Pitt coach Paul Chryst gets serious this week, with two-a-day practices Monday, Wednesday and Friday. All of a sudden, the opener is less than three weeks away. In fact, three weeks from Friday morning (Aug. 17), Pitt will have two games in the books (1/6th of the season) after playing Youngstown State on Sept. 1 and Cincinnati in the Big East opener Sept. 6.
Some observations after a week of drills:
1. Of all the players in Pitt’s projected starting lineup, here is the one the Panthers can least afford to lose — quarterback Tino Sunseri. I know that surprises/shocks many people, but I say that for a few reasons.
First and most important, Sunseri has started 26 consecutive games at Pitt and backups Trey Anderson and Chad Voytik have started none. Nowhere on the field is experience more important than at quarterback.
Second, he looks so much more comfortable in the pocket of a pro-style offense than he did trying to figure out what Todd Graham was trying to teach him. He needs to develop consistency in his decision-making, but he looks like (if the offensive line gives him time), he might become a productive passer this season.
Third, quarterback is the most important position on the field, and it can’t be taken lightly. Most teams (college or pro) suffer when they have to dig into that depth chart.
2. Anderson, a sophomore, has seized the backup job and could keep it for the rest of training camp. He looks a little more confident than he did last season when Graham shoved him into games way before he was ready. He has a long way to go, however.
3. Voytik wasn’t under center a whole lot in high school, and he spent last week adjusting to that new dynamic, plus everything else that typically races through a freshman’s head when he first steps on a college campus. Chryst, of course, hasn’t said anything, but I bet he wouldn’t mind redshirting Voytik, so he can go into the spring of 2013 with two quarterbacks with four years of eligibility (including Tra’von Chapman), one with two (Anderson) and a senior with one (transfer Tom Savage). That looks a whole lot better than the current depth chart.
4. Sophomore running back Isaac Bennett can play this game very well. Bennett runs with power and speed, and he has a team-first attitude that will allow him to develop at a good pace. Asked about the log-jam of players at running back among himself, Ray Graham, Malcolm Crockett (who also looks good) and freshman Rushel Shell, Bennett didn’t call it competition for playing time. “It’s just team-work,” he said. Very refreshing. Consider Bennett a little going-away present from Graham to Pitt.
5. Ray Graham wants to play in the opener desperately, and you can’t blame him after going through his difficult rehab from knee surgery. But easing him into the season is the best way to go. With Bennett looking more than capable of handling the workload against Youngstown State, why rush Graham’s return? Save him for the Big East and tough non-conference games against Virginia Tech and Notre Dame.
6. By the way, Chryst doesn’t need me to tell him that, but I offer suggestions free of charge, coach.
7. Even if he leads Pitt to a Big East championship, nothing Chryst does between now and letter-of-intent day will be as important as recruiting a bunch of big bodies who can play the offensive line. Former coach Dave Wannstedt didn’t do a good enough job in that regard. The season-ending injury last year to senior guard Chris Jacobson was unlucky for him and the 2011 team, but lucky for this year’s squad. It allowed Jacobson to return for a sixth year. Plus, what a great leader to set the right tone in the locker room and huddle.
8. Pitt has two offensive linemen in its 2013 class, Carson Baker of Fairborn, Ohio, who is 315 pounds, and Aaron Reese of Chambersburg, 290. Both are 6-foot-5.
9. Let me know if you disagree, but Pitt needs more beef at linebacker. Starters (at this point) Eric Williams, Shane Gordon and Manny Williams average 224 pounds, and I wonder what might happen when those big, pulling 300-pound guards start stampeding into the Pitt defense. Pitt’s linebackers on the first unit are very athletic and very willing, but they aren’t especially big and only Gordon has starting experience (two games). Todd Thomas and Ejuan Price will help in the latter area, but both are coming back from significant injuries.
10. As I am writing this, Twitter is flowing with people congratulating 2013 linebacker Luke MacLean for making a verbal commitment to Pitt. MacLean is a senior at Grand Blanc, Mich., High School and is rated the No. 27 inside linebacker in the nation by rivals.com. Pitt’s first linebacker recruit in the Class of 2013 looks the part at 6-3, 233 pounds.
11. The coach who decided to move Tyrone Ezell from tackle to end is a smart guy. Ezell batted down three passes from the end position in Saturday’s scrimmage, even while splitting time at tackle while K.K. Mosley-Smith is out with an injury. At 6-4, 300 pounds, Ezell has a lot to learn about line play, but he looks like he belongs in the NFL. He helps give Pitt a sturdy four-man front with 305-pound Mosley-Smith, 275-pound Aaron Donald and 290-pound T.J. Clemmings.
12. I spent a little time on the sideline talking to scouts about Pitt’s best players. From what I’m hearing, Jacobson and tight end Hubie Graham have good pro potential, and there should be room in someone’s camp next year for a smart, tough guy such as safety Andrew Taglianetti.
13. Speaking of safeties, Pitt has four experienced players at that position — Taglianetti, Jarred Holley, Jason Hendricks and Ray Vinopal — and I wouldn’t be surprised to see three of them lining up together in certain defensive packages.
14. Among the most interesting sights of camp has been 5-10 cornerback K’waun Williams jumping up and batting away passes for taller wide receivers such as Mike Shanahan, 6-5, and Devin Street, 6-4. I get the feeling defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable will feel confident letting Williams go one-on-one on the outside while getting a little creative with his safeties and linebackers, all of whom can run.