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Inside the Ropes with Pitt Football

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Spring Practice No. 11

&#149 Despite the rave reviews of the play of Scott McKillop and Shane Murray this spring, Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt didn’t hesitate when asked Thursday what positions have been the most surprising and disappointing.

“The most disappointing position has probably been linebacker,” Wannstedt said, “because of injuries.”

Where Wannstedt anticipated watching the development of Dorin Dickerson, Dan Loheyde and Greg Webster, they have instead been sidelined. Dickerson “tweaked” his left ankle and is wearing a protective boot. Loheyde is coming off a torn ACL and is limited to no-contact drills. Webster was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, and hasn’t practiced in two weeks.

“That’s three guys (who) should be lined up in the two-deep somewhere,” Wannstedt said. “We’ve been forced to move two walk-on safeties in there at linebacker and that’s tough on the kids, tough on your defense when you’re trying to build a defense.”

The second-team linebacker corps includes only one scholarship player, redshirt freshman Nate Nix, alongside walk-ons Shawn Besong and Brian Kaiser.

&#149 Wannstedt is prohibited from discussing Webster’s health woes in detail because of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), but Webster has lost significant weight due to the disorder – which causes inflammation of the digestive tract.

“I think they’ve got it under control now,” Wannstedt said. “Hopefully, he’ll bounce back and get his strength back and be OK in the fall. It can be serious if it’s not handled right. Our doctors have been on top of that from the beginning and will continue to do so.”

The Panthers were counting on Webster to push McKillop for the starting middle linebacker job, or at least be the backup. Instead, the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Besong is taking second-team reps now that Loheyde is sidelined. McKillop has had to pull double duty at times by playing middle linebacker on the first and second teams.

&#149 Wannstedt said the swelling in Dickerson’s ankle is going down – he was walking without crutches – and the Panthers are hoping for him to return next week, in time for the Blue-Gold Game April 14 at Heinz Field.

“He’s doing everything he can as quickly as he can to get better,” Wannstedt said.

&#149 Despite the effusive praise of sophomore Jason Pinkston this spring, Wannstedt quashed any notion that fifth-year senior Mike McGlynn (shoulder) could lose his starting right tackle job to Pinkston because of injury.

“Mike will be fine,” Wannstedt said. “When Mike gets back, he’ll be a starter for us. I’m looking at it as a win-win. The more guys you can feel good about being starter-caliber, the better the football team you’re going to have.”

There goes the theory that Pinkston would stay at right tackle and McGlynn would move to center in the fall. It’s possible that Pinkston could move to guard or that he could serve as the valuable “swing” tackle who backs up both McGlynn and Jeff Otah.

Either way, Pinkston will see the field.

&#149 It didn’t take long for sophomore safety Elijah Fields to start splitting reps with senior Mike Phillips on the first-team defense. Fields was suspended for Pitt’s first six spring practices, but has stood out since returning.

Fields is showing signs of becoming the strong safety the Panthers envisioned when they recruited him out of Duquesne High School. At 6-2, 220, he plays fast and fearless and can cover some serious ground.

On a toss right to Collier, Fields sealed the perimeter and stopped him for a 1-yard gain. Another time, 6-3, 255-pound tight end John Pelusi caught a pass and turned, only to be cut off at the sideline when Fields stood him and dropped him for no gain. He also teamed with Aaron Berry to break up a Stull fade pass in the end zone intended for Derek Kinder. Later, Fields picked off a Kevan Smith pass in the end zone and quickly took a knee for a touchback.

&#149 Safe to say the offense got the point after running eight 80-yard sprints after Tuesday’s practice. The guys in white jerseys were on the practice field 30 minutes earlier than usual and appeared much sharper.

This time, several defensive players were forced to either do bear crawls – or roll across the field, if they had shoulder problems – after practice for what coaches deemed taking plays off. To his credit, tight end Nate Byham was the lone offensive player who came to cheer on Rashaad Duncan as he struggled to finish.

&#149 The first play of 11-on-11 drills saw Gus Mustakas burst into the backfield and pressure Bill Stull into throwing the ball away. Mustakas has used his quickness to consistently beat right guard Joe Thomas this spring.

Stull, however, recovered to drop a picture-perfect 40-yard pass over Marcel Pestano’s left shoulder with Kennard Cox in tight coverage on the right sideline. Stull later hooked up with Pestano on the opposite side for another first down.

If it appears Stull and Pestano are clicking – and they are – it might have something to do with both being backups the past two seasons. They worked together on the second-team offense and stayed after practice to take extra reps and get their timing down. It’s showing.

Pestano is really pushing Oderick Turner for the starting split end job. Even though Turner led the team with eight touchdown receptions last season, Pestano has the ability to pull away from defenders, whether it’s in getting open or gaining yards after the catch. And he’s showing requisite toughness, which has caught Wannstedt’s eye.

&#149 LaRod Stephens-Howling hasn’t been getting as many carries as counterparts Kevin Collier and Shane Brooks this spring, but there’s no question the Johnstown Jet is the Panthers’ top tailback.

Stephens-Howling showed why with one nice run, stutter-stepping to freeze one defender and bouncing outside for a big gain. Another time, he found himself in a one-on-one situation with Berry but hesitated when he saw Thomas out of the corner of his eye, and followed Thomas’ pancake block of Berry to daylight.

&#149 The Panthers spent considerable time working on a down-and-distance drill where the offense got three plays inside the defense’s 20-yard line: first down from the 20; second from the 15; and third from the 10. They ran it eight times, scoring touchdowns twice.

Cedric McGee, sometimes a forgotten man in the receiving corps, made a nice catch on a pass by Kevan Smith over the middle for a 19-yard gain to the 1. That set up a touchdown by Byham, who caught a swing pass from Smith at the 8 and dragged safety Lowell Robinson into the end zone for a touchdown.

Later, in the two-minute drill, Byham caught three consecutive passes, spinning off cornerback Jovani Chappel on the third. Although he occasionally has lapses in concentration that cause him to drop a routine pass, Byham appears to the front-runner to start at tight end.

Nix and Scott McKillop teamed with cornerback Aaron Smith to force a Chris Bova fumble after the walk-on fullback caught a screen pass in the right flat. McKillop recovered the ball to end the drive on third down.

Stephens-Howling carried three times on one series, going 3 yards, 9 yards and eluding the grasp of strong-side linebacker Adam Gunn to score from the 10.

The biggest hit of the day came when the 265-pound Strong hauled in a pass from Stull and ran over the 210-pound Murray on the left sideline. That play shows how far Strong has come. Last August, 150-pound cornerback Ricky Gary tackled Strong during training camp. If Strong ever realizes his talent – and decides to live up to his surname – he could become a formidable force.

&#149 Although Stull remains ahead in the quarterback competition, Smith is showing signs of progress. He especially has a knack for scoring in the red zone.

Remember, Smith started only 12 games as a varsity quarterback (Stull played in more games, 14, in leading Seton-La Salle to the WPIAL Class AA championship as a senior in 2004).

Smith still is developing his footwork and touch – he tends to put too much zip on screens and swing passes – but has the raw talent and toughness to be a factor in the future.

&#149 Former Pitt center Jim Sweeney watched practice with the Panthers and got a bear hug from defensive line coach Greg Gattuso, a former teammate at Seton-La Salle. Sweeney, who spent 17 seasons in the NFL, is working with former Pitt center Joe Villani to prepare for the draft.

A handful of high school prospects attended practice, including Woodland Hills defensive end Noah Taylor, the younger brother of Miami Dolphins All-Pro Jason Taylor. Others prospects included Akron Hoban linebacker Will Fleming, Camp Hill Trinity offensive lineman R.J. Dill and Calvert Hall twin linemen Shawn and Pat Boyle.

&#149 The Panthers practice at 10 a.m. Saturday and will conduct their third scrimmage of the spring.

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