened.
In what has to be hands-down the worst bowl game of the year, Pitt lost 3-0 to Oregon State. Instead of building momentum, all Dave Wannstedt's team did was raise more doubts among fans whether this program can take the next step. Here's the answer: Without better quarterback play, it can't.
It's not fair to pin all the blame on quarterback Bill Stull. He was running for his life most plays, got knocked down a ton and even hurt his wrist. The biggest factor was that Pitt played without left tackle Jason Pinkston, who had a shoulder injury. Oregon State's defensive line absolutely decimated the Pittsburgh offensive front, which had been a strength of the team most of the season.Then there was a snapping wind that made throwing long patterns difficult, if not impossible, for both teams.
Still, Stull had been very shaky down the stretch this season, and he didn't have a strong enough arm to combat the wind. Why offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh didn't call more short passes or over-the-middle routes is a mystery to me. The long fades to Jonathan Baldwin had no chance of working.
The ugly numbers: Stull was 7-of-24 for 54 yards and an interception before Pat Bostick played the final four minutes. With no passing game, the Beavers loaded up against LeSean McCoy, who finished with 83 yards on 23 carries.
Pitt's only chance to score came on a late fourth-quarter field goal try by Connor Lee from 58 yards. Oregon State's score came on a 44-yarder late in the first half. Bostick was sacked near midfield to end the game.
On the plus side, Pittsburgh's defense played great and lived up to Rashaad Duncan's pregame boasts. But it had no help whatsoever.
Wannstedt can only hope recruits didn't see this game. Of course, not too many could have wanted to watch it from start to finish.There goes the Big East's 3-0 record. The Pac-10 is now 4-0.