The Panthers can ill-afford to lose the 6-foot-6, 331-pound Jeff Otah , the starting left tackle and blind-side blocker for right-handed junior quarterback Bill Stull, because he has developed into an All-America candidate and pro prospect in just a short period of time.
Otah arrived at Pittsburgh just before camp last fall after two seasons at Valley Forge, Pa. Military Academy. He played just one football season at William Penn High School in Delaware and was still a raw talent when he came to the Panthers last year.
"I guess it took me a little bit to get going, maybe a couple games, but I had a lot of guys on the team helping me out to get in the groove,'' Otah said. "So, I don't think it took me too long. And I ended up doing all right. I felt like I caught up with the other guys and had a pretty good season.
"When I first came to Pitt, I kind of wanted to redshirt at first. But I think I'm fine where I am right now. I am where I want to be. I'm glad to be a senior, and I'm looking forward to going out on a high note. I want to help the team as much as possible so we can win some games this season.''
Pitt offensive line coach Paul Dunn believed that his group could be even better than last season, as Otah and company -- left guard C.J. Davis, center Chris Vangas, right guard Joe Thomas and right tackle Jason Pinkston -- are a year older, wiser and more experienced.
"It's like night and day, the difference between Jeff now and where he was when we got him last season,'' Dunn said. "Through hard work, he's made a lot of improvement in his technique and his conditioning.''
With Otah anchoring the offensive line, it should be even better than last season, unless there are injuries. It's probably Pitt's thinnest position.
"I felt like last year we could be a strong, cohesive unit, but we kind of went downhill from the middle to the end,'' Otah said. "Injuries just killed us, like Simonitis, but this year I feel like the offensive line can make a statement in the Big East. A lot of the guys have stepped up their games.
"Jason Pinkston has stepped up and is playing well. C.J. Davis, Vangas and Joe Thomas, they're all playing better. And Mike McGlynn should be back soon. So, I think we're really coming together. We'll be stronger than last year, and we've really come together during camp.''
While the wideout, running back and secondary hold Pitt's most brash players, one might not believe that Otah could be outspoken as well. But just get on his bad side, and you'll find out about his leadership skills.
"I looked at it like somebody had to step up, and I wanted that guy to be me,'' Otah said. "I thought I could do it, but the leadership aspect was a little different. I do speak up when I have to, but I don't like to always be in somebody's face about things.
"But when I see somebody doing something wrong, I'll tell him about it. I don't think you can be a guy that goes around hooting and hollering all the time. You have to speak up when you need to speak up, and that's the way that I'm approaching this.''
Otah's off-field leadership skills went into effect as well, as Pitt has quite a few young lineman that needed guidance.
"It kind of happened automatically,'' Otah said. "They needed somebody to lead them, and we knew we had to help them. We needed to show them how it's done, but we didn't force anything on them. They wanted us to show them, and they really took it in. And they have some talent, too.
"A lot of them are real good, too. Greg Gaskins, he's looking real good. Lumpy looked good, too. And Jordan Gibbs is getting himself together. So, we have a lot of good, young offensive linemen to help build it for the future.''
That means Pitt's offensive line should be in better shape than when Otah arrived last season. He was expected to step in immediately at left tackle, and he believed it would be a good spot since his basketball career likely was over after two seasons in junior college.
"I was playing basketball, but I felt like I wouldn't grow any taller than what I am and wouldn't be a center,'' Otah said. "So, I thought that football was something that I did in high school and maybe I could do it in college, too.
"I went to junior college, and my coach, Jim Berner, he really taught me a lot of the stuff that I know now and to relate football to basketball. And it really helped me on the football field. And I think it helped me be more athletic.''
Power forwards everywhere are thankful they don't have to take a charge from Otah or attempt to drive the lane on him, but some NFL team should be extremely happy next April. But first, in Otah's mind, he has some business to complete at Pitt.
"I really don't want to look ahead too much,'' Otah said. "I just want to concentrate on this season. I had a decent year, I thought, last season. And I didn't look too far ahead, so I'm going to try that again this season. So, now that I know what I'm doing more, I can have an even better year. I just want to concentrate on helping my team have a big season.
"We want to win a lot more games this season, so I'm looking forward to that. Coach Dunn taught me a lot about playing at this level and how important it is to learn all my plays. I can play a lot faster when I know where I'm going and what I'm doing on a certain play, so I've just been working hard in the film room studying my plays. That's the best way to get better.''
And the best way to keep Stull protected is to have a healthy Otah manning the left tackle spot.
The 2008 offensive tackle draft class is led by Michigan's Jake Long, who is destined to be a top…