PITTSBURGH (AP) — If only Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt had just No. 19 Miami to worry about.
It’s a short work week before one of the Panthers’ biggest non-conference games in years, and yet game preparation isn’t all that’s occupying the coach’s time.
Wannstedt is being forced to defend a program that has had three players arrested in a two-month span. His best defensive player is out for most of the season with a serious injury, and is dealing with the death of his mother. His second-team All-American running back is trying to bounce back from being benched in the last game. An assortment of injuries only two games into the season means backups are playing in key positions.
And there’s this — if Pitt (1-1) loses Thursday night’s game against the favored Hurricanes (1-1), Wannstedt must put up with the perception that a team picked to win the Big East Conference is badly underachieving before its conference schedule begins.
“We’ve had some early season obstacles and adversity, but it’s nothing that we can’t handle,” Wannstedt said. “We’ve been there and done that. We have a lot of good young men on this football team that are ready for a challenge. They’re doing things the right way, but things happen.”
In the last 10 days, offensive lineman Keith Coleman (aggravated assault, disorderly conduct) and running back Jason Douglas (aggravated assault, driving while intoxicated) were arrested. In July, defensive end Jabaal Sheard, formerly considered one of the Panthers’ role models, was charged with aggravated assault and disorderly conduct after throwing a man through an art gallery’s glass door. Coleman and Douglas were suspended, but Sheard was not.
Also, starting middle linebacker Dan Mason was demoted to second team after being with Douglas on the night the running back’s car struck a pedestrian.
“We’ve had a couple of bad decisions in the past month and a half, but that is not an indication of our football team,” Wannstedt said. “We are doing everything that we can to get that resolved. It’s not what we were in the past. It’s not what we are now, and it’s not what we’ll be all about in the future.”
Still, the former NFL head coach understands that the actions of a few can taint the positive work done by dozens. In college football, such incidents potentially harm recruiting because they can create a perception that a program isn’t being run properly.
“One or two incidents is not an indication of 120 kids. … I don’t think you can lump everything together, like some people want to do,” Wannstedt said. “Obviously, there are consequences, but if your son plays for me, I would think that you would want me to be fair and that things are handled the right way. If you’re wrong, you’re wrong, and you will lose your scholarship.”
On the field, Wannstedt wants to get running back Dion Lewis going again following his 27-yard effort against FCS opponent New Hampshire. Lewis got only one carry in the second half as backup Ray Graham finished with 115 yards on nine attempts.
Lewis, the nation’s leading returning rusher after gaining 1,799 yards as a freshman, was held to 75 yards on 25 carries in Pitt’s opener against Utah. Lewis is running behind a rebuilt line that is missing both guards and the center from a year ago — and he’s opposing defenses that are better prepared for him than they were last season.
“I wouldn’t say he’s frustrated,” quarterback Tino Sunseri said. “He understands it’s a team game, and he’ll do whatever it takes to win as a team. … He knows that sometimes you’ll bust out for more than 100 yards and other times you get only 20. We’re still going to try to get him the ball any way that we can, but when something doesn’t work, we’ll try something else.”
Against New Hampshire, that something else was Graham, who will get some carries against Miami.
“We’ll go in this week knowing that they’re both going to play, but with no specific plan that Dion will get so many carries and Ray will get so many carries,” Wannstedt said. “If we get a hot hand, we’ll play the hot hand.”
Wannstedt also is playing backups at defensive end, middle linebacker and the secondary. Defensive end Greg Romeus, the Big East co-defensive player of the year last season, won’t return until late in the year after having back surgery last week — only a few days before his mother died. Defensive backs Dom DeCicco (hamstring) and Andrew Taglianetti (groin) also are limping and their status for Miami is uncertain.