Big East Preview

Big East Preview

An early look at Big East football.

BIG EAST PREVIEW

BC | UConn | Pitt | RU | SU | Owls | WVU

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BOSTON COLLEGE
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INSIDE SLANT

The Eagles spent the spring trying to decide who would start at two key positions -- quarterback and tailback.

Under center, BC has two capable players in seniors Quinton Porter and Paul Peterson. Porter started the first 10 games of the 2003 campaign before giving way to Peterson, who led the Eagles to three straight victories. Coach Tom O'Brien has indicated that he'd like to redshirt the player who doesn't earn the starting nod for 2004, giving him a veteran QB for the 2005 campaign. Both played well during the spring, with Porter connecting on 15 of 19 passes for 126 yards and a touchdown in the spring game while Peterson was 5 of 15 for 47 yards.

Also up in the air is the tailback position after the school's all-time leading rusher, Derrick Knight, departed after last season. Sophomore Jeff Ross had 72 yards in the spring game, but he's part of a large contingent of players fighting to earn playing time at the position.

The Eagles will return 34 letter winners and 11 starters from last year's 8-5 squad that played in a school-record fifth straight bowl game, but BC is trying to fill some major holes on the offensive line, with only juniors Pat Ross and Jeremy Trueblood returning on the front five.

There's experience on the defensive side of the ball, but there are also open spots following graduations, especially on the interior of the line and at the outside linebacking spots. Redshirt freshman linebacker Jolonn Dunbar could earn himself quite a bit of time in 2004 following his 15-tackle performance in the spring game.

NOTES, QUOTES

PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: DL Mathias Kiwanuka, first-team All-American by Athlon, second-team by Lindy's; third-team by Street & Smith's.

KEY GAME: Every year, the Boston College - Notre Dame contest has special significance for both sides thanks to the history of the rivalry. Last season, the Eagles escaped with a 27-25 victory, but this year's contest, on Oct. 23, is in South Bend and the result could really set the tone for the rest of the season for the Eagles.

THE MINDSET: BC had a lot of momentum at the end of the season, going 3-0 after Paul Peterson took over at quarterback, including a 35-21 victory over Colorado State in the Diamond Walnut San Francisco Bowl. The Eagles scored at least 34 points in each of the three contests Peterson started, and after a school-record five straight bowl appearances, the attitude around BC is one of reloading rather than rebuilding. All the better to build momentum for the move to the ACC next season.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Derrick Knight put his name in the BC record books with 3,725 rushing yards through his career. But Knight is now gone, leaving coach Tom O'Brien with a major hole to fill on offense. Sophomore Jeff Ross rushed for 72 yards in the spring game, but there will be plenty of players trying their best to get a shot at Knight's empty spot in the backfield.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I believe we had an excellent spring practice. Out of the 15 practices, I think we only had one bad day, so I think we accomplished a lot. Spring practice is still, for me, designed to make individuals the best they can be. I'm not as concerned with the X's and O's, even though that becomes part of spring practice. The most important part is that we improve as individuals." -- Head coach Tom O'Brien on his focus in spring practice.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: Assuming he keeps the starting job come fall, Paul Peterson is certainly a player to watch on offense. He threw six of his 10 touchdowns last season after becoming the starter late in the year. Senior wide receiver Grant Adams looks like he's ready to break out in his final year with the Eagles.

PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: Junior defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka led the Big East in sacks a year ago, so it will be interesting to see how he responds to the inevitable extra attention he'll see in 2004. Another junior, cornerback Will Blackmon, continues to improve each year, and he should be a standout for the Eagles this season.

MOVING VAN: DB Nathanael Hasselbeck is transferring to Division I-AA Massachusetts. Hasselbeck had announced he was leaving BC in late May and one month later he decided to play for the Minutemen. Because he is going to a I-AA program, he will be able to play immediately. He is the brother of former BC quarterbacks Matt and Tim Hasselbeck.

"He has great hands. He's an outstanding athlete," Umass coach Don Brown told the Boston Globe. "He made significant contributions to a great program and we're happy to have him."

INJURY IMPACT: The Eagles are extremely relieved to have long snapper Francois Brochu back in the fold after he missed all of 2003 with a wrist injury. The kicking game definitely suffered with Brochu out. The punting game, however, could suffer with the loss of starting punter Jeff Gomulinski, who was kicked off the team in spring. Gomulinski averaged 39.8 yards last season. Punting duties likely fall to Johnny Ayers, a true freshman.

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PITTSBURGH
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INSIDE SLANT

The Panthers were hoping spring practice would bring a decisive winner in the battle for the starting quarterback position. It didn't.

Juniors Luke Getsy and Tyler Palko alternated in looking good, so the Panthers will head into the fall with a real live quarterback controversy on their hands.

Unfortunately for coach Walt Harris, that's one of many positions that are open for new starters in 2004, as Pittsburgh could have as many as eight new starters on offense and four to six new starters on the defensive side of the ball. Also, Pitt will have competition for the placekicking job as well as a new punter for the coming season.

One of the biggest problem areas is the offensive line, which was decimated by injuries in spring practice, making it hard to get a good look at either quarterback because they were scrambling so much. Harris knows that he needs the front five to get healthier -- and better -- if the Panthers are going to get anything going offensively come fall.

Defensively, the Panthers looked quick in the spring, but they also are inexperienced in the secondary, a fact that could burn Pittsburgh against good passing teams. It's going to be a long offseason for Harris, but he's hoping to get some work done to make sure the season doesn't seem longer.

NOTES, QUOTES

PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: OL Rob Petitti, 2nd team All-America by Street & Smith's; 3rd team by Athlon. Rated the fifth-best tackle in the country in Lindy's.

KEY GAME: Hosting Boston College on Oct. 16 could be a turning point game for the Panthers in 2004. The contest will be the third straight Big East matchup for Pittsburgh against a strong Eagles team that figures to be a solid contender for the league crown. With six games under its belt, Pittsburgh will have had time to find itself, so how well the Panthers can do against the Eagles will show coach Walt Harris how good a team he has.

THE MINDSET: This is an entirely different team from a year ago, and not just because of the loss of all-everything receiver Larry Fitzgerald to the NFL. Three veteran offensive linemen and the entire starting backfield are gone as well, so Harris has to plug in a lot of new players this year. Teams aren't going to be expecting big things out of Pitt this season, so the Panthers may be able to pull some surprises if they can get it together early on.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Fitzgerald seems like the obvious answer here, and, yes, there's no way to replace Fitzgerald's outstanding play at receiver. The Panthers have a more realistic chance of making headway at the quarterback position, formerly maintained by Rod Rutherford. Juniors Luke Getsy and Tyler Palko battled it out in the spring, but neither took a lead in the race to replace Rutherford.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We'll have 10 bodies. I'm not sure all of them would necessarily qualify as linemen for various reasons, but we'll have enough guys to play the game." -- Head coach Walt Harris, underscoring the lack of healthy offensive linemen in spring practice prior to the team's spring game.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: With so many players gone from last year, it's hard to know exactly what the offense is going to look like. One stalwart, though, is senior OT Rob Petitti, who will anchor a very inexperienced offensive line. Senior WR Princell Brockenbrough won't make anyone forget Larry Fitzgerald, but he's a capable player who should get even more looks now that Fitzgerald has moved on to the NFL.

PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: Seven starters return on this side of the ball, led by LB Brian Bennett, who ranked second on the Panthers in tackles a year ago with 118. Two fifth-year senior tackles -- Vince Crochunis and Dan Stephens -- anchor the defensive front.

INJURY IMPACT: Petitti sat out spring practice due to a shoulder injury. He was joined by fellow offensive linemen Justin Belarski, who sat out with a foot injury, and Matt Maiers, who missed some time as well.

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RUTGERS
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INSIDE SLANT

There's a lot of optimism around the Rutgers football program, which might be a surprise for a team that finished just 5-7 in 2003.

But the Scarlet Knights' record gave them the sixth-best improvement in the nation last year, and Rutgers returns 17 starters and 39 letter winners from that squad.

Coach Greg Schiano spent the spring tightening things up and getting his team prepared for what he thinks will be a big season. Defensively, the team seems to be ahead of schedule, with the spring game finishing with just two touchdowns scored.

Schiano is comfortable with junior quarterback Ryan Hart at the controls. In fact, Hart took the fewest snaps in the spring game because Schiano was merely looking to find a solid backup quarterback for the season.

There is plenty of depth all over with experience at most positions, so Schiano spent much of spring practice time working on getting his team to become mentally tougher.

"We've become a better fundamental football team," Schiano told the Trenton Times prior to the spring game.

"We're not nearly where we need to be, but fortunately we don't open up tomorrow. You need to build mental toughness to be able to be at your best no matter what the situation. We created some opportunities this spring where we demanded that they be at their best in some bad situations."

NOTES, QUOTES

PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: Receivers and running backs ranked third in Big East by Athlon. It's a sign of progress that Rutgers is ranked No. 59 nationally in Lindy's, No. 61 by Athlon.

KEY GAME: The Scarlet Knights open with three straight home games, but the most important one is probably the first, against Michigan State. The Spartans outgunned Rutgers last season in East Lansing, 44-28, and getting off to a good start this year will be key for the Knights. All of the optimism the team built up in the offseason could be threatened with a bad showing against MSU, so coach Greg Schiano is hoping for a big game against the Big Ten foe.

THE MINDSET: The Knights lost six of their last eight contests in 2003, but closed with a 24-7 rout of Syracuse. Despite the poor record, Rutgers was in a lot of games against tough opponents, and in Schiano's eyes, the experience of last season will pay dividends in 2004.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: DT Raheem Orr was considered one of the best pass-rushing ends in the country last year, and that kind of pressure will be hard to replace for the Knights. Freshman Jamaal Westerman won't step right into Orr's spot on the line, but he did have two sacks and a fumble recovery in the Rutgers spring game, leading some to believe he'll make an impact in 2004.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "The pass rush and defensive line played well, which is encouraging. It's always interesting when you mix up the teams, because it gives you all kinds of different combinations." -- Head coach Greg Schiano on the biggest positive news from Rutgers' spring game.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: Junior QB Ryan Hart got better and better as the season progressed in 2003, and he's looking like a possible star at the position in 2004. He'll look to junior WR Shawn Tucker often for big plays, as Tucker looks like he's ready to step up and become a go-to receiver for Rutgers.

PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: There are a lot of potential stars among the defensive front seven, including senior LB Maurice Hines and senior DL Piana Lukabu. Both players will be keys to Rutgers cutting down on its 29.5-ppg allowed in 2003.

INJURY IMPACT: The one area that was affected most by injuries during spring practice was the linebacking corps, which saw five different players miss various amounts of time.

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SYRACUSE
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INSIDE SLANT

Although the Orange had a lot of questions heading into spring practice -- who will start at quarterback, how will Syracuse replace a total of 13 starters? -- there was no question about who will be the star of the show.

Senior TB Walter Reyes gives the Orange a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate after rushing for 1,347 yards and scoring 20 rushing touchdowns a year ago.

But coach Paul Pasqualoni is still trying to figure out the players that will be surrounding Reyes when the offense takes its first snap come fall. Four different players competed for a chance to start under center, but none of the four -- sophomore Perry Patterson, junior Xzavier Gaines, redshirt freshman Matt Hale and true freshman Joe Fields -- is considered the frontrunner.

Wide receiver, tight end and the offensive line are also spots on the offense that will have new faces. Defensively, the line was hit hardest by graduation, losing three of its four starters. The Orange have quite a few possibilities to fill the holes, but the new players will take some time to put together some chemistry.

The Orange have another tough schedule in 2004, so its imperative that the they are ready to play from the opening kickoff. Spring practice helped out a bit as Pasqualoni was able to get a good look at his options for filling all the open spaces on both sides of the ball, but there's much work to be done for Syracuse to get back to its elite status.

Safety Diamond Ferri was arrested and charged with assault following a May 24 fight in which he reportedly broke a man's nose. According to police, Ferri, 22, struggled with police officers and had to be physically subdued. Ferri was released on his own recognizance.

NOTES, QUOTES

PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: RB Walter Reyes, 2nd team All-America by Lindy's; 3rd team by Street & Smith's and Athlon.

KEY GAME: Only one of the Orange's first four contests is at the Carrier Dome, which is what makes the Sept. 18 meeting with Cincinnati -- that one home game -- so important. Syracuse needs to get some wins under its belt early, and playing the Bearcats won't be an easy task, even at home. A loss could have the team reeling for the rest of the season.

THE MINDSET: Coming off a 6-6 campaign, Syracuse isn't expected to contend in the Big East, even in a league without Miami and Virginia Tech. Syracuse has an elite player in TB Walter Reyes, but he's going to need other players to step up and take some pressure off of him, especially with so many defenses keying on his every move.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Reyes gives Syracuse a running game, now it's a question of finding a passing game to balance things out. The four contenders for departed starting quarterback R.J. Anderson's spot are all fairly equal heading into the summer, so someone needs to step up and take control of the race.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "The fact we've got inexperienced quarterbacks did not deter us from how much we tried to get done this spring. I think we've got as much offense in, which is going to be important for us as we work through the summer program and come back. I think the dividends will be seen. " -- Head coach Paul Pasqualoni on his team's inexperienced offense.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: Is there any doubt who will be the Syracuse offensive star? Barring injury, TB Walter Reyes should be one of the top ground gainers in the country in 2004. He'll need some help from his teammates to stop defenses from keying on him, but Reyes is an elite back who should get his yardage one way or another.

PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: Junior DE James Wyche, the only returning starter on the defensive line, could end up being an impact player up front. He recorded two sacks in the Syracuse spring game and will be counted on to disrupt the opposition's plans up front.

INJURY IMPACT: QB Xzavier Gaines was slowed a bit by a hamstring injury during spring practice, but he was still able to play.

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TEMPLE
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INSIDE SLANT

After a 1-11 season, there's pretty much one way to go for Temple. And the Owls are feeling pretty good about themselves, with 16 returning starters back for coach Bobby Wallace.

Last season, the Owls had 18 players on their roster who were in their first year with the program after transferring from junior colleges. Those players now have a year of experience and had a chance to compete in spring drills for the first time.

The offense was explosive in 2003, setting school records for passing first downs and total plays, and there's no reason to think it won't be the same way in 2004. QB Walter Washington has a firm grip on the starting spot, but there are still questions to be answered around him. The loss of Zamir Cobb, the school's all-time reception leader, means there will be more balls to go around for a very deep receiving corps.

Defensively, the Owls struggled mightily in 2003, ranking 95th in the country after giving up 429.8 yards per game. Last year's defense was extremely inexperienced, though, so there should be a lot of improvement in 2004.

The Owls won't contend for a Big East crown in 2004 -- their final year in the league -- but they'll definitely be a much tougher team, especially on the defense. Wallace felt like the team made strides in the spring, which should lead to better play in the fall.

NOTES, QUOTES

PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: LB Rian Wallace, third-team All-American by Street & Smith's and Athlon.

KEY GAME: The schedule is tough from the get-go, with two straight ACC opponents to open the season. A visit from Virginia on Sept. 4 will give the Owls a good idea of what to expect the rest of the season. Can the defense improve on last year's dreadful showing? And can the offense put points on the board as easily as last year behind QB Walter Washington? Many questions to be answered, and they start getting answered in this contest.

THE MINDSET: After ranking in the nation's top 20 in defense in 2001 and 2002, the Owls feel like the bad showing in 2003 is merely a hiccup and they'll return to being a dominant defense in 2004. If the offense can get it rolling early and the defense can improve, 1-11 will be a distant memory. That's the hope of coach Bobby Wallace and his squad.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: The Owls pass the ball a lot so a lot of players get a chance to catch the ball, but losing WR Zamir Cobb is going to be tough to swallow if someone isn't able to step up. Cobb was a reliable receiver who snagged 74 balls in 2003. Getting another player to step up in big situations is near the top of coach Wallace's to-do list.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Offensively, we have a chance to be very explosive. The key is engineering our offense so that our playmakers fit together. I thought we did a good job last season of improving our turnovers and penalties and we have to continue to work on those areas." -- Head coach Bobby Wallace on his team's offensive goals.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: QB Walter Washington averaged 315 yards of total offense in the Owls' final three games of 2003, all against nationally ranked opponents. He has the capability to be a threat to score every time he touches the ball. Phil Goodman could be one of Washington's favorite targets this year, helping to pick up the slack of the departed Zamir Cobb.

PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: LB Rian "Goo" Wallace is a player who can get all over the field, as shown by his 148 tackles and 19.5 tackles for loss in 2003. He has a nose for the ball and he's going to need to make his presence felt this season. Senior S Lawrence Wade is another player who likes to get to the ball in a hurry and deliver a blow.

INJURY IMPACT: DE Rodney Wormley was able to get back into action in the spring after missing 2003 due to a knee injury.

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WEST VIRGINIA
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INSIDE SLANT

West Virginia tied for the Big East crown in 2003 and Rich Rodriguez was named the league's Coach of the Year, but Rodriguez still sees room for growth for the Mountaineers.

"Our program has grown each year, but we still have a lot of work to do," Rodriguez said.

"We need to be getting better in our fundamentals and technique; that's one of the most important objectives every spring, and it's where you strengthen the foundation of your program. We need to work each position to improve in those areas."

West Virginia loses just four starters on each side of the ball, so there's quite a bit of expectations -- such as a Big East championship -- following spring practice. Senior Rasheed Marshall leads an experienced offense that will be looking to build on the potency it showed in 2003.

Defensively, the Mountaineers should be even better than a year ago, when they started the season with a very inexperienced unit. This year, WVU has to find a replacement for LB Grant Wiley, a consensus All-American and Nagurski Award finalist.

Yes, there is some work to do before the season begins, but the Mountaineers are feeling pretty good after racking up a 12-2 conference mark over the past two seasons. Feeling good, but not satisfied.

NOTES, QUOTES

PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: Ranked as high as fifth nationally by Athlon, but both Lindy's and Street & Smith's have the Mountaineers at 15th. WR Chris Henry, second-team All-America by Athlon.

KEY GAMES: West Virginia could sweep through a watered-down Big East this season, but that won't prove much on a national scale. To get full national respect -- and to have a respectable showing in the BCS standings -- the Mountaineers need to at least play well in two big non-conference games -- vs. Maryland on Sept. 18 and at Virginia Tech on Oct. 2.

THE MINDSET: The Mountaineers are going to try not to replicate last year's start, in which they began the season 1-4. Getting off to a fast start could build the confidence of the squad, which could translate to a season to remember. In this transition year for the Big East, the league will never be easier to win than right now.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: LB Grant Wiley was a major presence for the Mountaineers' defense, finishing his career as the school's all-time tackles leader. Replacing his leadership is going to be tough to do as well, but coach Rich Rodriguez feels like senior MLB Adam Lehnortt could be up to the challenge.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm already looking forward to this season. There are a lot of exciting players who our fans will love to watch." -- Head coach Rich Rodriguez on his team's prospects for 2004.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: Senior QB Rasheed Marshall is hoping to go out with a bang. A threat to run the ball, Marshall improved as a passer last season, making him a true double threat for defenses. Junior WR Chris Henry was a marvel in his first season at WVU, and he'll look to build on last year's Big East Rookie of the Year campaign in 2004.

PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: Senior MLB Adam Lehnortt had 139 tackles and five sacks in 2003. He's will be asked to be an impact player on and off the field for the Mountaineers' defense. Junior CB Adam "Pac-Man" Jones is an explosive player who scored on fumble, interception and kick returns last season.

INJURY IMPACT: LB Adam Lehnortt was sidelined for all of spring practice following offseason shoulder surgery. He should be fully recovered for the fall.

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