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Inside the Ropes with Pitt Football

Spring Practice No. 5

&#149 Talk about your great recoveries. Redshirt sophomore Derrell Jones, who went from no-man’s land to second-team defensive tackle after losing 42 pounds, fell on the ball after Kevan Smith fumbled a snap.

Shane Brooks, who has been prone to fumbling, showed an aptitude for picking the ball up off the ground after Bill Stull’s errant pitch in the backfield.

And Smith, like the major-league prospect at catcher that he was at Seneca Valley, fielded a high snap, sprinted right and fired a laser-like pass to Marcel Pestano for a touchdown in the two-minute drill.

&#149 From a coaching standpoint, Dave Wannstedt wasn’t as impressed by the recoveries as he was disappointed by the errant handling of the football.

“The turnovers kill me,” Wannstedt said. “We had three quarterback-center exchanges where we put the ball on the ground. That’s ridiculous. You can be having a great practice and fumble a snap and it puts a damper on the whole practice, and we had three of those today.

“We’ve got to get those things cleared up, and that’s the responsibility of the quarterback.”

&#149 Not only was Wannstedt upset with Smith and Stull for the mishaps, but he didn’t excuse redshirt sophomore John Bachman for his inexperience – even though Bachman is new to center after playing tackle the past two seasons.

“You don’t accept that stuff at all,” Wannstedt said. “I talked to them at the end, between practices. We have new kids at quarterback and a new center, but you never accept that. You’ve got to get better.”

&#149 Other than that, Wannstedt was pleased with how his quarterbacks handled the two-minute drill, which requires them to think on their feet while withstanding pressure.

Stull was more efficient in moving the ball downfield and controlling the clock, completing 12 of 18 passes, but didn’t score on either possession and ended one with an interception by Eric Thatcher on a corner fade intended for Oderick Turner.

Smith was inconsistent, completing 10 of 18, but finished both drives by throwing touchdown passes. The first went to Pestano on the sprint-out, the second was threaded between to T.J. Porter at the goal line between defensive backs Aaron Smith and Lowell Robinson.

“You’re looking for performance throwing and catching the ball, but you’re also looking to see their huddle presence, are they getting timeouts, are they clocking the ball – where they’re at from a big-picture standpoint,” Wannstedt said. “When they get in the two-minute drill like that, they have to make decisions other than throwing and catching that affect the outcome of the game.

“I thought both of them did a pretty good job, really.”

&#149 The biggest highlight from 11-on-11 drills came when sophomore cornerback Aaron Berry staying step for step with All-Big East receiver Derek Kinder on the right sideline, never allowing him to adjust on a deep Bill Stull pass that was slightly under thrown to the inside.

&#149 Grayshirt freshman Justin Hargrove suffered a subdural hematoma (bleeding on the brain) after a severe concussion as a senior at Baldwin High School, and hadn’t played contact football in nearly two seasons before this week.

Pitt’s medical staff cleared Hargrove to play, and two full-contact practices at middle linebacker haven’t given the Panthers coaching staff any cause for concern.

“I can confidently say he made it through those two days of contact without me ever seeing him shaking the cobwebs out,” Pitt defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads said. “He certainly had enough contact in those two days of drills that if something wasn’t right, he would have shown it.”

Pitt would like to bring Hargrove along slowly, preferably redshirting him this fall and letting his 6-foot-4, 240-pound frame fill out so that he can play defensive end. But with Greg Webster having Crohn’s disease and the lack of depth at middle linebacker, that’s no sure bet.

&#149 Even though Aaron Smith starred almost exclusively on offense and special teams at Gateway – he played quarterback, receiver and returned punts – those who knew him best predicted he would play defense in college.

Gateway’s head coach, Terry Smith, is Aaron’s uncle, and its offensive coordinator, Harvey Smith, is Aaron’s father. Both coaches believed he was destined to play free safety.

“I thought I was going to be a better safety, too,” Smith said. “The coaches want me to play corner, so I’m cool with that. The biggest adjustment is probably the way they run coverages. I’ve got to work on my technique.”

Smith’s timing is such that he went from fourth-team receiver to second-team cornerback when redshirt freshman Ricky Gary injured his ankle. For Smith, it would have been better had the move happened a few days earlier, because he could have picked up a few pointers from his cousin, Justin King, a second-team All-Big Ten cornerback at Penn State who was in town on spring break last week.

Even so, Rhoads sees a future for Smith at corner.

“He hasn’t had a big background on the defensive side of the ball, but because of his athleticism and his senses as far as the game is concerned, I think he’s progressing nicely,” Rhoads said. “He’s very intent and I have every bit of confidence that he’ll line up tomorrow and be sound in what he does.”

&#149 Craig Bokor’s return to the defensive line took another step forward Friday, when the redshirt sophomore from Hopewell donned a blue jersey and worked in with the second-team defense.

The move was necessitated by the off-season shoulder surgeries of sophomore nose tackles John Malecki and Mick Williams and a shoulder injury to redshirt freshman Jared Martin Thursday.

“With Mick Wiliams and Malecki not working in live drills because of their shoulders, we’re short there,” Wannstedt said, “and Bokor is the closest thing to being able to go over there and play some defense.”

Bokor almost forced a turnover in 11-on-11 drills when he tipped a Kevan Smith pass and bobbled it before it bounced off the hands of defensive end Greg Romeus and was caught by left guard John Brown. Brown, by the way, had been sharing reps with Bokor.

&#149 Brown wasn’t the only offensive lineman to make a diving grab yesterday. Left tackle Jeff Otah, a 6-7, 340-pound senior, caught a pass deflected by Rashaad Duncan and tried to advance it.

&#149 Kicker Conor Lee spent part of yesterday’s practice throwing the ball underhand to punters Dave Brytus and Lucas Stone to simulate long snaps so they could work on holding for point-after kicks and field-goal attempts.

One of the more overlooked aspects of losing punter Adam Graessle to graduation is that he was considered a superb holder. Lee’s success in the kicking game this fall could largely depend on how well Brytus and Stone adapt.

Spend valuable practice time working on such things is the very reason the Panthers prefer to have their punters serve as holders, as opposed to backup quarterbacks or receivers.

&#149 Reason No. 2 to stay healthy: Assistant strength and conditioning coach James Smith had injured players Dexter Davidson and Steve Dell do off-balance push-ups along the track during practice – with one hand on the ground and the other on a football.

&#149 Prospects spotted at Friday’s practice included Brashear receivers Quamane Bryant, Ed Tinker and outside linebacker Jermaine Robinson and Youngstown Cardinal Mooney linebackers Brandon Beachum and Taylor Hill.

Tinker and Beachum already had scholarship offers from Pitt and the Panthers were expected to offer Hill yesterday. The 6-foot, 220-pound Beachum is considered an elite prospect, and claims 22 offers, including Louisiana State, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Stanford.

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