As the Pittsburgh Panthers enter the Dave Wannstedt era they will do so by scraping the West Coast offense, the team's bread and butter since the arrival of former coach Walt Harris in 1997. Gone will be the confusing formations, pass happy offense and, if Wannstedt and new offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh have their way, the lack of a power running game.
If head coach Dave Wannstedt's first recruiting class at the University of Pittsburgh is any indication, the four runningbacks, Irvan Brown, Shane Brooks, LaRod Stevens and Conredge Collins are a kickstart in the right direction
The 2004 Panther running game was nearly non-existent and never a real threat at any point during the season, ranking next-to-last in the Big East conference, averaging a paltry 97.8 rushing yards per game.
Looks can be deceiving. Though statistics show that Pitt rushed the ball 448 times, only 303 of those carries were by Panther runningbacks. Quarterbacks Tyler Palko and Joe Flacco combined for 135 carries. Those rushing numbers would be quite normal if you're running the option offense where the quarterback is a threat to run on every down, at any given time. Fact is, on most occasions the Panther quarterbacks were running for their safety, or in some cases, their lives, as evidenced by the 40 sacks allowed by the team, the most in the Big East Conference.
QB Tyler Palko
What does this mean? Without a legitimate running game, the Panthers had to rely too heavily on Tyler Palko's ability to escape pressure and improvise on the run, thus opposing defenses could simply pin their ears back and go after him all game long.
Wannstedt wants to take the pressure off Palko's shoulders. This is one of the many reasons he set his sites on former Panther teamate Matt Cavanaugh to lead the Panther offense. By installing a run first gameplan that sets up the pass, opposing defenses will no longer be able to key on only one facet of the Pitt offense, the passing game.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
Raymond Kirkley (Sr.) Despite missing the final two games of the 2004 season with a wrist injury, Kirkley rushed for a team-high 560 yards and six touchdowns, while also catching 23 passes for an additional 178 yards. In 23 career starts Kirkley has rushed for 1,357 yards on 354 carries, an average of 3.8 YPC and 10 TD's.
RB Raymond Kirkley
Running backs coach David Walker said that Kirkley has improved in many areas, especially his inside running, which should serve him well in the new, clock eating Panther offense.
Tim Murphy (Sr.) In 2004 he rushed for 349 yards on 88 carries and lead the Panthers in YPC average (3.8). He scored one rushing TD and also caught 13 balls for 118 yards. Murphy could best be described as the "ultimate team player". It seems that Murphy, a tailback by nature, has been shuffled back and forth between running back and fullback during his entire playing career at Pitt, never really settling into one particular position. This could be Murphy's year to find one position and remain there. No one has ever doubted Murphy’s abilities; it’s whether or not he can stay healthy.
Rashad Jennings (*Fr.) Jennings (6-1/235) has the prototypical size for the one back sets Cavanaugh will use throughout the season. He is a power runner in the mold of former Panther Kevan Barlow. A true load of a runningback, capable of wearing the opposing defense down over the course of a game. Jennings, a former two-time first team All-Virginia (Division 2), enrolled at Pittsburgh in January and will have true freshman eligibility for the 2005 season (five years to play four seasons). During the spring game, at Gateway High School, he led all rushers with 119 yards on 19 carries.
Brandon Mason (So.) Mason is big play runningback, capable of making people miss on any given play. During his freshman season (2004) he carried the ball 17 times gaining 40 yards with no touchdowns and a 2.4 rushing average. Runningbacks coach David Walker likes what Mason brings to the table.
RB Marcus Furman
Marcus Furman (*Sr.) Injuries have hampered Furman's carreer at Pitt. Once a highly touted prospect from Connellsville High School, Furman is more suited as a third down back, as opposed to an every down feature back. He is considered a weapon, catching passes out of the backfield. During the 2004 campaign Furman rushed for 116 yards on 37 carries (3.1 YPC) and no touchdowns. He also caught 27 passes for 243 yards (9.0 YPR) and one touchdown.
Kellen Campbell (*Sr.) Who? That's the question many Pitt fans had when learning that Campbell would be the starting fullback replacing the injured Tim Murphy. Campbell seized the opportunity with excellent blocking and heady play. He only ran the ball 3 times for 6 yards but showed the ability to catch passes out of the backfield.
Coredge Collins (Fr.) Could be the prize of Wannstedts recruiting efforts. Considered one of the nation’s top fullback prospects. Collins earned honors as a first team All-Florida Class 3A running back. Compiled 4,331 rushing yards and 52 rushing TD's during his HS career, 1,328 yards on 171 carries (7.5 avg.) and 21 touchdowns as a senior. He also had 18 receptions for 219 yards and five TDs. Collins had offers from some big time programs but chose Pitt for an opportunity to play tailback.
Shane Brooks (Fr.) Comes to Pitt with some pretty impresive numbers. Collins rushed for 1,545 yards on 219 carries (7.1 avg.) and scored 13 touchdowns as a senior at Duquesne High School. For his four-year varsity career, Collins gained 3,958 yards on 597 carries (6.6 avg.), and was a two-time member of The Associated Press Pennsylvania Class A All-State Team.
Note: At press time incoming freshmen LaRod Stevens and Irvan Brown were working with the Panthers defense.
Fall camp will determine how things shake out. When they do, look for Coach Wannstedt to find his horse and ride him. Freshman Rashad Jennings appears to be the front runner at this time. Don't count out Murphy, Brooks or Collins, all talented players and none of which participated in spring drills. In a two back set or pro formation the leading combination likely would be Jennings and Murphy.
With improved line play and a new offensive philosophy, this will be an interesting season to say the least