Spring Practice No. 12 – Scrimmage No. 3
• If a demotion to the second-team offense was all that Pitt needed to light a fire under Oderick Turner, the Panthers should have done it three weeks ago.
After a lackluster spring, the redshirt sophomore receiver was replaced in the starting lineup Thursday by Marcel Pestano. In his debut as a backup in Saturday’s third spring scrimmage at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex indoor facility on the South Side, Turner quickly earned his way back into contention for a starting job.
On first down, Turner caught a 43-yard pass from Kevan Smith along the left sideline with cornerback Jovani Chappel in coverage. Turner later caught a fourth-down pass from Bill Stull for a first down and a 15-yard touchdown pass from Stull, out-leaping Aaron Berry on a fade in the right corner of the end zone. Turner finished with four receptions for a team-high 70 yards, while Pestano had five for 35 yards and T.J. Porter 1 for 15 yards.
“It was good to have Oderick Turner join the team for the first day of spring,” Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said with a sly smile. “I’m halfway kidding, but it was nice to have him show up and play like he’s capable. I reinforce that our receiver position is going to be pretty good.”
• Smith, a redshirt freshman from Seneca Valley, had his best passing performance of the spring. He completed his first seven passes and finished 14 of 19 (73.7 percent) for 170 yards. His 43-yard pass to Turner was a beauty. Smith also had an impressive 17-yard run for a first down.
Smith, however, continues to make costly mistakes.
His first came on third-and-goal at the 1, when miscommunication between Smith and Kevin Collier caused a botched pitch for a 19-yard loss. Instead of a touchdown, they settled for a 36-yard Dan Hutchins field goal.
His second came when Smith muffed the snap from center, quickly picked it up and rolled left. He threw a pass that was intercepted by cornerback Aaron Smith, who dashed through the offense for an apparent touchdown.
• Stull, by contrast, was 14 of 23 (60.9) for 128 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. He converted a pair of fourth-and-5s, one to Turner and another to Derek Kinder for a 6-yard gain on the right sideline.
While Stull was sacked for a 7-yard loss by end Chris McKillop and finished with three carries for minus-6 yards, he also scored on a 1-yard sneak on the first drive.
• Although the offensive line got a big push on that play, the running game struggled overall. LaRod Stephens-Howling, Kevin Collier, Shane Brooks and Conredge Collins combined for 39 carries for 116 yards, a 2.97 yards-per-carry average.
“The thing I’m disappointed in is we’re not running the ball like we’re capable,” Wannstedt said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do with running the football on offense. I thought we threw the ball fairly well, we protected fairly well but we did not run the ball like we need to to become a good football team.”
• Defensively, converted linebacker Shawn Besong led all players with eight tackles (three solo), followed by safeties Elijah Fields (seven, four solo), Mike Phillips (seven, two solo) and defensive end Greg Romeus (seven, five solo and one for a 3-yard loss). End Chris McKillop (1.5 for minus-7) and tackles Craig Bokor (1 for minus-10) and Rashaad Duncan (.5 for minus-1) all registered sacks, while tackle Gus Mustakas finished with six stops and end Joe Clermond broke up two passes.
“Defensively, I liked our energy,” Wannstedt said. “I think we’re defending the run a little bit better. The struggles our offense was having running the football, you have to give our defense a little credit. Our defensive front is showing up more than they have in years past.”
Clermond has been very effective at the left end, solidifying his spot in the starting lineup despite the presence of the ultra-athletic Romeus. After being named second-team All-Big East last season, Clermond appears poised for a big senior season.
“Joe’s showing great leadership,” Wannstedt said. “It’s very obvious that he’s not happy with what he did last year and he’s working that way. It’s good to see.”
• The Panthers got a scare when Fields was injured when tackling tight end Darrell Strong. Fields spent part of practice on the sideline, with his right leg propped on a tackling dummy. He later returned to action.
Strong later left with an apparent shoulder injury after a 38-yard pass play in which he juked Fields’ replacement, Ross Ventrone, before being chased down by Brian Kaiser. Strong, who had three catches for 50 yards Saturday and finished with seven for 117 in three scrimmages, left practice wearing a sling and isn’t expected to play the rest of spring drills.
“Darrell had a great spring,” Wannstedt said, noting that the injury is “nothing that’s going to keep him out an extended period of time. His shoulder was hit into the ground. He’ll be fine. You’d like to have him one more week, but he’s proven that he’s played tougher than he has. He knows that, with a good, hard off-season, that he can have a great senior year, I really believe that.”
• If Phillips is feeling the pressure of having Fields behind him on the depth chart, it’s helping his play. Phillips forced a fumble by stripping Shane Brooks inside the 10-yard line and delivered the hit of the day when he thrust his right shoulder into the chest of Porter on a slant pass.
The blue jerseys celebrated loudly, but the big play was actually made by Porter. He made the catch, took a vicious shot and hung onto the ball for a 15-yard gain that set up Stull’s touchdown pass to Turner on the next play.
Porter’s maturation and emergence as a dependable, breakaway threat has been a story line this spring Click here. This was perhaps the best example. “He showed some toughness there,” Wannstedt said. “A year ago, he doesn’t make that play. He doesn’t even try to make that play. Forget about dropping it. He doesn’t even dive for the ball.”
• One positive sign was the kicking game, as Conor Lee was 2-for-2 on field goals (26, 27) and made both point-after attempts and Dan Hutchins added a 36-yard field goal. Hutchins also lined up for a 34-yard attempt, but there was a whistle and it was blocked by Mustakas.
It’s news that, for once, Wannstedt didn’t note the play of sophomore tight end Nate Byham or sophomore right tackle Jason Pinkston. So let me do it.
Byham has clearly been Pitt’s top tight end, effective both as a blocker and receiver. He finished with three receptions for 29 yards and continues to show signs of toughness. After catching a swing pass from Kevan Smith, Byham used his left arm to fire a stiff arm at cornerback Aaron Smith on his way to a 5-yard gain.
Pinkston has been matched against Clermond and Romeus, yet hasn’t allowed either to get a sack. He’s been so impressive at right tackle, using his quick feet and long arms, that some observers believe he might make it difficult for three-year starter Mike McGlynn to win his job back.
• The Panthers have two more scheduled practices, on Tuesday and Thursday, before playing the annual Blue-Gold Game at 1 p.m. Saturday at Heinz Field. (Admission to the Blue-Gold Game, by the way, is $5).
Wannstedt was asked how much was gained from a spring session without quarterback Dexter Davidson, defensive tackles John Malecki and Mick Williams, linebackers Jemeel Brady and Steve Dell and safety Irv Brown participating in full-contact drills. The spring also saw injuries to right tackle Mike McGlynn, linebackers Dorin Dickerson, Dan Loheyde and Greg Webster.
“I think we’ve maximized everything we could have done,” Wannstedt said. “The only frustrating thing, and every team has this, you want everybody out there.
“For the guys that were out there, they got better. For the Dorin Dickersons, Greg Websters, Mick Williams’ and Maleckis, that’s where it’s a shame because those guys need the work.”
Dickerson walked without a protective boot and Wannstedt said “there’s a chance” Dickerson could return to practice Tuesday.
• Pitt played host to more than a dozen prospective recruits, including Thomas Jefferson lineman Lucas Nix and receiver Zack DeCicco, Trinity linebacker Mike Yancich, Upper St. Clair safety Grant Serdy, Steel Valley quarterback Ryan Sabo, Norwin linebacker Mike Salopek, Beaver’s Manny Cutlip, Youngstown Ursuline’s Harold Coates and Manheim Township lineman Tim Farley.
Several Pitt recruits also attended practice: Quarterback Pat Bostick, defensive lineman Myles Caragein and safety Dom DeCicco. All three have been fixtures at spring weekend practices, and DeCicco has regularly attended position meetings during the week.