Big East Preview

Steve O Speak

1. Pittsburgh Panthers

Why They Will Contend: The Panthers return 14 starters this year including one of the best defensive line’s in college football. DE’s Jabaal Sheard and Greg Romeus should spend a lot of time in opposing team’s backfields. The linebacking corps is pretty new, but is filled with some talented prospects. CB Aaron Berry leads a very good secondary, and should be an all-conference selection. On offense Soph. WR Jonathan Baldwin is poised to become one of the nation’s leading receivers. He’s joined by a pair of seniors at WR (Oderick Turner and Cedric McGee) and TE (Nate Byham and Dorin Dickerson) that give the Panthers the most formidable passing weapons in the conference. The Panthers will have a running back by committee approach led by three interesting prospects. True Freshmen Dion Lewis and Ray Graham, along with redshirted freshman Chris Burns, should give the Panthers plenty of fresh legs this year.

Why They Won’t Contend: The Panthers lost their best offensive playmaker, RB LeSean McCoy, and their leading tackler, MLB Scott McKillop to the draft. They have three talented prospects to replace McCoy, but those are big shoes to fill. He would singlehandily win games for the Panthers last year. Its easier to replace McKillop’s on the field production, but it may not be so easy to replace the leadership he brought to the team every day. The biggest returning question is at QB. Highly touted Pat Bostick has been a bust so far and will move to 3rd on the depth chart (he will likely be redshirted as well). Senior Bill Stull remains as the starter, but he was ineffective last year especially when the game was put in his hands. If he doesn’t rebound this year don’t be surprised to see redshirted freshman Tino Sunseri lining up behind center.

Offensive Player to Watch: WR Jonathan Baldwin. The comparisons to Larry Fitzgerald are starting and they might not be too far off the mark. A bit raw at wideout Baldwin has freakish athletic ability that should allow him to dominate the Big East.

Defensive Player to Watch: DE Greg Romeus. There is talent up and down the def. line, but Romeus is the best of the bunch. He had 7.5 sacks last year and will cause havok among offensive coordinators trying to find a way to stop him this year.

2. West Virginia Mountaineers

Why They Will Contend: The Mountaineers run one of the most dynamic offenses in college football. Led by Junior running back Noel Devine. Devine led the Mountaineers last season with over 1,200 rushing yards with a 6.3 ypc average. At wide receiver WVU has some playmakers as well. Junior Jock Sanders and redshirt sophomore Bradley Starks have established themselves as quality targets. Incoming freshman Logan Heastie gives the Mountaineers a big target to add balance to their receiving corps. WVU returns an experienced defense to run their 3-3-5 alignment. Junior CB Brandon Hogan is an excellent coverage corner and isn’t afraid of contact as well.

Why They Won’t Contend: The Mountaineers lost the heart of their offense in quarterback Pat White. White athleticism was off the charts and his presence on the field made every other player better. 5th year senior Jarrett Brown will take White’s spot behind center. While he offers the same running ability as White, Brown lacks White’s elusiveness and quickness that made him so dangerous. Brown will need to find a way to beat opponents through the air if the Mountaineers are going to contend this year. WVU needs a true number 1 receiver to step up to take their offense to the next level. They have a lot of ability among their wideouts, but no true go to guy. WVU could use a power running back to help them convert short yardage situations. On defense the Mountaineers need to get a better pass rush to neutralize some of the other Big East offenses.

Offensive Player to Watch: RB Noel Devine. Devine is one of the fastest running backs in the NCAA, and if he sees daylight in front of him no one will catch him. Finding ways to get the ball to Devine in space is a key for the WVU offense and a nightmare scenario for defensive coordinators.

Defensive Player to Watch: CB Brandon Hogan. Hogan is a ball hawk defensive back, and has shutdown corner defensive ability. Hogan is a big hitter for a corner and should be an all conference selection when the season is over.

3. Cincinnati Bearcats

Why They Will Contend: The returning Big East Champs will be one of the favorites to win it again entering the 2009 season. Cincinnati returns one of the Big East’s best quarterbacks in senior Tony Pike. Pike is a big strong armed quarterback, who knows how to make plays. Pike has a solid receiving corps overall, but his favorite target, senior Marshawn Gilyard, is anything but solid or average. Gilyard is one of the best playmakers in the nation and a sure fire first round pick next April. At running back the Bearcats return junior John Goebel who had over 600 yards last season while in a backup role. Goebel isn’t a game breaker, but he can keep the chains moving with his 4.6 yards per carry average.

Why They Won’t Contend: Cincinnati’s biggest problem is their defense. While they have plenty of athletic talent they return just one starter, senior FS Aaron Webster. Webster is a good player, but with that kind of turnover a number of players will need to step up to keep the Bearcats in contention. Another issue with the defense is the transition to a 3-4 system, which is going to cause a learning curve for their new starters. The Bearcats will need another play maker on offense to step up as well if they hope to compete with the Panthers and Mountaineers.

Offensive Player to Watch: WR/KR Marshawn Gilyard. Gilyard is a home run hitter and a threat to take it to the house every time he touches the ball. He’s one of the best kick returners in the nation, in addition to his production on offense. Gilyard will create match up problems for corners around the Big East.

Defensive Player to Watch: FS Aaron Webster. Webster is the lone returning starter on this defense, and one of its biggest leaders. He is a hard hitter, but is a very good coverage safety as well. His presence in the defensive backfield will allow the front 7 to get after the quarterback more.

4. South Florida Bulls

Offensive Player to Watch: QB Matt Grothe. Grothe is the best and most experienced quarterback in the conference. He’s a dual threat quarterback that can keep plays alive with his feet.

Defensive Player to Watch: DE George Selvie. Selvie is one of the elite pass rusher’s in the nation. He lives in opponents backfields and is very difficult to block one-on-one.

5. Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Offensive Player to Watch: RB Jourdan Brooks. The redshirted sophomore had 516 yards last year and 6 touchdowns in just 100 carries. He is a power back who can make some moves in the open field.

Defensive Player to Watch: MLB Ryan D’Imperio. D’Imperio is one of the best linebackers in the Big East. He’s a sure tackler and extremely instinctive. He’s always around the ball and makes the big plays when needed.

6. Louisville Cardinals

Offensive Player to Watch: RB Victor Anderson. As a true freshman Anderson rushed for over 1,000 yards with a 5.7 ypc average. He is in line for a breakout year this year, and should be accounted for on every play by opposing defenses.

Defensive Player to Watch: LB Jon Dempsey. Dempsey led the Cardinals in tackles last year and is one of their defensive leaders. He is an extremely sure tackler and is adept at making plays in the backfield.

7. Conneticut Huskies

Offensive Player to Watch: RB Andre Dixon. Dixon didn’t get much of an opportunity last season with Donald Brown rushing his way to 2,000 yards, but Dixon is a quality ball carrier. In 2007 he had over 800 yards rushing and should get plenty of chances to top that this season.

Defensive Player to Watch: LB Scott Lutrus. Lutrus led the Huskies with over a 100 tackles last season and is the team’s defensive captain. In addition to being a sure tackler, Lutrus is a good coverage linebacker that can limit TE’s and RB’s catches.

8. Syracuse Orange

Offensive Player to Watch: QB Greg Paulus. Paulus was a top QB recruit but elected to play college basketball instead at Duke. Now with one year of eligibility remaining Paulus will be Syracuse’s quarterback. If he has a solid year he could help put the Orange back on the map.

Defensive Player to Watch: DT Arthur Jones. Jones has lived in the offensive backfield during his time at Syracuse with 31.5 career tackles for a loss. He is by far the Orange’s best player and defensive leader.

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