Each day on his way to the locker room at Duratz Athletic Complex, Pitt sophomore running back Dion Lewis passes a five-foot-tall, 18-foot-wide photo display of Panthers All-Americas. Seventy-one players are featured in chronological order, including Tony Dorsett, a four-time first-team All-America (1973 through '76) whose photo appears about 20 yards from the locker room entrance. Says Lewis, "I see Tony's face every day."
Last season Pitt fans saw Lewis, a freshman, earn the Big East Offensive Player of the Year award after rushing for 1,799 yards, behind only Dorsett's school-record 2,150 in 1976, when he won the Heisman Trophy and led the Panthers to a 12--0 national championship season. "In a thousand years I would not have expected that from Dion," says coach Dave Wannstedt. "I thought he'd be part of a running-back-by-committee."
Instead Wannstedt discovered a back with the potential to carry the Panthers to their first Big East title since 2004. Just 5' 8" and 195 pounds but as strong as a steelworker, Lewis carried the ball 325 times last year, including a school-record 47 in a 45--44 loss to Cincinnati in the final week of the regular season. "The numbers were good, but there are things I didn't do as well as I should have," he says. "I didn't make the right reads on some runs, and I want to be a better blocker and better receiver."
Lewis will be aided in the backfield by fellow sophomore Ray Graham, who averaged 5.7 yards a carry on 61 attempts last year. The passing game is up in the air with a potential quarterback battle between sophomore Tino Sunseri and junior Pat Bostick, but this team will win through Lewis. "You have to throw the ball to score points," says Wannstedt, "but you have to run the ball to win games."
This is Wannstedt's youngest team in his six years at the school, though he does have two senior standouts on defense in ends Jabaal Sheard and Greg Romeus, a Big East co--Defensive Player of the Year. Over the past two seasons Pitt is 19--7, including a 10--3 record last year, its first 10-win season since 1981. "It's nice that people nationally are talking about us a bit," says Wannstedt. "How do you handle those expectations? Well, you don't run from them."
No, if you're Pitt, you run with them.
CONFERENCE Big East
COACH Dave Wannstedt (6th year)
2009 RECORD 10--3 (5--2 in Big East)
FINAL AP RANK 15
RETURNING STARTERS 11
Offense 5, Defense 6
2 at Utah
11 New Hampshire
23 Miami (Fla.)
2 Florida International
9 at Notre Dame
16 at Syracuse
11 at Connecticut
20 at South Florida
26 West Virginia
4 at Cincinnati
A matchup nightmare at 6' 5", 230, the first-team All--Big East wideout can catch the ball in traffic or go upfield.
DeCicco has exceptional size (6' 4", 230) and can also defend the pass (four interceptions in '08, three in '09).
A likely first-round NFL pick, Romeus ignites the defense with his pressure off the edge (eight sacks last year).
JEANINE LEECH/ICON SMI (SUNSERI)
Either Sunseri (12) or Bostick will take over at quarterback, but the Panthers will still emphasize the ground game.
CHARLES LECLAIRE/GETTY IMAGES
Photograph by MATT FREED/PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE/ZUMAPRESS.COM
The 5' 8", 195-pound Lewis does not let his relative lack of size stop him from being a running workhorse.