Spring Practice No. 7
• After viewing tape of Saturday’s scrimmage, the first of spring drills, Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt was pleased with the play of quarterbacks Bill Stull and Kevan Smith.
Stull played with the first team against the first-team defense and completed 14 of 16 attempts for 130 yards, with a long of 35 yards to Marcel Pestano, and was sacked twice. Smith ran the second team against the second-team defense and completed 16 of 18 for 219 yards and two touchdowns, with one interception and one sack.
Together, they completed 88.2 percent of their attempts, though it came against a vanilla defense and the majority of the passes weren’t thrown downfield.
“We weren’t real fancy on offense,” Wannstedt said, “but it all starts with our quarterbacks, and both quarterbacks were very efficient. We didn’t try to come out and throw it 100 times but the numbers as far as completions were very good. I thought they both made good decisions. That was a very encouraging part of the scrimmage.”
• One of the interesting sub-plots to these spring drills is that the quarterbacks are “live,” meaning that they are being subjected to full-contact drills. In past years, Tyler Palko wore a green jersey, a designation that meant he was protected in the pocket and off limits to contact.
“They both have the abilities to make the throws,” Wannstedt said. “Will they make decisions under pressure? That’s the thing.”
Stull, who weighs only 200 pounds, still has to prove he can withstand punishment in the pocket and hang onto the football when sacked. Smith has to do a better job of handling exchanges – he’s fumbled several times in the backfield – and making reads under pressure.
• The pressure on the quarterbacks could intensify now that starting right tackle Mike McGlynn had shoulder surgery Tuesday and is done for the spring. McGlynn was quietly having a nice camp, especially considering that after three seasons of playing with left-hander Tyler Palko he’s no longer responsible for protecting the blind side.
With both Stull and Smith right-handers, that duty now falls to 6-foot-7, 340-pound left tackle Jeff Otah. Let us remind you that Otah is just a year removed from Valley Forge Military Academy’s junior-college program and is only in his fourth season of playing organized football. It could become an issue for the Panthers.
With McGlynn out, sophomore Jason Pinkston moves into the starting role at right tackle. Pinkston has long arms and good feet, both prerequisites for the position, but has a lot to learn in a short time. The downside is that McGlynn probably won’t be at full strength until August and even then will have missed several months of the strength program. The upside is that Pinkston will be ready if and when he is called upon this season, and just might have the brightest future of the five starting offensive linemen.
• One of the positions that was a big question mark heading into spring drills was the linebacker corps. Wannstedt appears to like the progress that is being made, especially by Scott McKillop. The redshirt junior middle linebacker came up with a big play in Tuesday’s practice after Nate Byham hauled in a pass and made one defender miss by hitting Byham and forcing a fumble.
While McKillop has emerged as a bona fide leader, outside linebackers Dorin Dickerson and Shane Murray are proving that their conversions from running back/receiver and safety, respectively, were worth the gamble. Wannstedt said he had kidded both players before the spring – “I didn’t know if either one of you guys would be tough enough to play linebacker” – but now says toughness is no longer an issue with either player. “We’ve got a ways to go there,” Wannstedt said, “but that was positive.”
• That brings us to some movement at linebacker in Tuesday’s practice. Dickerson and Murray were playing on opposite sides on the second team but are now competing for the starting job at weak-side linebacker. Murray was elevated to first team, replacing Nate Nix, while Dickerson switched from strong-side linebacker to weak-side linebacker on the second team.
The first team consisted of Scott McKillop in the middle, flanked by Adam Gunn on the strong side and Murray on the weak side. The second team had Greg Webster in the middle, with Nix on the strong side and Dickerson on the weak side. Dan Loheyde took snaps at both weak side and middle linebacker.
• Another flip-flop occurred at safety, now that sophomore Elijah Fields has returned from a suspension (violation of team rules) that caused him to miss the first six practices. Fields immediately supplanted walk-on Ray Ventrone, who was having a strong camp, on the second team alongside Lowell Robinson.
It didn’t take long for Fields to make his presence felt from the South Side to Duquesne. In his first series, Shane Brooks burst past cornerback Ricky Gary before Fields took an angle on him and tackled him along the sideline. Both Fields and Brooks played at Duquesne High School.
Speaking of Brooks, he has been getting some repetitions at fullback this spring. When asked what position Brooks plays – tailback or fullback – Wannstedt smiled and said that Brooks will play both.
“He’s an ultra-back,” Wannstedt said, crediting former Ohio State star Raymont Harris for coining the term when he played for Wannstedt with the Chicago Bears.
• Pitt practiced outside for the first time this spring, and it only intensified the atmosphere. Several scuffles broke out, the most notable being one involving Otah and nose tackle Rashaad Duncan that caused Wannstedt to pull both players aside afterward. Another occurred in one-on-one drills between receiver Derek Kinder and cornerback Aaron Smith.
• Wannstedt has heaped praise on cornerback Aaron Berry all spring, but Tuesday just wasn’t Berry’s day. On one play, LaRod Stephens-Howling took a toss sweep left with Otah leading the way. Berry bailed on the major mismatch, drawing the ire of secondary coach Chris Ball.
Soon after, Berry was kicked off the first-team defense by defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads. Berry stormed off the field before Robinson talked him back. Berry and safety Eric Thatcher started arguing on the sidelines, getting so close their faces were touching.
Berry later returned to the field and didn’t let the incident bother him. Berry has big shoes to fill, as Pitt’s coaching staff is expecting him to replace Darrelle Revis as the corner who covers the wide side of the field.
Only time will tell if such pressure is getting to him or this was an isolated incident. Either way, it showed a spirited side of the Panthers’ defense, one that isn’t interested in repeating last season’s second-half collapse.
• Stephens-Howling had only 8 yards on five carries in the scrimmage, but is having a strong spring. He had several nice runs Tuesday, including one on a draw as Thatcher was blitzing. Stephens-Howling hesitated, watched Thatcher fly by and then bounced to the sideline and sprinted past Jovani Chappel before the whistle.
As he did last August, Stephens-Howling has made it clear that he’s the Panthers’ feature back despite concerns about his size (5-foot-7, 175 pounds) and durability.
That’s why Kevin Collier (11 carries for 65 yards, two touchdowns) and Brooks (six carries for 18 yards, one touchdown) got the bulk of work in Saturday’s scrimmage.
“LaRod will get his share of the work, but we also know what LaRod can do. He doesn’t need to go out there and prove anything,” Wannstedt said. “That being said, the guy who needs to go out there and improve is Kevin Collier. He’ll get more work and Shane Brooks will get more work. (Collier is) right in the thick of things. If he continues to make progress the remainder of spring, he’ll be a guy we’ll be able to count on next year. Kevin Collier is a heck of a lot better running back than we saw last year, and that was evidenced by Saturday. And he’ll continue to get better.”
Don’t think for a second all three aren’t motivated by the impending arrival of LeSean “Shady” McCoy.