Spring look around the Big East
Which transfer is making a good impression at Louisville? What does Rutgers coach Greg Schiano think of the Big East race? What are Connecticut's biggest concerns this spring? The Big East notebook addresses those questions and much more.
Coach Mark Dantonio weighed in on the quarterback battle, where incumbent starter Dustin Grutza has packed on some muscle in a bid to ward off senior Nick Davila and redshirt freshman Craig Carey. "I think certainly Dustin has the edge with game experience, but with that said, the position is not set," Dantonio said. "[Grutza] has to play better if he's going to become solid. He needs to make better decisions. The decision-making was not consistent [last season], and we need to throw the ball down the field more.'" Dantonio is looking for ways to use multi-talented sophomore David Wess. "He was recruited as a quarterback and played safety last year," Dantonio said. "He's possibly a quarterback/running back type of guy, a very gifted athlete."
Besides quarterback, coach Randy Edsall lists his two biggest concerns as offensive line and wide receiver. "Our line, I think, will be better based on experience," Edsall said. "And at the receiver position, we're really going to have to step up. I think Brandon Young's a key for us." The hope is that Young, a redshirt senior, will realize his potential after missing the 2004 season because of a foot injury sustained in a car crash. He returned last season and had 28 receptions for 371 yards and two touchdowns. "Some of the things he's doing lead me to believe he'll get back to where he was as a sophomore," Edsall said. "I see him running better now than he did before."
Georgia Tech transfer Pat Carter is opening eyes with his all-around talents. Carter, whose older brother Tim plays wide receiver for the New York Giants, is working out at receiver but is also getting plenty of reps at quarterback and returning punts. He was a notable recruit for Georgia Tech after being rated the 12th-best dual-threat quarterback in the country by Rivals.com. He sat out last season. Wide receiver Mario Urrutia appears to be primed to build on a fabulous freshman year in which he was among the nation's leaders in yards per catch (21.5). In a scrimmage Saturday, Urrutia caught four passes for 102 yards and two touchdowns.
Last year's third-string quarterback, Shane Murray, has been converted to safety and has impressed the coaching staff with his hard-hitting style. LaRod Stephens-Howling appears to be the frontrunner at tailback, but highly touted freshman Kevin Collier arrives this summer and redshirt freshman Shane Brooks is making a run, too. "He's got more run-after-contact [ability] than any back we've got," coach Dave Wannstedt said of Brooks. Wannstedt said another true freshman, Dorin Dickerson, also could see some time in the tailback slot in addition to his receiver duties. Linebacker Clint Session, a disappointment last season, is penciled in as the starting strong-side linebacker. He dropped 12 pounds and said he improved his speed during a rigorous offseason workout regimen.
Coach Greg Schiano's take on the Big East race: "We have a lot of good, solid teams. You look at it and say Louisville and West Virginia have to be the favorites, but Pittsburgh has real good talent. Connecticut, too. It's a matter of who kind of clicks together, who can stay healthy." Schiano figures his team has a chance to be in the mix, as well. & Senior Brandon Renkart is working on his fourth position -- linebacker. He has been a quarterback, safety and wide receiver since he joined the team in 2003. Sophomore Anthony Miller has rejoined the team after a year off for personal reasons. He's battling for a starting spot at cornerback, a position of need for the Scarlet Knights.
Coach Jim Leavitt made his quarterbacks off limits to the media this spring, which means nobody can ask freshman Matt Grothe how it feels to be threatening senior Pat Julmiste for the backup job behind sophomore Carlton Hill. Redshirt sophomore Ricky Ponton has gained an edge in the battle to replace star tailback Andre Hall, because Ponton's main competition, redshirt freshman Moise Plancher, has been out with a hamstring injury. Defensive tackle Frank Harry, expected to challenge for playing time, left the program. Leavitt estimates that 13 of his players from last season will play some form of professional football this year. "We lost a lot of quality guys," he said.
Senior middle linebacker Kelvin Smith considered entering the NFL draft but returned intent on solidifying his status with a strong senior season. Smith uses the pain of last year's 1-10 record as motivation. "It made me a bitter person for a long time," he said. "You don't want to talk to anybody." Especially, as it turns out, ex-Syracuse players such as Dwight Freeney, Donovan McNabb and Smith's uncle, Tennessee Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck. "They just look at you like a father who's thinking, 'I'm disappointed in you,'" Smith said. "I think we'll bounce back real good. We've got some holes to fill; I'm not going to lie. But I feel like the young guys here have a lot of heart."
Redshirt freshman Scott Kozlowski is the lead candidate to replace Phil Brady as punter. Kozlowski averaged 46.3 yards per kick at Royal Palm Beach (Fla.) High School and was rated the No. 1 punter in the country by Scout.com. He is busy adjusting to WVU's "sprint punt" style. Offensive lineman Chris Bassler, expected to compete for a starting job at tackle, has left the program. WVU's spring game on April 15 will be telecast by ESPNU. A record 835 high school coaches attended head coach Rich Rodriguez's coaching clinic last weekend. Division I-AA Eastern Washington has replaced Buffalo on WVU's soft early schedule and will play in Morgantown on Sept. 9.
Joe Starkey covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.