Palko and Blades give Pitt fans hope (Part IX)

By Darrell Laurant  |   Sunday, July 09, 2006  |  Comments( 3 )

Pittsburgh Panthers
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Teams on the rebound: Ninth in a series

If nothing else, expectations will be more realistic at Pitt this season.

Last time around, with former NFL head coach Dave Wannstedt taking over and star QB Tyler Palko returning, fans of the Pittsburgh Panthers were even excited about their opener with Notre Dame.

They needn't have been, though. Final score: Notre Dame 42, Pitt 21, and it wasn't that close. Then, the following week, Wannstedt's Big East team lost to Ohio University in overtime, and the rest of the season turned into a 5-6 anticlimax, ending drearily with a 45-13 rout at West Virginia.

So why will things be better this year? Well, Palko is back for his senior season, having thrown for 2,395 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2005 despite a rather leaky O-line. Four of five starters return from that offensive front, and mammoth JUCO transfer Jeff Otah (6-6, 340) will more than fill the remaining hole at left tackle. On the defensive side, linebacker H.B. Blades (son of Bennie) and cornerback Darrelle Revis made a number of preseason All-America teams.

Oh, yes -- and Notre Dame is off the schedule.

A big (or, perhaps more accurately, small) question mark is at running back, where starting tailback LaRod Stephens-Howling is only 5-7, 175 pounds but hopes to carry the ball 25-30 times a game. Actually, he gained 10 pounds of muscle during the offseason -- in 2005, when he was the Panthers' leading rusher with 434 yards, Stephens-Howling weighed just 165.

His two primary 2005 backups, Raymond Kirkley and Rashad Jennings, are gone, but 230-pound Shane Brooks moves over from fullback, where Conredge Collins appears to be entrenched.

"I think Shane is the toughest back we have," Wannstedt said. "You can see that by the yards he gets after he gets hit."

Palko's chief targets look to be returning wide receivers Derek Kinder and Oderick Turner, along with man-mountain tight end Darrell Strong (6-5, 260).

Blades led the team and the Big East with 121 tackles last season, but Wannstedt hopes he doesn't have a year like that again.

"I'd like to see his tackles cut in half," Wannstedt said, "because that will mean somebody else is doing something."

DE Charles Sallet had a strong spring, as did LB Clint Session, and strong safety Sam Bryant hits like an SUV at 6-0, 230.

Pitt enjoyed its best recruiting season in a decade, and Wannstedt may find himself having to plug some of those newcomers -- notably WR Dorin Dickerson and RB Kevin Collier -- into the regular rotation. He'd also like to see Palko run a little more.

"He's an athlete," Wannstedt said after Palko scampered for 35 yards in the spring game, "and he has to make plays with his feet."

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