Pitt will break training camp Saturday, with a scrimmage that is closed to anyone outside the team.
Don’t ask if it was a good camp. Of course, it was. In more than three decades of trying to understand what a football coach really means, I never have heard even one say, “Man, this was one horrible camp. We got nothing accomplished and this is going to the worst season in the history of our program.”
Pitt’s Todd Graham, a positive guy by nature, found a lot to like about this camp, not the least of which is how thoroughly his players – who didn’t know him from a rack of Texas-sized babyback ribs eight months ago – have bought what he is selling.
They do everything with enthusiasm, and they walk around the training complex with wide smiles and purposeful strides. This is not a team dragging through the final hours of camp.
But I will be interested to see how successful Pitt will be in limiting penalties and turnovers while trying to keep up the fast pace that Graham demands.
I think you will see many footballs and penalty flags on the ground through the first two games. That’s why opening up against Buffalo and Maine isn’t such a bad idea (even if they won’t excite the fan base).
An aside: For those criticizing Pitt for its first two games, the next five — Iowa, Notre Dame, South Florida, Rutgers and Utah in a 28-day span — make up for it.
— Today, Graham had game officials meet with players to explain any rules that may be unclear and point out indiscretions during practice.
Graham told reporters there were 14 separate occasions at the Friday morning practice where illegal procedure would have been called.
“We are just making sure we don’t beat ourselves,” he said.
— Here are the most prominent position battles that will attract the coaches’ attention during Saturday’s scrimmage:
The most important of all the positions, it is also the one in the most flux two weeks after the start of camp.
That’s not a good sign.
It all started because the sudden emergence of tackles Greg Gaskins and Juantez Hollins gave coaches reason to shuffle right tackle Lucas Nix inside to guard and put Cory King’s job at right guard in jeopardy.
The question is this: Can Gaskins, a fifth-year senior from York, play right tackle as well as Nix. If not, Graham will just keep Nix at right tackle – where he took most of the reps in camp – and hope King’s regression was only temporary.
OK, there is some good news. Graham said center Ryan Turnley had no bad snaps Friday morning. No matter where everyone else settles, Pitt’s best offensive line includes Chris Jacobson at left guard and Turnley at center.
The speculation should end Monday morning at practice, the first in which Pitt begins preparing for an opponent. Graham wants the offensive line configuration on that day to be the one that starts the season Sept. 3 against Buffalo. The starting five players need to start getting accustomed to each other.
My prediction: Graham will go back to the five that started camp – Jordan Gibbs and Nix at tackle, Jacobson and King at guard and Turnley at center. At least, he now has a little depth with Gaskins and Hollins and redshirt freshman guard Matt Rotheram.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER (SPUR)
If Pitt played today, Graham said Todd Thomas would be the starter, because he has played so well and Greg Williams has been hampered by injury. “Todd Thomas has had a great camp,” Graham said.
Redshirt freshman Eric Williams is also in the mix.
In case this kind of thing interests you as much as it does me, there are six players named Williams on the roster (none related and they come from four states).
INSIDE LINEBACKER (WILL)
Shane Gordon has moved ahead of senior Tristan Roberts and looks like he may line up next to Sam linebacker Max Gruder in the opener.
Thomas and Gordon would give Pitt’s defense speed, explosiveness and play-making ability. That’s why I think they will start. But Graham has yet to ask my opinion. Must have been an oversight.
Redshirt freshman Mark Myers has stepped up his game since quarterbacks coach Todd Dodge questioned “the fire in his belly” earlier this week.
Myers has a strong, accurate arm and a great release, but there are people (not coaches) who will tell you he doesn’t fit into this speed-based offense.
It’s going to be interesting to see how the quarterback position develops in the next two years, with Myers, Trey Anderson and 2012 recruit Chad Voytik behind Tino Sunseri. (Notice the absence of Anthony Gonzalez’s name. Right now, he’s an H-back.)
If I can take the liberty to read into the coach’s words, he seems more pleasantly surprised with Anderson, a freshman walkon, than so incredibly impressed by his strong play.
Don’t get me wrong: Anderson has done a lot of good things in an offense that is nearly identical to the one he ran so well at Pearland (Texas) High School. But I get the feeling that if he was playing at the same level as a junior, it would hardly be worth a mention.
Injuries have hampered Devin Street, Cam Saddler and Ed Tinker, but the top five look like this (when everyone is healthy):
Street, Mike Shanahan, Cam Saddler, Salath Williams and Josh Brinson, followed by Tinker and freshmen Ronald Jones, Darius Patton and Justin Jackson.
BACKUP RUNNING BACK
It’s a battle for the few carries Ray Graham and Zach Brown won’t get. Look for freshman Corey Davis to be the first in line.
“We are going to have a hard time not playing Corey Davis,” Graham said, “because he has such big-play capabilities. And Malcolm Crockett (another freshman) is such a physical every-down back.”
Freshman Isaac Bennett also has had some moments.
“I like the speed they provide,” Graham said. “I thought defensive line would be the strongest position on the field. It might be running back after watching this camp.”
Still, expect one or two of the freshmen to take a redshirt this season.
Graham said he is also impressed with a variety of other freshmen, including cornerbacks Lafayette Pitts and Lloyd Carrington and linebackers LaQuentin Smith, Nicholas Grigsby and Ejuan Price.
In terms of who gets on the field first, Graham said it may happen in this order: Price, either Pitts or Carrington and Smith.
— The best news today was Patton planning to be released from UPMC Presbyterian after passing out at practice Thursday.
“We are very pleased that things are going well and he is doing well,” Graham said.
Graham has been pleased with Patton’s progress on the field.
“It was tough getting used to the physicality,” he said of the 170-pound Patton. “Guys are a little bigger than what he was used to playing against. Then, he really came on.”
— By the way, Graham has said he won’t comment on what the team’s publicity people refer to as “nickel and dime” injuries. He will talk only about long-term problems.
He said he wants to protect his players from opponents with malicious intent. In other words, if a player has a sore toe and an opponent reads about it on the Internet, that toe becomes a target during a game. “Don’t think they won’t,” Graham said.