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Inside the Ropes with Pitt Football

Spring Practice No. 10

To say the Panthers enjoyed their fourth consecutive practice outdoors at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex Tuesday afternoon would be misleading. More appropriately, the defense had a good time at the expense of the offense.

The defensive front of tackles Rashaad Duncan and Gus Mustakas and ends Joe Clermond and Chris McKillop had their way with the offensive line. The first-team offense struggled during down-and-distance drills, as the timing between quarterback Bill Stull and his receivers was off and the backs failed to break outside containment.

That infuriated Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt, who chastised the offense and made everyone in white jerseys (specialists included) run a series of sprints the length of the field. That amounted to eight 80-yard runs, which left the offensive linemen absolutely exhausted.

Which was the whole point.

Can’t blame Wannstedt for being disgusted with the offense, which has seven returning starters but is breaking in a new quarterback and center.

The defense lost its entire starting linebacker corps, including All-American H.B. Blades, and a likely first-round NFL Draft choice in cornerback Darrelle Revis. Despite being beset with injuries – defensive linemen Doug Fulmer (knee), John Malecki (shoulder) and Mick Williams (shoulder), linebackers Jemeel Brady (shoulder), Steve Dell (knee) and Dorin Dickerson (ankle) are sidelined – the defense dominated its counterparts throughout practice.

Granted, the Panthers have lost their most experienced lineman in fifth-year senior right tackle Mike McGlynn (shoulder). But this was more of an effort issue.

&#149 Wannstedt finally said what we’ve been telling you all spring: Redshirt junior middle linebacker Scott McKillop has been a pleasant surprise and a solidifying force for the first-team defense.

That McKillop has led the Panthers in tackles in each scrimmage shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, considering McKillop served his apprenticeship under Blades, who finished his career ranking third all-time with 433 tackles.

“Scott McKillop has proven that he’s a better player than I’ve given him credit for,” Wannstedt said. “I only say that because he hadn’t had many opportunities to play behind H.B. Blades. Scott has been very, very solid. He’s made plays. He’s really taken a leadership role on the defense.”

&#149 Which brings us to my next point. Spring drills are a chance for teams to work on fundamentals and for individuals to establish themselves. But it’s unlikely that many starting jobs are going to be locked up by April 14.

In fact, Wannstedt said as much yesterday.

“I think we wait,” Wannstedt said. “I don’t think it’s necessary right now. We don’t play a game until September. A lot of things can change. Everybody needs to feel like we’ve improved coming out of spring but at the same time have that same hunger going into August as they do coming out of spring.”

That leaves the door open for several newcomers to compete for starting jobs. Most notable will be quarterback Pat Bostick, tailback LeSean McCoy, offensive guard Chris Jacobson and defensive lineman Tommie Duhart.

&#149 Here’s my guesses on players who have a pretty good hold on their positions: On offense, left tackle Jeff Otah, left guard C.J. Davis, flanker Derek Kinder and fullback Conredge Collins. On defense, end Joe Clermond, middle linebacker Scott McKillop, cornerbacks Aaron Berry and Kennard Cox and safety Eric Thatcher. On special teams, kicker Conor Lee, punter Dave Brytus and kick return man Lowell Robinson.

That will leave plenty of competition at center (Chris Vangas v. John Bachman), right guard (Joe Thomas v. Jacobson), tight end (Nate Byham v. John Pelusi and Darrell Strong), split end (Oderick Turner v. Marcel Pestano and T.J. Porter) and tailback (LaRod Stephens-Howling v. McCoy) on offense; at right end (Chris McKillop v. Greg Romeus), defensive tackle (Mustakas v. Duhart), nose tackle (Duncan v. Malecki), strong-side linebacker (Adam Gunn v. Nate Nix), weak-side linebacker (Shane Murray v. Dorin Dickerson) and safety (Mike Phillips v. Elijah Fields) on defense; and kickoffs (Lee v. Brytus), punt return (Aaron Berry v. Porter and maybe Maurice Williams) and a second kick return man on special teams (Williams v. Aundre Wright).

&#149 Some practice highlights/lowlights:

Highlight: Gunn shooting past right guard Joe Thomas and dropping Stephens-Howling for a loss. Afterward, Thomas took an ear beating from offensive line coach Paul Dunn. Despite starting seven games last season, Thomas showed up to camp out of shape and has struggled.

Lowlight: Before practice, Wannstedt said he was pleased with Bachman’s conversion to center and revealed plans to work him in with the first team despite bad exchanges this spring. Handling the calls, audibles and snaps has not come easily for Bachman. When an exchange with Stull was botched, Wannstedt lost his patience and replaced Bachman with redshirt freshman Scott Corson for a series.

Highlight: In 9-on-9 drills, Romeus flashed his speed on a toss sweep to Shane Brooks toward the left sideline. Romeus chased Brooks down and cut him off for no gain.

Lowlight: On one play where Stull had some protection, Fields appeared to give up on a play and allowed Strong to slip by him for a first-down catch.

Highlight: Thatcher made back-to-back plays in 11-on-11 drills, blanketing Kinder on a sideline pass and forcing Stull to throw it away (although Collins was open short). Thatcher then closed in quickly on Byham, causing him to drop a pass.

Lowlight: Stull’s passes tended to be behind his receivers much of the day, and Jovani Chappel stepped in front of one intended for Cedric McGee for an interception. The lowlight is that the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Chappel out-muscled the 6-1, 200-pound McGee for the ball.

Highlight: Kevan Smith showed elusiveness in the pocket by escaping pressure from grayshirt defensive end Justin Hargrove and completing a pass to Strong on the right sideline.

Highlight: As he has done all spring, Stephens-Howling showed a quick burst through the line of scrimmage and made several defenders (including Phillips) miss for a long gain. Stephens-Howling hasn’t done anything this spring to hurt his standing as the starting tailback. It’s just a matter of whether McCoy is ready to help Stephens-Howling shoulder the load.

&#149 Pitt has announced that its annual Blue-Gold Game will be played at 1 p.m. April 14 at Heinz Field. Ticket and parking information will be released at a later date.

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