= There are going to be these kinds of days.
First-year coach Todd Graham is installing a complicated high-octane offense, and quarterback Tino Sunseri and his teammates are learning the new system on the run. So maybe that’s the reason why the offense looked so out of sorts during today’s practice.
The Panthers turned the ball over at least seven times (four interceptions, three fumbles) during the two-hour workout and it could have reached double figures except that three near-certain interceptions were dropped.
“We turned the ball over way to much,” Graham said.
Sunseri, Mark Myers (two) and Trey Anderson were intercepted.
Three running backs — Ray Graham, freshman Malcolm Crockett and Juco transfer Desmond Brown — lost fumbles.
There were also at least three bad snaps in shotgun formation where the ball ended up on the ground.
While upset with the lack of ball control, coach Graham praised the defense for being active and opportunistic.
“They were flying around and making things happen,” coach Graham said. “I was very pleased with today’s work.”
To be fair, some of the interceptions weren’t the quarterbacks’ fault. Tight end Drew Carswell was hit as a Myers pass arrived and the ball popped into the air, where an alert freshman linebacker LaQuentin Smith snatched it for an interception.
Later, running back Zach Brown, the fifth-year senior transfer from Wisconsin, couldn’t handle a Myers pass right in his hands and Tristan Roberts plucked the ball out of the air and returned it 20 yards for a touchdown.
Safety Jason Hendricks stepped in front of a receiver to intercept a Sunseri pass, and cornerback Antwuan Reed broke well on an Anderson pass for an interception, though he fumbled on the return.
Outside linebacker Todd Thomas and senior inside linebacker Max Gruder had fumble recoveries, and another ball ended up on the ground when Anderson and Crockett had a bad handoff exchange.
Coach Graham was asked about the fine line of whether it’s the offense playing poorly or the defense playing well.
“I think if you’re a good football team, it usually goes back and forth,” he said. “I don’t like seeing the turnovers. But that’s what practice is for. You learn from those things. I feel really good about the defense but I don’t feel good about putting the ball in jeopardy.”
Graham estimated that Sunseri has thrown one interception in roughly 200 passes in 7 on 7 and 11 on 11 drills through four days of practice.
“He’s been pretty efficient,” he said. “I think the defense was striking and getting after it and creating some of that. We’re also learning and installing and that causes a little bit of tentativeness. …But we’ve got to do a lot better job taking care of the football because that’s the No. 1 objective right now.”
*** Sophomore linebacker Shane Gordon appears to have taken the starting Sam linebacker job from Roberts, a fifth-year senior. Once again, Gordon took every snap with the first team, while Roberts, who started eight games last year, is working solely with the second unit.
Gordon (6-1, 230) is much more explosive than Roberts (6-1, 230), and had the biggest hit of the day when he broke into the backfield and leveled Ray Graham near the end of practice. It was a play-action pass – and Graham didn’t have the ball – but it was a fearsome collision that actually left Gordon feeling a bit woozy as practice ended.
Coach Graham indicated the starting job remains up for grabs, but clearly Gordon has jumped up on the depth chart.
“Shane has got tremendous ability, power and strength,” coach Graham said. “He is very much in the mix and he’s a guy that can really help us and be a really good player.”
*** Another star of the practice was junior kicker Kevin Harper, who went 3 for 3 on field-goal attempts, including a 57-yarder and a 49-yarder.
“Harper had an incredible day,” coach Graham said. “He was very impressive.”
Harper, one of the top kickers in the nation coming out of Mentor (Ohio) High School, has attempted only one field goal at Pitt, a missed 51-yarder against Syracuse in 2009. He was the team’s kickoff specialist last season playing behind all-Big East performer Dan Hutchins.
“I think he’s got a chance to be a great point-scorer,” coach Graham said of Harper. “I like his mentality. He really believes he can be the best in the country.”
*** Thomas, a redshirt freshman, continues to make plays at outside linebacker after switching from wide receiver. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Thomas, who redshirted last season following surgery on his left knee in October, forced a fumble and recovered the ball during passing drills. Thomas, who has switched uniform numbers from No. 4 to No. 8, was working with the second-team defense.
“It’s his first time out there, so the learning has been slow for him,” coach Graham said. “But I like the fact that he just gets out there and he plays. He turns it loose and he plays. He’s very coachable. He wants to be good. He is a very gifted athlete and a very physical player.”
*** Junior Ryan Turnley worked with the first-team at center – with Chris Jacobson at left guard — and fared well except for a couple of bad snaps late in the practice.