Senior Leadership

Derek Kinder looks to return to form.

As Dave Wannstedt stands on the precipice of his fourth season at his alma mater, with the opening game against Bowling Green set for noon Saturday at Heinz Field, the Pitt football program has gotten much closer to being comprised entirely with the head coach's players as well as the success level the previous regime enjoyed.

Still, there are a handful of fifth-year seniors at Pittsburgh, some heavy contributors like starting middle linebacker Scott McKillop, wideout Derek Kinder, strong-side linebacker Adam Gunn and free safety Eric Thatcher, who went to the Fiesta Bowl their freshman season. That was the fifth straight bowl appearance for the Panthers.

"Time flew pretty fast,'' McKillop said. "I can remember it like yesterday, coming in and seeing Coach (Walt) Harris, asking all the freshmen if we were ready. It's been a long five years. I came in, and we went to a bowl game.

"So, I got kind of got spoiled. The past three (seasons), we've been unsuccessful to get back, but for myself and my fellow fifth-year seniors we want to end on a good note and finish the way we came in.''

Kinder often harkens back to his early years at Pitt.

"It's been a long time, I guess, but the good times have flown by,'' Kinder said. "And every once in a while I think that the run's about to be over with, and it's my last season. So, I want to make the most of it and have the most fun in my last season. I remember when I first came here as a freshman, I just sat back in awe and saw how fast everything was.

"I didn't know if I would ever be able to pick up the offense. It was so complicated. I was a running back, but I moved to receiver right away. I was real raw at that time and felt like I couldn't run routes very well, but I worked very hard and put in a lot of work. Hopefully, it'll continue to pay off, and we'll go out strong in my final season.''

Other fifth-year seniors beginning their final seasons include backup left offensive tackle Chase Clowser, linebacker Austin Ransom and left guard Dominic Williams, starting place-kicker Conor Lee, punter Dave Brytus, long-snapper Mark Estermyer and walk-on Frank Kochin. Brytus transferred to Pitt during Wannstedt's tenure.

"They're a great group of guys and leaders, our seniors,'' Wannstedt said. "We have a small amount, but they've been great. ... And every leader on our team has been a contributor. Guys have had to take on additional roles as upperclassmen, like Eric Thatcher, and they've really embraced them.''

Thatcher has become somewhat of a mentor for sophomore safeties Dom DeCicco and Elijah Fields and freshman Andrew Taglianetti.

"They're so talented, but they're still learning,'' Thatcher said. "So, I just want to do everything I can to help them stay on track. The team benefits in the end, so I'm interested in helping out in whatever way I can.''

Kinder feels the same way about his receiving corps.

"They're all out there and are eager to learn, and I look forward to helping them out this season,'' Kinder said. "For me, I can't wait to step out on the field again just like those freshmen. I feel like it's a new beginning for me. I want to go back out there to prove myself and make some plays again.''

And since it's the last go-around for Kinder and his fellow seniors, they all want to make the most of their final season-opening game.

Fourth-year seniors in their final openers include backup tailback LaRod Stephens-Howling, starting left offensive guard C.J. Davis, starting nose tackle Rashaad Duncan and starting fullback Conredge Collins.

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