A couple of notes as Pitt training camp winds down for another year:
Pitt’s linebackers still need a lot of work – and getting the same three players in there for more than a day would help – but the return of outside linebacker Eric Williams from injury is a big step. Williams, Clairton graduate Manny Williams and middle linebacker Shane Gordon look like the currently favored trio.
Even more important is the return of wide receivers Devin Street and Mike Shanahan. They are not doing everything in practice, but the longer they work without interruption, the better the passing game will look. With the exception of senior Cam Saddler and sophomore Ronald Jones, the rest of the wide receiver group has almost no experience.
Running back Isaac Bennett and center Ryan Turnley haven’t done much recently, but coach Paul Chryst said they are “day-to-day” and Turnley said his injury is not serious. With Bennett and Ray Graham taking the day off, freshman Rushel Shell took advantage of the extra reps and ran hard.
Running back Desmond Brown drew the ire of defensive backs/special teams coach Matt House for getting too close to punter Matt Yoklic and blocking a punt. When Brown defended himself to House, he was awarded with 20 down-ups. (You might remember them from gym class as up-downs, but they are really down-ups because you jump to the ground before pulling yourself back up.)
What’s most important in that exchange is House demanding discipline from his players and making sure the punter doesn’t get hurt in a mid-week August drill. No coach pushes his players harder than House (offensive line coach Jim Hueber and defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable are a close second), and it will show this season. House’s secondary looks to be the most polished unit on the team.
The best play of the day was turned in by nose guard Tyrone Ezell, who batted a pass from quarterback Tino Sunseri in the air and jumped up among a crowd of big bodies to make the interception. Then, he took off toward the end zone. Maybe the most athletic display of training camp. It appears that coaches are finished yo-yoing Ezell back and forth from end to nose guard. He’s a nose guard. End Jack Lippert has proven he can handle that position, and Ezell can stay at nose guard, his natural position.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma and assistant Tony Granato spoke to the team before practice. That makes four coaches of other teams who have spoken to Chryst’s team this summer, including basketball coach Jamie Dixon and former football coach Johnny Majors.
Pitt and the Steelers practiced on adjoining fields Tuesday, and Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert stayed around to watch the Panthers after his team had gone inside. “The whole Steelers organization has been unbelievable and at times overwhelmingly hospitable,” Chryst said. “We couldn’t be more proud to be their next-door neighbor.” Hard to believe that former coach Todd Graham had trouble embracing the Steelers in that way. I guess he just didn’t like sharing the stage.
There are no current plans to redshirt freshman tight end J.P. Holtz, who looks like he will develop into solid blocker and sure-handed receiver. On one play Tuesday, he was wide open in the end zone for a touchdown pass from Chad Voytik. No defender was within 10 yards. “He doesn’t flinch for one second about being in there,” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said of Holtz.
Pitt will hold its 2012 Fan Fest between 6 and 8 p.m. Thursday at Heinz Field. Fans can get players’ autographs, meet Chryst and try to win $10,000 in a pass, punt and kick contest. Admission is free.