Every morning, not long after 10, Pitt defensive end coach John Palermo dons a stylish Panama hat to protect himself from the sun and gathers his players around him at a corner of the Beano Cook fields closest to the South Side railroad tracks.
Pass-rush class is in session.
Every sack recorded by the Panthers’ ends this season will originate on that patch of grass through the teachings of Palermo, 62. It’s not like Pitt’s ends have many sacks on their resumes: Sophomore Shakir Soto and junior Devin Cook have one each. Palermo, who has instructed defensive players on 14 teams for the past 40 years, is showing them the way to the quarterback.
Palermo interrupted his lesson Thursday to remind his players of a play within a play last season that went largely unnoticed, but was one of the biggest in Pitt’s 58-55 victory against eventual ACC Coastal Division champion Duke.
“Cook doesn’t know it, but he is the one who won the Duke game for us,” Palermo said.
When he heard Palermo’s statement, James Conner gave Cook, a junior from Beaver Falls, a congratulatory fist bump. Actually, Cook remembers the game and the play well.
It was midway through the fourth quarter while the Pitt defense was trying to hold off a potent Duke offense. Pitt led, 51-41, but Duke had scored the game’s past 13 points. On third-and-4 from the Duke 35-yard line, Cook pressured quarterback Brandon Connette, forcing him to flick the ball away sooner than he wanted. Two yards beyond the line of scrimmage, Pitt linebacker Anthony Gonzalez was there for the interception and a 37-yard touchdown that ensured the victory.
Cook said he had changed pass-rush tactics on the Duke tackle, opting for a speed rush instead of the bull (power) rush he had been using previously that afternoon.
“I hit him with a nice chop rip and turned the corner real tight and got to the quarterback and made him throw to his check-down and Gonzo was right there,” Cook said. “(The tackle) was sitting inside and I went right around him with speed.”
(Cook used plenty of football jargon that simply means he went around the tackle instead of trying to go through him and hurried the quarterback into doing something he didn’t want to do.)
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t have a completely happy ending for Cook, who tore an MCL and ACL in his knee later in the game and was lost for the season after having surgery.
That was less than a year ago.
Diligent work in the trainer’s room — Cook credits trainers Rob Blanc and Tim Dunlavey — allowed him to return to the field this summer. He discarded the knee brace three months ago because he didn’t want it to hinder is pass-rush ability.
Knee surgery patients usually take a year or more to return to normal. Former Pitt running back Ray Graham was wearing his brace more than a year after his surgery. Cook’s was gone in eight months.
If Cook is completely healed, he will give Pitt a needed boost at the defensive end position that lost Ejuan Price for the season with a pec injury.
I’m betting when Cook gets his first sack this season, he’ll go straight to Palermo, Blanc and Dunlavey and say, “Thank you.”
— The fourth day of training camp was unusual for the fact that coach Paul Chryst gave wide receiver Tyler Boyd the day off for what former Penguins coach Dan Bylsma might have termed a maintenance day.
“We wanted to give him some stuff (work) inside (probably in the weight room),” Chryst said. “We have to be smart and balance that workload and take care of the guy.”
Chryst said he may do the same for other key players this summer. Boyd did come out to the field near the end of the practice, but did not participate. Chryst said his star wide receiver will return Friday.
— Running back James Conner continues to have a busy and productive camp, playing on both sides of the ball. He had one of the biggest hits of a physical practice — players wore shoulder pads for the second consecutive day — when he got a running start and lowered his shoulder into freshman safety Patrick Amara.
— Offensive line coach Jim Hueber liked the hitting today.
“We practiced a little bit the first day like we still had underwear on,” he said. “We made great strides at the end of practice. We showed some mental toughness.”
Players will wear full gear Friday.
— Speaking of the offensive line, sophomore left guard Dorian Johnson said he has gained 20 pounds to 310 since his freshman season and wants to be at 315 for the season.
— Freshman to watch: Defensive end Rori Blair of Upper St. Clair. At 6-4, 230 pounds, he looks the part (actually, that’s true of many players on the team this season), but he is also learning his lessons well after enrolling in January and taking part in spring drills.
“He has done a nice job of picking stuff up,” Chryst said. “There are times when he is playing fast and times where it’s still new to him a little bit.”