LB H.B. Blades

2004 Statistics

Coach: Dave Wannstedt
1st year
2004 Record: 8-4
at Connecticut LOST 17-29
at Temple WON 27-22
at Syracuse LOST 31-38
at Notre Dame WON 41-38
at South Florida WON 43-14
vs. Utah LOST 7-35

2004 Final Rankings
AP-25, Coaches-UR, BCS-21

2005 Outlook

With the coaching changes made, this staff looks like it's at Primanti Bros. having a team reunion from the 70s and 80s. The care the staff now has to see their alumnus Panthers through this budding era cannot be measured, for it seems like some sort of destiny that they all now come together to continue the stagnated efforts Walt Harris accomplished, then abruptly left (for Stanford). The offense clicked, but sporadically sputtered, with a great weekly game plan that seemingly couldn't be adjusted when foes figured them out.

Wannstedt's stops in Chicago and Miami as a head coach suggest that the running game now becomes the centerpiece. This offense will run before it goes to the air, smashing opponents in the mouth as they grind the clock. The entire upside of Tyler Palko is still yet unseen, and even though he may have a few less attempts this time, his production should go up within its efficiency under Cavanaugh's coaching (QB's coach and offensive coordinator) and schemes. Palko has savvy "pocket presence" and can forge a comeback single-handedly, so even three scores down in the fourth isn't too far back for this run-oriented Panther squad to win through.

Defensively, Wannstedt turns up the heat even more. His attention to detail here will re-up defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads' stock, for it has been down within Harris' tenure. Rhoads' Ds never had a dismal showing (just marginal), and he is sure to find this unit's potential under Wannstedt. The corners are so good that the rest of the crew can basically stunt around the box and cause massive confusions, just begging opposing QBs to beat them over the top so they can do their thing. Pro's like Wannstedt will find baiting opposing 18-22 year olds a cake-walk, so expect the defense to quickly be on the same higher plane as the offense.

Accordingly with the new facets, and how radical they will appear to complacent foes not ready for such, Notre Dame and Nebraska will pull the same trick on the Panthers as they showcase their revamped teams in early tilts. These, along with (Thursday) bookend games in November at Louisville and West Virginia, will define this squad and its campaign. But instead of winning eight or nine games - only to then head into the offseason with fans feeing listless and lacking any passion within "wait til next year" sentiments - Pitt might win only six, yet give sparks that light the flames of eternal/future hope. The promise of Wannstedt developing his own (locally weighted) recruiting classes means there will be a different attitude on Art Rooney Avenue before games. Now, if Dave can just do something about playing off campus at (sterile) Heinz Field…

Projected 2005 record: 8-3
QB - 4 DL - 3
RB - 3 LB - 4
WR - 3.5 DB - 3
OL - 2.5 ..

Passing: Tyler Palko, 409-230-7, 3067 yds., 24 TD

Rushing: Raymond Kirkley, 154 att., 560 yds., 6 TD

Receiving: Greg Lee, 68 rec., 1297 yds., 10 TD

Scoring: Josh Cummings, 18-27 FG, 35-37 PAAT, 89 pts.

Punting: Adam Graessle, 60 punts, 43.3 avg.

Kicking: Adam Graessle, 60 punts, 43.3 avg.

Tackles: H.B. Blades,108 tot., 58 solo

Sacks: J.J. Horne, 3.5 sacks

Interceptions: Josh Lay, 3 for 117 yds. 1 TD; H.B. Blades, 3 for 12 yds. 0 TD

Kickoff returns: Marcus Furman, 25 ret., 22.0 avg., 0 TD

Punt returns: Allen Richardson, 30 ret., 3.6 avg., 0 TD


QB Tyler Palko
OFFENSE: Rob Petitti-OT, Justin Belarski-C, Matt Maiers-OG
DEFENSE: Dan Stephens-DT, Vince Crochunis-NT, Malcolm Postell-WLB, Tyrone Gilliard-SS
The emergence of junior Tyler Palko secured many doubts with last year's "transition" of this position. Palko worked through tough beginnings (went 2-2 to start; also went a combined 29-of-77 and 447 yards against Ohio, UConn and Temple) to flourish into a brilliant improviser and leader. Palko is big and tough to bring down as he decides to slide sideways for the big throw, or downfield for the big gainer, or at least gets a first down to keep it alive (without sacks, he averages 5.0 per carry). His trial-by fire was due to a weak running game and/or line, which under Wannstedt will not be the case anymore. An emphasis on the run will allow Palko to sit back and be even more deadly/selective (27:7 TD:INT), and seven- and nine-step drops for sacks (40) won't be in the playbook anymore. Player-favorite and basic clone-of-Palko (size, speed) Joe Flacco is highly tuned and just needs reps to get the rhythm of real-game speed. With new offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh also working with QBs, the pressure will be off here and either QB will assuredly get this offense to where it needs to go.

Running Back
As stated, this is now the bread-and-butter. Everywhere Dave Wannstedt goes, he runs the ball to set up the pass. Now, he fine tunes the nation's 105th-rated ground game (97 per game), one that also only got 10 TDs as well as 2.6 per try (112th). Senior Raymond Kirkley is the tip of Pitt's iceberg of backs, with so much girth below that each is capable of sinking any unsuspecting defender in his way. Interchangeable TB/FB Tim Murphy will also get his numbers up as the Panthers use the run to physically punish and wear down opponents. Depth (Brandon Mason) here is strong, with highly anticipated incoming Miami-native Conredge Collins ( No.3 rated FB) looking to use his own size and speed to secure an oft-used spot in this committee. We think he will, and that this Panther dimension rises quickly under new RB-coach Dave Walker to become one of the nation's top 30 units.

OK, it's pretty simple here. Second-team all-American Greg Lee stretches the field, not only taking double-teams for an average of 19+ yards per his 68 catches (5th in I-A for total receiving yards), but also darting over the middle when needed. Lee enters his junior year with the mantle that he inherited from Larry Fitzgerald as the top Panther WR well in-hand. Even marked, Lee gets the ball, but will share more this year with the others. Locally-produced junior Joe DelSardo is smaller, yet tighter physically (goes underneath fearlessly), and his walk-on grit and leadership have made him invaluable. Senior RB Marcus Furman sees a pass close to half of the time when in, and close to a third of Pitt's catches were to RBs, a trend sure to continue to help get these offensive wheels quickly turning. The depth here is undeveloped, but exists in good size and numbers; only early injuries to Lee and/or DelSardo could derail this unit's ability to contribute.

Tight End
Don't listen when other online publications say Erik Gill is just a blocker. His catch totals and four TDs go along with mammoth stature to make him a premier TE. Central-Catholic's Steve Buches (also 4 TDs) is too a great blocker as well as a 6'4" target, making Pitt's two-TE formations a match-up nightmare for foes. A HUGE advantage here for Pitt, so to speak, and a perfect fit for Wannstedt's run-oriented scheme(s).

Offensive Line
Paul Dunn comes in from Kentucky as the fix-it guy, with impressive stops at Syracuse and Kansas State, to give promise to this defective part. The job he is going to have to do - with three returning starters whose emphasis has been on size and not (so much) speed - will be a challenge. Ex-coach Walt Harris didn't necessarily recruit for mobility, so it will be another year until two Wannstedt classes can begin to replace the logy. For now, there is enough for Dunn to work with so that the improvements can take hold as those inheriting the positions will see enough action to develop. Senior converted-DT Charles Spencer, the anchor and leader here, might move to tackle, and center Vangas then moves to guard, making openings that can work with who is coming. Improvements will assuredly occur before fall, from either the upperclassmen or (eventually) them. Cavanaugh will have enough savvy in the game-plan so this position can grow without too much pain/repercussions…in other words, lots of between-the-tackle running. Realistically, expect what was the weakest link to remain so, but not be such a liability anymore.

Pittsburgh has recently struggled here, seemingly wasting great talent on unbalanced efforts that never allowed the offense's potential to be fully seen. Well, the new sheriff has a plan to take what weapons they already have and methodically attack the other guys with basic fundamentals and just out-"execute" them. Discipline will reign supreme, though the ability for Palko to roll out or just take it himself is always a possibility Cavanaugh will promote. The experience Cavanaugh, Wannstedt, and Dunn bring back to their alma mater will be noticeable as each fulfills their destiny to collectively right the Panther's ship. There are enough ball-handling weapons, so it is really only the line that has to take strides in spring and summer ball for this to be a juggernaut. Nine of eleven starters returning, along with plenty of experienced backups and coaches who have this much connection and/or (pro) tenure, mean field general Palko will just have to be himself now to become a better manager of the game and therefore increase Panther wins.


WR Greg Lee


Returning Starters/
Key Players
QB Tyler Palko-Jr (6-2, 220) Joe Flacco-So (6-6, 220)
FB Kellen Campbell-Sr (6-0, 235) Tim Murphy-Sr (5-10, 235)
TB Raymond Kirkley-Sr (5-10, 225) Rashad Jennings-Fr (6-1, 235)
WR Greg Lee-Jr (6-2, 200) Derek Kinder-So (6-1, 200)
WR Joe DelSardo-Jr (5-8, 200) Marcel Pestano-Fr (6-1, 180)
TE Erik Gill-Sr (6-5, 270) Steve Buches-Jr (6-4, 250)
OT Charles Spencer-Sr (6-5, 330) Jerald Robinson-Fr (6-8, 315)
OG Dominic Williams-Fr (6-4, 300) Mike DeLuca-So (6-3, 290)
C Joe Villani-Jr (6-3, 300) Chris Vangas-So (6-2, 300)
OG John Simonitis-Jr (6-4, 315) Dave Weber-Fr (6-3, 345)
OT Mike McGlynn-So (6-5, 315) Neal Tracey-So (6-3, 295)
K Josh Cummings-Sr (5-11, 180) David Abdul-Jr (5-10, 190)


Defensive Line
There are three seniors - one a returning starter and two who've worked up the ladder - who will make this line show marked improvement(s). Rush end Thomas Smith is the leader, as the Panther's 2003 and 2004 Most Valuable defensive lineman garners double teams so the LBs can shine. He may move inside with so much quickness coming in. Former-LB Charles Sallet, after coverting last spring, has now proven his end spot is well deserved. Idoko and Tillman will make the most of their last opportunities, as both have the inside push to move forward, but also laterally equally as well. Then there are the newbies. Word on true frosh Craig Bokor is that his basketball prowess in jumping and sprinting is tireless, and Peabody-local Corey Davis runs a 4.6-second 40 at 300+lbs., so the speed Wannstedt likes is there in the developing youth, even beyond these two. Foes shouldn't underestimate this crew's ability to stop the run, because despite its 3.8 yards per try average they allowed, much of the larger gainers came late in second halves as the Panther running game couldn't keep these Pierogi-eaters resting enough on the bench. Still, they finished 48th as run stoppers, a testament to the heart they will again show. Accordingly, sacks will increase (22), too.

Two juniors bolster this group to well buoy its immediate prospects. Second-team all-American H.B. Blades carries on the family tradition (son of ex-NFLer Bennie, nephew to Al) as a ball-hound who is seemingly in on every play. Fellow-Floridian Clint Sessions also resonates his name throughout stadium loudspeakers, with announcers constantly confirming #17's high level of play. Sessions drops back well, and J.J. Horne rounds the weakside out strongly. Depth has both experience and intensity, with speed and hitting power-galore on this crew. Look for stunting and LBs lining up as down-linemen (Corey Davis) with so much talent and versatility.

Defensive Back
Pitt finished ranked pretty low (100th) for pass defense, but their much better efficiency ranking (58th) shows what we know already - that this young bunch is budding with enough talent to make foes worry about their ball-hawking abilities with every pass. Cornerbacks for the Panthers may collectively be the best in the nation. Senior Josh Lay helped Darelle Revis and Mike Phillips (both then freshmen) to fly up the learning curve, with all three ending ranked amongst the I-A leaders in passes defended last campaign. Corners with ability are coming out of the Monongahela, and the islands they can be left upon make foes take risks (Pitt had 17 INTs) or get sacked in the blitzing onslaught. The safeties have experience. Senior Tez Morris typifies this bunch - he stresses tackling and zone-coverage in his repertoire. This area is weaker, with passes allowed to get through, though with little YAC. Physical is what Wannstedt will prosper here, so any new schemes Paul Rhoads now gets from coach will improve the performances of those available.

There is a new approach with Wannstedt. Speed will bump most positions up, in both where they line up and their respective responsibility with each assignment. LBs will often be down-linemen, and hard-hitting DBs will be shuffled/dispatched in nickel- and dime-packages - both of these moves in an effort to mix assignments up so as to make it impossible for offenses to match up and/or know what/when to expect blitzes. Accordingly, seemingly "down" linemen will drop back as coverage guys race to the line. Pitt already swarmed with instinct, and Wannstedt's two National Championships (Miami) and one Super Bowl ring assure us that this defensive mastermind will shore up any loose ends and make his intimidating, physical approach breath through every player. The offenses' ability to make the play-clock work for them this time will only add to the D's impact. In turn, look for the line to improve enough so that they hold their own, and the back-seven can then create complex schemes that capitalize on their speed and sticky fingers. But when they do blitz, the CBs are good enough to employ bump-and-run (36% third-down conversion rate) as they limit the deep threat. Battle scars under Harris make for great results through a vindication of sorts - struggles are behind them and potential here will soon be fully reached.


DB Bernard "Josh" Lay


Returning Starters/
Key Players
DE Joe Clermond-So (6-2, 245) Vernon Botts-Jr (6-4, 260)
DT Phil Tillman-Sr (6-1, 315) Craig Bokor-Fr (6-3, 290)
DT Thomas Smith-Sr (6-4, 285) Nick Williams-Fr (6-2, 265)
DE Charles Sallet-Jr (6-0, 225) Chris McKillop-So (6-3, 240)
SLB Derron Thomas-So (6-1, 235) Scott McKillop-Fr (6-2, 220)
MLB H.B. Blades-Jr (6-0, 245) Clint Session-Jr (5-11, 235)
WLB J.J. Horne-Sr (6-3, 235) Brian Bennett-Jr (6-0, 235)
CB Darrelle Revis-So (6-0, 180) Reggie Carter-Jr (6-0, 190)
CB Bernard Lay-Sr (6-2, 195) Kennard Cox-So (6-1, 195)
SS Mike Phillips-So (5-11, 190) Sam Bryant-Jr (6-0, 220)
FS Tez Morris-Sr (5-10, 190) Steffan Brinson-Fr (5-11, 195)
P Adam Graessle-Jr (6-4, 220) Nick Krut-So (5-10, 180)



Josh Cummings has a legitimate, accurate leg that is only marginal once in 40+ range (3-of-9 with two blocks in 2004). Cummings is streaky, and inconsistencies will invite either David Abdul (freshman all-American in 2002) or punter Adam Graessle. Coverage here was rather sorry, but the defensive emphasis on toughness and speed will have the new guys waiting eagerly for their chances to prove themselves worthy, so this area tightens. All of the PKs are athletes, so they each become an 11th hat in search-and-destroy mode capable of sticking return men.

Graessle is a boomer, with his 43.3 yard average ranking him 13th in all of I-A in '04. But then there are the weaker net results, which make the above statements pertaining to the kick coverage hold water here, too. Five blocks here go with the other two to make seven the Panthers allowed to be knocked down, and show an underbelly needing protection (pun intended).

Return Game
Marcus Furman's small, quick ways make his returns on KO probable, while Revis will play the traditional DB return role on punts. Only Furman got the six-point special prize (but only once) in 2004, so expect a shuffle in spring to find any other burners. True-frosh LaRod Stevens will impact here.