As tough schedule awaits, Pitt hopes stars overcome lack of experience at key positions

Pitt officially starts preseason practice Saturday in the most anticipated of Dave Wannstedt's six seasons as coach, even if it might seem to his players as if they have been preparing since the day last season ended.

For good reason, too.

Asked what he did during his time off this summer, new starting quarterback Tino Sunseri said he visited his mother for four days. And that was his summer vacation, one mostly spent working out with the teammates who've yet to see him lead them as a starter.

"That's it," he said Friday.

There won't be much of a break when the season starts, either. Pitt also has two new starting cornerbacks, two new starting offensive guards a new center. Both interior defensive linemen are first-time starters.

With so much inexperience at key positions, this would seem to be a season in which the Panthers might start slowly. But they understand a team that was a near-unanimous pick as the Big East preseason favorite can't afford to do that with potential Top 25 non-conference opponents Utah, Miami and Notre Dame awaiting in its first five games.

Wannstedt is hoping the Panthers' depth — 20 of the 22 projected starters are in at least their third year in the program — and the abundance of star-caliber players help them get through their rugged break-in period.

Running back Dion Lewis was a second-team All-American as a freshman. Jonathan Baldwin is one of the Big East Conference's best wide receivers. Defensive end Greg Romeus, the Big East's co-defensive player of the year, could be a first-round draft pick.

Wannstedt likes how his players are handling the expectations placed upon them as the Big East preseason favorite. The challenge, he said, is making sure they are game-ready for the Sept. 2 opener.

"Opening out at Utah, there's no margin for error," Wannstedt said. "We're going to have to go out there and play as well as we can in order to win that game, and everybody knows that. This is a very, very important training camp for us as a football team. We have a lot to get dome in 27 days."

Pitt's weakness appears to be its vulnerability at so many pivotal positions — one bad throw by a new quarterback, one misread pass route by a cornerback can cost a team a game and, perhaps, its national ranking.

With three new blockers in front of him, it might be difficult for Lewis to get off to as fast a start as he did while rushing for 1,799 yards last season.

"Last year at this time, I don't think I mentioned Dion Lewis," Wannstedt said. "It really was a situation where guys like that all of a sudden have big years. ... You hope you've recruited good kids, their opportunities come and they take advantage of it."

While Sunseri has thrown all of 17 college passes, the son of former Pitt linebacker Sal Sunseri is headed off to his third training camp. At this time a year ago, he was sharing practice snaps with Bill Stull, who went on to keep the job.

"The plays will take care of themselves," Sunseri said. "I believe I have the physical tools to play the position. I can make all the throws, but I definitely had to work on the mental aspect, and I took care of that during the spring and the offseason."

Lewis won't have the surprise factor going for him like he did last year, when he had the best season by a Pitt running back since Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett ran for 2,150 yards on an unbeaten national championship team in 1976. Lewis also won't have to carry the offense by himself; Baldwin made 57 catches for 1,111 yards and eight touchdowns last season as a deep threat who demands attention from defenses.

"I think we can be just as good offensively, if not better," Lewis said. "I think we're going to have a big year, and that should help me a lot. We're going to have a great year on offense."