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August 8, 2008

Big East Conference unit rankings

MORE: 2008 Big East Conference Preview

West Virginia is the prohibitive favorite in the Big East, and it's easy to see why.

The Mountaineers have the best offensive backfield and offensive line in the league.

The Mountaineers will score points, no doubt about it. But a look at the position rankings show some Big East defenses might be able to hold them off long enough to eke out a win.

Big East hopefuls USF and Pittsburgh both rank at or near the top of our defensive unit rankings.

Naturally, those were the only two teams to slow down West Virginia last season.

Here are our Big East unit rankings entering the 2008 season:

OFFENSIVE BACKFIELD
1. WEST VIRGINIA
Speed kills. Quarterback Pat White and running back Noel Devine give West Virginia the fastest backfield in the country.
2. USF
Quarterback Matt Grothe is focal point of the offense, but the Bulls need more production out of running backs Mike Ford and Benjamin Williams (1,070 yards, 18 TDs combined).
3. PITTSBURGH
LeSean McCoy topped 1,300 yards and 14 touchdowns as a true freshman and has quality backups. Pitt needs quarterback Bill Stull to stay healthy.
4. CONNECTICUT
Andre Dixon and Donald Brown (1,649 yards) form a dangerous tailback tandem. Quarterback Tyler Lorenzen does a solid job of running the offense.
5. RUTGERS
A team of backs led by Kordell Young will try to fill Ray Rice's shoes. Quarterback Mike Teel has emerged as team leader.
6. LOUISVILLE
Hunter Cantwell finally gets his chance at quarterback. Brock Bolen, Bilal Powell and Victor Anderson form an adequate committee at tailback.
7. CINCINNATI
Quarterback Dustin Grutza has made 24 career starts, but Notre Dame transfer Demetrius Jones will see playing time. The Bearcats don't have a feature back, so expect a committee approach.
8. SYRACUSE
Running backs Delone Carter and Curtis Brinkley must be healthy for Syracuse to have a fighting chance. Andrew Robinson topped 300 passing yards three times.

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT END
1. RUTGERS
The Scarlet Knights are one of three teams nationally to return multiple 1,000-yard receivers Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood.
2. CINCINNATI
The Bearcats return the top four receivers on a team that likes to spread the ball around. Dominick Goodman and Marcus Barnett both topped 60 catches.
3. PITTSBURGH
Look at the 2006 stats, not 2007. That's when Derek Kinder and Oderick Turner combined for 1,607 yards and 14 TDs. Then add five-star recruit Jonathan Baldwin and tight end Nate Byham.
4. USF
The top four receivers are back, but none reached 40 receptions or 600 yards. Carlton Mitchell was a bright spot as a freshman.
5. WEST VIRGINIA
The Mountaineers want Pat White to pass more. Are players such as Dorrell Jalloh, Tito Gonzales, Alric Arnett, Jock Sanders and Wes Lyons up to the task?
6. LOUISVILLE
Harry Douglas and Mario Urrutia are out, but Scott Long and Doug Beaumont hope to carry the torch. Tight end is a major concern.
7. CONNECTICUT
Wide receivers Brad Kanuch and D.J. Hernandez and tight end Steve Brouse won't scare anybody. The transfer of wide receiver Terence Jeffers, last season's leading receiver, to Vanderbilt hurts.
8. SYRACUSE
The suspension of star wide receiver Mike Williams spells trouble for the Orange passing game.

OFFENSIVE LINE
1. WEST VIRGINIA
Left tackle Ryan Stanchek was a Rivals.com second-team All-America. Left guard Greg Isdaner was All-Big East. Right guard Jake Figner and center Mike Dent are returning starters.
2. USF
Four starters (including three seniors) return, led by left guard Ryan Schmidt. A little more depth would be nice.
3. CONNECTICUT
Par for the course in Storrs. Four starters return on an unheralded line. Experience won't be an issue here.
4. LOUISVILLE
Eric Wood is the league's top center and has made 37 consecutive starts. Left tackle George Bussey has started 25 in a row, but the rest of the line is green.
5. RUTGERS
Anthony Davis moves to left tackle after being named a Rivals.com Freshman All-America at guard. The line must move on without tackles Pedro Sosa and Jeremy Zuttah and guard Mike Fladell.
6. PITTSBURGH
Pitt loses a first-round pick in Jeff Otah. Left guard C.J. Davis and right tackle Joe Thomas are seasoned vets.
7. CINCINNATI
Guard Trevor Canfield has started 25 consecutive games. Two other starters return, but the line lacks depth.
8. SYRACUSE
Much of the same cast returns to a unit that competed with Notre Dame for futility last season.

DEFENSIVE LINE
1. USF
End George Selvie was a consensus All-America. End Jarriett Buie and tackle Aaron Harris are returning starters.
2. CONNECTICUT
Ends Julius Williams and Cody Brown combined for 16 sacks. Rob Lunn and Alex Polito are serviceable at tackle.
3. PITTSBURGH
Greg Romeus is a rising star at end. Both starting tackles return, along with Gus Mustakas - who missed all of last season with a knee injury.
4. RUTGERS
Jamaal Westerman (eight sacks, 14 TFL) moves to tackle in place of stalwart Eric Foster. Tackle Pete Tverdov is a dependable senior.
5. CINCINNATI
Tackle Terrill Byrd was an all-conference performer, but both starters at end are new.
6. LOUISVILLE
The line will be the strength of the Louisville defense but that's not saying much.
7. WEST VIRGINIA
The Mountaineers play only three linemen in their scheme. Tackle Scooter Berry was a Rivals.com first-team freshman All-America.
8. SYRACUSE
Tackle Arthur Jones (17.5 TFL) is one of the few bright spots for the Orange.

LINEBACKERS
1. PITTSBURGH
The Panthers return all three starting linebackers, including Scott McKillop. He led the nation with 151 tackles last season.
2. CONNECTICUT
Scott Lutrus and Lawrence Wilson were among the best freshman linebackers in the country last season. Dahna Deleston moves to linebacker from safety.
3. WEST VIRGINIA
Linebacker will be the strength of the defense, with leading tacklers Reed Williams and Mortty Ivy returning this season.
4. USF
Losing Ben Moffitt is a blow, but the Bulls might be able to withstand the hit with Tyrone McKenzie and Brouce Mompremier returning.
5. CINCINNATI
Ryan Manalac, Corey Smith and Andre Revels are a serviceable starting three.
6. RUTGERS
Much of this unit's success depends on a breakout season from redshirt freshman Manny Abreu and the health of Ryan D'Imperio.
7. SYRACUSE
Senior middle linebacker Jake Flaherty (95 tackles, 6.6 TFL) leads a young group of linebackers.
8. LOUISVILLE
This thin group of linebackers lost all three starters from last year, and the Cardinals need several junior college transfers to come through to remain competitive.

SECONDARY
1. CINCINNATI
Cornerbacks Mike Mickens and DeAngelo Smith are one of the top cornerback duos in the nation after combining for 14 interceptions last season.
2. RUTGERS
Courtney Greene and Joe Lefeged are the hardest-hitting safety tandem in the Big East. Cornerbacks Devin McCourty and Jason McCourty yes, they're twins are returning starters.
3. CONNECTICUT
Tyvon Branch is gone and safety Dahna Deleston was moved to linebacker. However, enough talent returns to keep the unit competitive starting with cornerback Darius Butler and free safety Robert Vaughn.
4. USF
The unit will have growing pains after losing elite cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Trae Williams. But there is the standout safety duo of Nate Allen and Carlton Williams.
5. PITTSBURGH
The Panthers return cornerback Aaron Berry and free safety Eric Thatcher to a team that finished third in pass defense.
6. WEST VIRGINIA
The secondary was hit hard by graduation and the dismissal of safety Charles Pugh. Much is riding on veteran safety Quinton Andrews.
7. LOUISVILLE
Teams were able to pass at will on the Cardinals last season. Cornerback Woodny Turenne, a heralded junior college recruit in 2007, needs to live up to his five-star status.
8. SYRACUSE
Both starting safeties return to a unit that finished 103rd in pass defense and 110th in pass efficiency defense.

SPECIAL TEAMS
1. PITTSBURGH
Punter Dave Brytus and kicker Conor Lee are the best kicking tandem in the league. Aaron Berry was an all-conference punt returner.
2. WEST VIRGINIA
K/P Pat McAfee had an excellent season in 2007 until he missed two field goals in the loss to Pittsburgh.
3. CINCINNATI
Kevin Huber led the nation in punting with 46.9 yards per kick. Kicker Jake Rogers struggled last season, but he was the best Cincinnati had.
4. CONNECTICUT
Punter Desi Cullen and kicker Tony Ciaravino return, but standout kick returner Tyvon Branch must be replaced.
5. USF
Kicker Delbert Alvarado made 19 field goals last season, but he's far from automatic.
6. SYRACUSE
Punter Rob Long and kick returner Max Suter got a lot of work last season, but they were among the best in the league.
7. RUTGERS
The Scarlet Knights will miss Jeremy Ito. The return teams were among the worst in the conference.
8. LOUISVILLE
Kicker Art Carmody is gone. Trent Guy could give the return game a boost if he returns to the team in October, as expected.

COACHING STAFF
1. CINCINNATI
Brian Kelly has revived the Bearcats' program with a staff culled from Central Michigan, Division II Grand Valley State and Ohio high schools.
2. USF
Jim Leavitt built the program from the ground up. Wally Burnham is a fine defensive coordinator. The offense hasn't matched defense's production, though.
3. CONNECTICUT
Randy Edsall carried the program from I-AA to a Big East co-championship with a solid staff comprised of underrated assistants.
4. RUTGERS
Greg Schiano is a miracle worker. But he also has seven new assistants on his staff.
5. LOUISVILLE
Rebuilding the defensive staff should pay dividends, but the jury is still out on Steve Kragthorpe in the Derby City.
6. WEST VIRGINIA
Bill Stewart is a feel-good story, but can he coach? Retaining defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel was a boost to the program.
7. PITTSBURGH
Dave Wannstedt can recruit, but he has to show he is able to win with his players. Replacing defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads with Phil Bennett isn't much of a drop-off.
8. SYRACUSE
Hiring former Minnesota offensive coordinator Mitch Browning is a step in the right direction, but will it save Greg Robinson?

MORE: 2008 Big East Conference Preview

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.



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