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May 12, 2009

Whispers: Big questions in the Big East

Spring practices are finished across the nation, but not every question was answered.

Every school has one big, vexing query that hangs over its program. Over the next six weeks, I'll examine the biggest question each "Big Six" squad faces.

The series kicks off with a look at the Big East.

CINCINNATI: While the staff is on the lookout for a running back, the biggest worry is rehabbing a defense that lost 10 starters. Four of the departed defensive players were NFL draft choices: defensive backs DeAngelo Smith, Brandon Underwood and Mike Mickens, along with defensive end Connor Barwin. And punter Kevin Huber, another defender of sorts, also was picked. Further muddling the picture on defense is the presence of a new coordinator, Bob Diaco, who arrived from Virginia. He is familiar with coach Brian Kelly, having served on his Central Michigan staff as co-coordinator in 2005. Still, the defense bears watching for a program loaded with momentum coming off an Orange Bowl appearance.

CONNECTICUT: It's vital this summer for the offensive players to master the playbook. In the spring, new coordinator Joe Moorhead who arrived from Akron was only able to install the base packages of his multiple-set, no-huddle offense. The personnel need to work on getting familiar with signals and formations. Junior Zach Frazer won the quarterback job over sophomore Cody Endres in the spring, and that should help from a teaching and leadership situation in the offseason.

LOUISVILLE: Myriad questions linger in Derby City following two uneven seasons under coach Steve Kragthorpe, but the biggest issue dogging the Cardinals is at quarterback. In the spring, four battled. Since then, one has transferred: Tyler Wolfe, last season's backup. That leaves junior Justin Burke, junior college transfer Adam Froman and sophomore Zack Stoudt in the mix. Burke, a transfer from N.C. State, emerged as a slight leader, but the job remains open, for all intents and purposes, as Louisville looks to replace the departed Hunter Cantwell.

PITTSBURGH: The Panthers haven't really had a quarterback since Tyler Palko left after the 2006 season. It's vital that coach Dave Wannstedt finds a competent quarterback as he enters his fifth season. Senior Bill Stull is back after starting in 2008, but he doesn't have a tight grip on the post. Look for junior Pat Bostick and redshirt freshman Tino Sunseri to push for the job in August. Bostick was voted Pitt's most improved offensive player in the spring, while Sunseri may be the most talented of the trio.

RUTGERS: First, the good news the Scarlet Knights return all five offensive line starters and their top four running backs. And the receivers are young but talented. But there is a question at quarterback. In the spring, the staff was unable to pick a successor for Mike Teel. Senior Domenic Natale was the best, but the competition with senior Jabu Lovelace will rage in August. Keep an eye on touted incoming freshman Tom Savage, who attended every spring session on his own and spent hours studying tape.

SYRACUSE: There are big worries at defensive tackle with Arthur Jones coming back from a serious injury and Lamar Middleton leaving the team. And there are no kickers with experience to replace steady and dependable Patrick Shadle. But new coach Doug Marrone is most desperate to find a quarterback, which has been a trouble spot for years. It was an eventful spring under center for the Orange, as former starter Andrew Robinson moved to tight end and David Legree quit. Redshirt freshman Ryan Nassib emerged to claim the job over senior Cameron Dantley. Stay tuned.

USF: The offensive line lacks depth and experience, making it the biggest concern for coach Jim Leavitt. But there are other nits to pick this offseason. Keep an eye on senior quarterback Matt Grothe. He's the most experienced signal-caller in the Big East, but will he get any better? His career touchdown-interception ratio of 47-42 remains average, though new offensive coordinator Mike Canales should help. In addition, junior running back Mike Ford must step up. He has all-league talent, but was dinged most of last season and never really got going.

WEST VIRGINIA: No doubt losing quarterback Pat White hurts, but senior Jarrett Brown has promise. The biggest concern is the offensive line. Gone are right guard Jake Figner, left guard Greg Isdaner and left tackle Ryan Stanchek. That trio helped WVU have the No. 2 rushing attack in the Big East and No. 15 nationally. Even more impressive, those linemen helped West Virginia compile a 42-9 record and two Big East crowns in the past four seasons. The Mountaineers are looking for players such as guard Josh Jenkins and tackle Don Barclay to step up, among others.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.

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