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Pitt offense showing signs of improvement


Football practice in April doesn’t mean much.
It’s important for players to polish their skills and learn a new system, but good plays won’t necessarily carry over to summer drills or the games.
But at Pitt — where the offense failed to score a touchdown in 10 of the last 11 quarters of the 2011 season — even baby steps are worth noting.
After 11 days of practice (four to go), the offense finally started to get in sync the past two days. And three players who had only brief bursts of success last season — quarterback Tino Sunseri and wide receivers Cam Saddler and Devin Street — are practicing well and making progress.
Saddler made several good catches Tuesday morning, including a diving touchdown reception. The catch triggered such a flourish of high fives and chest bumps among offensive players that line coach Jim Hueber was moved to shout, “Act like you’ve been there before.”
But there’s nothing wrong with celebrating. Defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable, whose vocal chords must be coated in steel, encourages his players to get excited after good plays. After a season’s worth of struggles, it can’t hurt if the Pitt players occasionally start feeling good about themselves.
Sunseri was on target for much of the morning, and his decision-making was sharper and more effective than at any time this spring.
On two separate occasions, he rolled to his right, found no one open toward the sideline, but threw a touchdown pass by finding the alternate receiver in the middle of the field. He also threaded a long pass to Street between defensive backs Ray Vinopal and Lloyd Carrington.
The offensive line is clearly better at run-blocking, and the ground game looks to be in good hands with sophomore Isaac Bennett running well and waiting to be complemented by Ray Graham and Rushel Shell.
Coach Paul Chryst’s staff concentrates on teaching techniques, and the players are responding to it. Wide receivers coach Bobby Engram, who played 14 seasons in the NFL and has garnered the players’ attention and respect, is a good example.
“It’s great to have a coach that we get along with so well and who teaches us so much,” Street said. “We’ve had teachers, but he just knows how to go about it the right way.”
A good example emerged Saturday when players’ fathers were invited to watch practice and listen to the coaches explain the game. Many of them commented that the messages were clear, even though they know little about football.
Street said the new offense requires more thinking, but he likes it better than last year’s spread.
“In the spread, it was just go,” he said. “Now, we are thinking a lot more. We are understanding why concepts are that way, why routes are that way, so there is a little difference.”
The offense has looked good for two days — hardly a representative sample — and it means nothing until the season starts. Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph emphasized that there is no depth chart in April.
And no games that count in the standings.
But you have to start somewhere, and after a slow start, Pitt is finally off to a good start.



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