Spring Practice No. 8
• Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt finally said what everyone was thinking: Bill Stull is “a little bit ahead” of Kevan Smith in the quarterback competition, mostly because of his edge in experience, but a final decision on a starter won’t be made by the end of the spring.
What Wannstedt didn’t have to say is that highly touted recruit Pat Bostick will be given a chance to win the starting job. Although the Panthers are confident in both Stull and Smith, who has all the tools, Bostick is Pitt’s most highly recruited player at the position since Tyler Palko, so it’s not out of the question.
Bostick has attended several spring practices and is said to already have a thorough understanding of the playbook. Even so, you can’t substitute the experience of going through a major-college practice at full speed.
Just a reminder to those who expect Bostick to waltz in and win the starting job. Rod Rutherford struggled through spring drills but was clearly ahead of Palko when training camp started, and it only took a few days for Walt Harris to name Rutherford his starter.
• Wannstedt also dropped a not-so-subtle reminder that his starting quarterback doesn’t have to put up record-setting numbers or lead the nation in pass efficiency. The Panthers are deeper and more talented at all of the other skill positions, returning starters in LaRod Stephens-Howling at tailback, Conredge Collins at fullback and Derek Kinder and Oderick Turner at receiver. The offensive line will include four returning starters, as well.
“To have the success that we expect to have, the mistake would be to put it on the quarterback,” Wannstedt said. “We always have to stop and look and say, ‘We have two young quarterbacks. Where can we pick up the slack? Where can we balance this out a little bit?’ It’s going to have to be at receiver, at tight end, at running back. All those guys are coming back.”
• When discussing the transition struggles of Elijah Fields coming from tiny Duquesne High School to Pitt, Wannstedt recalled a story about his days as head coach of the Chicago Bears when they selected Chris Villarrial out of Indiana (Pa.) in the fifth round of the 1996 NFL Draft.
“The statement was made, ‘He’s playing at a smaller level, but he dominates,’” Wannstedt recalled. “If you’re playing at a smaller level and I’ve got to watch three cans of film to pull out a half dozen good plays, then we’ve got a problem. But when you look at Elijah Fields, he was a dominant player on a team that went to the state championship. The competition was not the issue.
“Different players can come in and handle the transition from high school to college faster than others because it’s not just football. It’s the school work, living in the dorms, not living at home. I’ve seen some of the toughest guys on the team – some of the biggest, strongest on the team – get homesick.”
• Speaking of the 1996 NFL Draft, three Pitt players were chosen in succession in the sixth round: Kansas City chose receiver Dietrich Jells (176th), Houston took safety Anthony Dorsett (177th) and Cincinnati selected linebacker Tom Tumulty (178th). How many would have predicted they would go in that order coming out of high school?
• New secondary coach Chris Ball has seen his share of superstar defensive backs, and believes Fields fits the bill. But Ball is concerned that Fields missing six practices for a suspension (violation of team rules) will set him back. Ball said Fields is studying the defense and, more importantly, showing signs that he’s grasping his assignments by asking questions.
“Anytime you miss six practices, when you’re installing stuff and changing around a few things, it affects you,” Ball said. “He’s got to get caught up, and he’s doing that with extra studying.”
If anything, the suspension appears to have sent a clear message to Fields – and other highly touted recruits – that their time is now. Perhaps keeping Fields off the playing field was just what the Panthers had to do.
“Football is very important to him,” Ball said. “He enjoys being out here and he enjoys playing the game. Anytime you take something away from someone and it’s important to them, it’s a wakeup call.”
Fields made his presence felt quickly in Thursday’s practice, forcing a fumble (recovered by linebacker Nate Nix) with a stick on tailback Kevin Collier. Later, Fields cut Collier off near the sideline, spun him by his jersey and threw him to the turf. Receiver Marcel Pestano also dropped a pass with Fields in pursuit.
• Thursday’s practice was the second Pitt held on its outdoor fields, once again providing for a spirited session that was evident when the first-team offense and defense went head-to-head in 11-on-11 drills.
The defense sent the message that it was going to be hitting the quarterbacks early when linebacker Shane Murray flushed Stull out of the pocket. Stull dashed past the two-hand touch of safety Eric Thatcher but was knocked out of bounds by linebacker Scott McKillop. Stull also got rough treatment on a draw when Thatcher hit him and tossed him to the ground.
Tight end Darrell Strong’s career has been marked by inconsistency, but he has shown flashes of being a big playmaker during spring drills. Strong made the catch of the day, leaping high for a Stull pass in a Cover 3 drill. Strong split reps on the first team with Nate Byham, who has starred all spring but watched a Stull pass bounce off his fingertips in 11-on-11 drills.
• Defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads is renowned for being fiery in practice but took it to a new level after Nix blew up a play in the backfield by hitting Collier. Rhoads jumped on Nix’s back, toppling the linebacker. That enthusiasm carried over to the next play, when Scott McKillop chased down Collier on a toss sweep left.
Other defensive highlights during 11-on-11 drills included a Greg Romeus sack of Stull and an open-field tackle of Collins by cornerback Aaron Berry on a swing pass.
• Just when the defense appeared to be dominating, Wannstedt issued a challenge: “You have to stop them on this play to win the game.” Stull promptly rolled right and connected with Byham for a first-down pass, showing that the blue jerseys still have a long way to go to making crucial third-down stops.
Wannstedt then gave the defense a chance to make another big stop by placing the ball at the 4-yard line, giving the offense three plays to score. On first down, Shane Brooks was stopped for a 1-yard gain. On second down, defensive tackle Gus Mustakas blew up the play, knocking fullback Collins into tailback Brooks for a 7-yard loss. But the final down was discouraging, as Stull passed to the left flat to Collins, who waltzed into the end zone.
• Pitt will hold its “Blue Chip Day” at 10 a.m. Saturday, with 77 high school prospects are expected to attend and watch the Panthers conduct their second scrimmage of the spring.