Spring Practice No. 6 – The First Scrimmage
• With the sidelines filled by spectators that included many of those attending Pitt’s coaching clinic, there was a nice atmosphere for the first scrimmage of spring practice Saturday at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex indoor facility on the South Side.
The Panthers played 10 series, with Bill Stull playing quarterback on the first team and Kevan Smith the second team. Missing from the starting lineup was right tackle Mike McGlynn on offense and left end Joe Clermond on defense.
• Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said McGlynn had an MRI Friday on his left shoulder and was scheduled to see doctors Saturday. Although Wannstedt continues to consider McGlynn’s status “day-to-day,” it appears to be more serious than originally believed.
• One alarming trend is the number of defensive linemen sidelined. Out of the 12 players who didn’t participate in the scrimmage, half were defensive linemen: Clermond, Doug Fulmer, John Malecki, Jared Martin, Tyler Tkach and Mick Williams. The second-team defensive line consisted of Justin Hargrove and walk-on David Pels at end and Derrell Jones and Craig Bokor at tackle. Hargrove has spent the majority of spring practice at middle linebacker, Bokor at left offensive guard.
• Stull completed 14 of 16 passes for 130 yards, with a long of 35 to Marcel Pestano. Stull was sacked twice. Smith was 16 of 18 for 219 yards with two touchdown passes, one interception and one sack.
Although the numbers clearly favor Smith, Stull appears to be slightly ahead in the quarterback competition at this point. Remember, Stull is playing against the first-team defense, which is winning many of the battles up front, while Smith is playing against a second-team defense that is missing six defensive linemen, has two converted linebackers and two walk-ons in the secondary.
• Consider this about the first-team offensive line, which consisted of Jeff Otah at left tackle, C.J. Davis at left guard, Chris Vangas at center, Joe Thomas at right guard and Jason Pinkston at right tackle: “Jeff Otah, a year ago at this time, was at Valley Forge (Military Academy Junior College). Jason Pinkston was at Baldwin High School. Joe Thomas was at (Lakewood, Ohio) St. Ed’s. These guys are maturing. They want to be good. It just takes a little bit of time, particularly with the offensive line.”
• Middle linebacker Scott McKilllop led all players with eight tackles (two solo) and a forced fumble, followed by strong-side linebacker Adam Gunn and cornerback Jovani Chappel, who both had seven tackles (five solo). Gunn had a big hit on LaRod Stephens-Howling on the first series, popping him for no gain on second-and-10 at the 35.
Gunn, defensive end Greg Romeus and defensive tackles Derrell Jones and Gus Mustakas all had sacks. Mustakas beat Joe Thomas to drop Stull for a 2-yard loss; Gunn forced a fumble that was recovered by the defense when he hit Stull in the backfield; Romeus dropped Stull in the eighth series; and Jones mauled Smith in the 10th.
• After the second-team offense was penalized for illegal procedure, Smith took advantage of a mismatch when he lofted a deep pass to Pestano for a 46-yard touchdown pass, the longest play of the scrimmage. Pestano, who was 5 yards behind walk-on cornerback Michael Toerper, waited on the ball and adjusted for a nice over-the-shoulder catch and tiptoeing into the end zone.
Pestano finished with three receptions for 85 yards.
• After Stull was sacked by Mustakas, he showed some fortitude by recovering nicely on third-and-11 with a 36-yard pass to Pestano, then hitting Byham on a rollout for a 7-yard gain. Six plays later, fullback Conredge Collins scored on a 4-yard run, taking a dive after Stull faked a toss left to Stephens-Howling.
• Smith showed his strength on a 3-yard quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1 at the 44, then displayed his inexperience by throwing an interception to linebacker Shane Murray on the ensuing play. Pitt coaches kept Smith in, and he quickly connected with Darrell Strong for a 22-yard gain in which the 6-foot-5, 260-pound senior tight end had a nice open-field run. The drive ended with a 34-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Strong.
Strong had a nice scrimmage, catching three passes for 57 yards, including a smooth one-hander on the move. Primarily a receiving tight end, he is still behind Nate Byham and John Pelusi on the depth chart. Even so, Strong is making an impression on Wannstedt, who suspended Strong for two games after he flipped the bird to South Florida fans last season.
“He was a guy that, to be quite honest with you, you sit back as a head coach and you say, ‘Is he going to jump on the ship or jump off?'” Wannstedt said. “Thus far, he has jumped on and he’s trying. He’s got the ability to help us win some games. We all know that. But he’s got to do it consistently. Today was a good start.”
• Sophomore cornerback Aaron Berry is quickly becoming a Wannstedt favorite not only for his coverage skills but his brash attitude. Berry defended Pestano on one play, drawing a flag when Pestano slapped his helmet. The 5-11, 175-pound Berry then got into Pestano’s face and started yapping, letting him know who won the duel. Berry proved his toughness again, stopping tailback Kevin Collier short of the goal-line with an open-field stick.
“I thought Aaron Berry made a few good plays,” Wannstedt said. “Aaron’s going to be a player for us.”
• Collier led all rushers with 65 yards on 11 carries, almost twice as many as any other running back, and scored two touchdowns. He is battling Brooks for the backup job, although the 220-pound Brooks (now wearing No. 32) also has been getting a few repetitions at fullback.
“Kevin got more opportunities than anybody today,” Wannstedt said, “and he stepped up, so I thought that was good.”
• At the NFL Combine, H.B. Blades predicted that Scott McKillop (his roommate) would take over the reigns as the leader of the defense. McKillop has done just that, emerging as a vocal player who backs up his talk on the field. He chewed out redshirt freshman Nate Nix after the first series, and later drilled Collins to cause a fumble that was recovered by safety Mike Phillips.
• Overall, Wannstedt was pleased with his team’s play: “I thought it was a good start. Anytime you have a scrimmage like this, there’s going to be some mental mistakes, assignment-wise, that you have to deal with,” Wannstedt said. “The things that you can’t tolerate are the few off-sides, the one or two turnovers. Those are the things that you have to eliminate.”
• Prospects at practice included Wilmington’s Chris Burns, a 5-10, 185-pound tailback who said the Panthers offered a scholarship Saturday; Thomas Jefferson receiver Zach DeCicco (Dom’s brother) and offensive lineman Lucas Nix; Greensburg Central Catholic cornerback Chris Hayden-Martin; Gateway tailback Eric Livsey; and Laurel Highlands defensive lineman Kaleb Ramsey.
• Much has been made of the impact strength and conditioning coach Buddy Morris has made on the team’s accountability and discipline through his off-season workouts. Morris has gained a measure of respect with Panthers players, so I asked fifth-year senior safety Mike Phillips who is feared more: Wannstedt or Morris?
“Coach Wannstedt is the head coach. He’s got the ultimate power, but Buddy scares a lot of people,” Phillips said. “I don’t know what’s wrong with him. He doesn’t like too many people. That’s good for the program, though.
“What Buddy put us through in the off-season, it’s tough. I’m not going to lie. When you get on the field, though, it feels like nothing else can break you. After you get through one of Buddy’s workouts, practice is a piece of cake.”