March 21, 2006

Big East still looking a little top-heavy

The top-heavy conference hasn't quite shed the Big Least label, but it's on its way.

West Virginia returns QB Pat White, RB Steve Slaton and two all-conference offensive linemen. Louisville returns the conference's leading passer (Brian Brohm), rusher (Michael Bush) and receiver (Mario Urrutia), but looks to replace Nagurski winner Elvis Dumervil. The Mountaineers and Cardinals are the class of the conference, but other teams in the league have reason for optimism heading into spring practice.

Rutgers returned to postseason play for the first time since 1978, but lost 45-40 to Arizona State in the Insight Bowl. South Florida appeared in its first bowl game in school history, even though it was a 14-0 loss to N.C. State. It looks like Pittsburgh could rebound after a 5-6 season.

As spring football begins, here's a Big East breakdown:

Breakout Performers | Impact Newcomers | Position Battles | New Schemes | Best by Position

Big East Projected Standings 2005 Record
1. West Virginia 11-1, 7-0
The Mountaineers were the only Big East team to end the 2005 season with a victory. Rich Rodriguez's group did it in style, with Pat White and Steve Slaton accounting for 401 total yards in a 38-35 Sugar Bowl win over Georgia.
2. Louisville 9-3, 5-2
Turning down the Oakland Raiders head coaching job for the third time, Bobby Petrino will start his fourth season in Louisville. Quarterback Brian Brohm is hopeful to participate in spring drills after recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
3. Pitt 5-6, 4-3
The Panthers stumbled to 1-4 start but won four of the last six in Dave Wannstedt's first year. Wannstedt's recruiting classes both were ranked in the top 30 nationally will help the Panthers rebound.
4. Rutgers 7-5, 4-3
The Scarlet Knights are coming of their first bowl appearance in 27 years but lose the school's all-time passing leader Ryan Hart, all-time leading receiver Tres Moses and defensive end Ryan Neill.
5. South Florida 6-6, 4-3
The program is on the upswing following its first bowl appearance, but the Bulls must replace Andre Hall - their career rushing leader.
6. Connecticut 5-6, 2-5
Injury problems and inexperience caused the Huskies to stumble to a tie for sixth place in the Big East, but Connecticut enters spring practice with 16 returning starters.
7. Cincinnati 4-7, 2-5
The Bearcats ended the season on a 1-4 skid. Their wins came against Eastern Michigan, Western Carolina, Connecticut and Syracuse.
8. Syracuse 1-10, 0-7
Greg Robinson's two recruiting classes and promising young defensive players give the Orange hope despite having the school's worst season in 110 years.

Five players who will emerge this season
1. Rashaad Duncan, So., DT, Pittsburgh: An understudy to senior tackles Phil Tillman and Thomas Smith, the Floridian will need to break out to revive the Panthers' dismal rush defense.
2. Amarri Jackson, Jr., WR, South Florida: Jackson accounted for 149 yards and three touchdowns in the upset of Louisville, but didn't do much else. Stability at quarterback could help the 6-foot-5 receiver contribute consistently.
3. Corey Smith, So., LB, Cincinnati: An All-Big East second-teamer, Smith became a starter as a freshman and led the Bearcats in tackles before missing the final two games with an injury.
4. Scott Long and Trent Guy, Fr., WRs, Louisville: Long and Guy were two of the fastest receivers in Bobby Petrino's speedy 2005 signing class. With two (Joshua Tinch and Montrell Jones) of the top three receivers gone, the 6-foot-2 Long and 5-foot-9 Guy will take their place in the high-powered passing game.
5. Jamaal Westerman, So., DE, Rutgers: Seniors Ryan Neill and Val Barnaby combined for 20 sacks last year, but Westerman was next in the defensive end rotation last year. He had four sacks as a redshirt freshman and is the most experienced returning defensive end.

Five Impact Newcomers
1. Deantwan Whitehead, Fr., DE, Louisville: The No. 4 high school defensive end in the country last season, Whitehead's decision to go to Louisville was a stunner. The Birmingham, Ala., native could step in for senior starters Elvis Dumervil or Chad Rimpsey.
2. Dorin Dickerson, Fr., ATH, Pittsburgh: With wide receiver Greg Lee and running back Rashad Jennings gone, the Panthers' top recruit in 2006 will have an opportunity for touches in his first year.
3. Franchot Allen and Ryan Brinson, Fr., DBs, West Virginia: The pair spent last season in prep school and will take a crack at replacing four senior defensive backs, including All-Big East first-team safety Mike Lorello.
4. Jarvis Hicks, Fr., LB, Connecticut: Hicks, one of the Huskies' top recruits in 2006, will have a shot to replace departed All-Big East outside linebacker James Hargrave.
5. Lavar Lobdell, Fr., WR, Syracuse: The Orange hoped Lobdell would be a much-needed deep threat last year, but a shoulder injury ended his season in September. Now he will have a second chance to jumpstart an offense that caught only six touchdown passes in 2005.

Position Battles to Watch
Cincinnati: Defensive end. Trevor Anderson started eight games as a freshman alongside team MVP Adam Roberts. With Roberts gone, the Bearcats will look to replace him with senior Tony Carvitti, junior Anthony Hoke or sophomore Lamonte Nelms.
Connecticut: Quarterback. Matt Bonislawski is on track to return to the starting role after an injured collarbone limited him to seven games. However, backups D.J. Hernandez and Dennis Brown each started for two games with mixed results. Billy Cundiff will also be in the mix after redshirting last year.
Louisville: Offensive tackle. The Cardinals lost two-time all-conference left tackle Travis Leffew and right tackle Jeremy Darveau. Last year's backups - Renardo Foster and Marcel Benson are now seniors. Marcus Gordon, a junior college transfer in 2005, and true freshmen Conrad Thomas and Jeffery Adams, are in the mix.
Pittsburgh: Running back. Injuries to Raymond Kirkley and Rashad Jennings necessitated a running back-by-committee last season. True freshman LaRod Stephens ended up as the leading rusher with 434 yards. Stephens will have competition from redshirt freshman Shane Brooks and freshman Kevin Collier, who was a four-star recruit. No returning running back has a rushing touchdown.
Rutgers: Wide receiver. Senior Shawn Tucker will take one position. He had 32 catches for 484 yards in 2005 after recovering from a groin injury in 2004. The other starter will have to step in for the school's all-time leading receiver, Tres Moses. Willie Foster and Marcus Daniels were behind Tucker on the depth chart last year but combined to catch only 13 passes. New quarterback Mike Teel will have big targets in 6-foot-4 receiver Kenny Britt and 6-foot-3 receiver Shamar Graves if both play as freshmen.
South Florida: Running back. South Florida will try to replace Andre Hall, the school's all-time leading rusher and the top running back in the Big East last year. Backup Ricky Ponton is poised to take his place after rushing for 373 yards on 92 carries last season. Redshirt freshman Moise Plancher was impressive during practice last year and will challenge for the job. The Bulls named sophomore Carlton Hill - Jim Leavitt's top offensive recruit in his tenure at South Florida - the starting quarterback for spring practice. Hill was given the spot ahead of Pat Julmiste, who was the starter last season.
Syracuse: Quarterback. Syracuse's poor offense (114th in the country with 13.8 points per game) can be traced to the quarterback. Starter Perry Patterson completed only 47.6 percent of his passes. He threw 11 interceptions and had six touchdown passes. Joe Fields, given a chance to unseat Patterson, was worse. Fields completed 9-of-28 passes with three interceptions on the season. Quarterback Andrew Robinson, a three-star recruit from Baltimore, Md., will be on campus in the fall.
West Virginia: Secondary. The Mountaineers lost three starters at defensive back: All-Big East first-team safeties Mike Lorello and Jahmile Addae and all-conference second-team cornerback Anthony Mims. Ridwan Malik, Akeem Jackson and Abraham Jones, reserves last season as juniors, and sophomore Charles Pugh and redshirt freshman are in the mix at safety. Juniors Larry Williams, Pernell Williams and redshirt freshman Kent Richardson will vie to start opposite cornerback Antonio Lewis.

Teams with New Schemes
Syracuse offense: Brian White replaced Brian Pariani as offensive coordinator and Phil Earley replaced Major Applewhite as quarterbacks coach with hopes of repairing the Orange's inept offense. White, a former Wisconsin offensive coordinator, and Earley, a former Auburn quarterbacks coach, both bring experience to the job. The West Coast offense is likely to stay even though quarterback Perry Patterson struggled in it.
Connecticut offense: Norries Wilson left his post as offensive coordinator to take the head coaching job at Columbia. The Huskies promoted from within, elevating quarterbacks coach Rob Ambrose. Other than a few tweaks, Ambrose and Coach Randy Edsall expect the offense to remain the same.
South Florida offense and defense: The Bulls are replacing last year's starting quarterback Pat Julmiste with Carlton Hill, the best offensive recruit during Jim Leavitt's tenure in Tampa. Both are dual-threat quarterbacks, but the Bulls hope Hill will be able to elevate the Big East's second-to-last passing attack. That will also take the pressure off the replacement for 1,374-yard rusher Andre Hall. South Florida also has the task of replacing two members of Leavitt's original coaching staff: co-defensive coordinator Rick Kravitz, who left for N.C. State, and defensive line coach Earl Lane, who left for LSU.

Best of the Big East by Position
1. Pat White, West Virginia
2. Brian Brohm, Louisville
3. Tyler Palko, Pittsburgh
4. Dustin Grutza, Cincinnati
5. Matt Bonislawski, Connecticut
Running back
1. Michael Bush, Louisville
2. Steve Slaton, West Virginia
3. Brian Leonard, Rutgers
4. Raymell Rice, Rutgers
5. Terry Caulley, Connecticut
1. Mario Urrutia, Louisville
2. Brandon Myles, West Virginia
3. Harry Douglas, Louisville
4. Derek Kinder, Pittsburgh
5. Amarri Jackson, South Florida
Offensive line
1. Dan Mozes, West Virginia
2. Theodric Watson, South Florida
3. Jeremy Sheffey, West Virginia
4. Eric Wood, Louisville
5. Ryan Stanchek, West Virginia
Tight End
1. Clark Harris, Rutgers
2. Brent Celek, Cincinnati
3. Dan Murray, Connecticut
4. Gary Barnidge, Louisville
5. Steve Buches, Pittsburgh
Defensive line
1. Rhema Fuller, Connecticut
2. Ramel Meekins, Rutgers
3. Keilen Dykes, West Virginia
4. Terrill Byrd, Cincinnati
5. Chris McKillop, Pittsburgh
1. H.B. Blades, Pittsburgh
2. Kevin McLee, West Virginia
3. Stephen Nicholas, South Florida
4. Nate Harris, Louisville
5. Ben Moffitt, South Florida
Defensive back
1. Darrelle Revis, Pittsburgh
2. Mike Mickens, Cincinnati
3. Darius Butler, Connecticut
4. Courtney Greene, Rutgers
5. Eric Wicks, West Virginia
1. Arthur Carmody, Louisville
2. Jeremy Ito, Rutgers
3. Pat McAfee, West Virginia
4. Kyle Bronson, South Florida
5. David Abdul, Pittsburgh
1. Adam Graessle, Pittsburgh
2. Brendan Carney, Syracuse
3. Todd Flannery, Louisville
4. Joe Radigan, Rutgers
(Only 4 returning)

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