Practice No. 9 – Scrimmage No. 2
• Let’s start off with apologies to Joe Starkey, ESPN Radio 1250 and those who were listening for my Pitt spring football report, which never materialized because I was called away from the scrimmage to work on a story about the shooting of Aliquippa basketball star Herb Pope. I missed their repeated phone calls while making my own. As a mea culpa, I’m going to direct Pitt followers to check out Starkey’s Sunday column on embattled defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads. A great read.
• That said, I missed the second half of the scrimmage, so my highlights will be limited to what I saw in the first seven series. At that point, the offense was dominating the defense. Soon after, those tables turned – which was especially frustrating to Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt, who is seeking “more consistency” from his first-team players on both sides of the ball.
• Junior defensive tackle Gus Mustakas had another strong showing, recording four tackles (two for a loss), a sack and a forced fumble. On the first series, there was confusion on the snap count and Mustakas took advantage by dropping Bill Stull for a 3-yard loss.
• After the first drive ended with Conor Lee missing a 47-yard field-goal attempt short and wide right, Stull directed the first-team offense immediately afterward and dropped a perfectly thrown pass over the shoulder of Marcel Pestano for a 32-yard gain on second down. Two plays later, LaRod Stephens-Howling scored on a 17-yard run on a counter play right, following the blocks of tackle Jason Pinkston and guards Joe Thomas and C.J. Davis.
• Pitt has been rotating tight ends Nate Byham, John Pelusi and Darrell Strong with the first-team offense, depending on the formation. All three made nice plays Saturday, as they combined for seven receptions for 91 yards (Byham: 4-61; Pelusi: 2-20; Strong: 1-10).
On the third series, Kevan Smith connected with Byham over the middle for a first down and tossed a perfect pass over the left shoulder of Strong for a 10-yard touchdown. The star of the scrimmage was Pelusi, who is showing signs of a full recovery from a torn ACL. In the sixth series, Stull hit Pelusi on back-to-back plays for gains of 9 and 17 yards for first downs.
“The tight ends showed up today,” Wannstedt said. “Pelusi made two or three catches. We know about his blocking ability – he’s the best blocking tight end we have – but today he showed up as a pass receiver. “That’s probably as strong a position as we have on our football team.”
• One interesting development was the shuffling of the offensive line, as John Bachman and Dom Williams replaced Chris Vangas and Joe Thomas at first-team center and right guard, respectively, in the sixth series. Bachman is considered an athletic upgrade over Vangas but is still learning the position and having difficulty with exchanges (especially with Smith). Williams is pushing Thomas, who started the final seven games last season. “I think we’re going to be pretty decent on the offensive line,” said Wannstedt, also mentioning the play of John Brown at backup left guard. “We’ve got some good battles going on. Dom Williams is doing a nice job. He’s breathing right down Joe Thomas’ neck. We’ve got a great battle going on at center, with Vangas and Bachman. “You’d like to have 10 solid guys, but I think if we end up with eight, we’d be happy.” Williams started as a redshirt freshman but is a spring camp surprise after being banished to Wannstedt’s doghouse. “He was and, at times, he still is,” Wannstedt said. “For the most part, he’s showed up. He’s in the mix.”
• Wannstedt also singled out the play of redshirt sophomore weak-side linebacker Shane Murray, who finished tied with Scott McKillop for the lead in tackles (11) and had an interception and pass breakup. Murray used his left hand to deflect a Stull pass intended for Kinder, then made a play that brought about a huge roar when he intercepted Stull later in the scrimmage.
After leading Central Catholic to two WPIAL Class AAAA championships and a PIAA title, Murray was recruited to Pitt as a quarterback/safety. He is growing into a linebacker, now weighing 210 pounds, and has shown playmaking ability. Dorin Dickerson might be the favorite to win the starting job based on his ideal combination of size and speed, but Murray is a true football player and is trying to make the coaching staff’s decision a difficult one.
• Wannstedt hinted that his design for developing Dickerson into a starting linebacker was foiled by Dickerson’s untimely ankle injury. Murray has taken that break as an opportunity to shine in the starting lineup. “We wanted to move Nate Nix to the strong side and Dorin Dickerson to the weak side, and the day we moved Dorin he twisted his foot,” Wannstedt said. “But he’s doing better. We hope to get Dorin back as soon as the swelling goes down. Hopefully, we get him for the last week of spring. He needs practice time.”
• Don’t be surprised to eventually see a starting safety combination of Elijah Fields and Eric Thatcher, as both are lighting up receivers in the secondary. Thatcher had back-to-back big hits, drilling Derek Kinder on a deep fade, then blasting LaRod Stephens-Howling after Stull, pressured out of the pocket by Mustakas, lofted a pass to the tiny back.
Although Fields is still learning on the job, so to speak, after serving a six-practice suspension for violating team rules, he is way ahead of where he was last August. Fields looked confused and played slow and unsteady in training camp, but has been recognizing formations and playing closer to full speed. His big moment came when he out-jumped T.J. Porter to intercept an up-for-grabs pass from Smith near the goal line.
• One of the more intriguing match-ups this spring is between redshirt freshman defensive end Greg Romeus and sophomore right tackle Jason Pinkston. They are going head-to-head on a daily basis, and both have made their share of outstanding plays. At times, Pinkston has used his 50-pound difference to his advantage. Other times, Romeus uses a quick burst and swim or spin move for a sack. “You’d like to have 22 freshmen like that, with that type of ability and futures that they both have,” Wannstedt said. “They’re both going to be great players for us. The tough thing is, if Romeus makes one sack – which he did today – Jason plays with consistency but the one play makes things look lopsided. Both guys did a nice job.”
• The kicking game has been somewhat erratic, but now is the time to get it corrected. Conor Lee was 1-for-3 on field-goal attempts, making a 37-yarder and missing from 40 and 47 yards. Wannstedt doesn’t appear worried. Lee made both point-after attempts, while walk-on Dan Hutchins was 1 for 2.
“I wanted to put them in a situation where they were under the gun a little bit because standing on the sidelines getting yourself psyched out doesn’t mean much,” he said. “Conor, the one he kicked the best was the one he didn’t think he was going to kick. Dan Hutchins was going to kick. I called Conor off – I don’t even know if he had his kicking shoe on – and he hit it right down the middle.”
One of the biggest transitions is Lee having not only a new holder in Lucas Stone, who replaces Adam Graessle, but a new long snapper in Mark Estermyer now that Mike McGlynn is out for the spring after shoulder surgery.
“That’s why you do it as much as you can,” Wannstedt said. “The long-snapping thing, with McGlynn out, Estermyer does it all the time in practice. The holder is the key. I think it’s as much for the kicker’s sense of confidence as anything.”
• The Panthers extended formal scholarship offers to Trinity linebacker Mike Yancich, Central Catholic tight end-defensive end Quentin Williams and Lakewood (Ohio) St. Edward linebacker Justin Staples yesterday.
Don’t be surprised if Bishop McCort tight end Mike Cruz commits to Pitt this weekend.
• Pitt’s next practice is Tuesday.