If anything, Pitt’s annual scrimmage solidified everything reported here this spring: Neither quarterback emerged as a sure starter. The offensive line is a work in progress but promises to be better than last season. LaRod Stephens-Howling is the best back in a running game that remains suspect. The receiving corps, including the tight ends, is deep and talented. The defensive line is much improved and might, for once, be a position of strength. The linebacker corps, outside of Scott McKillop in the middle, is a big question mark. And the secondary, especially at safety, has the potential to be special.
The incoming recruiting class should provide some help, especially in the form of quarterback Pat Bostick, tailback LeSean McCoy, guard Chris Jacobson, receiver/return specialist Maurice Williams, defensive lineman Tommie Duhart and safety Dom DeCicco. If there’s one thing we should have learned from last season, it’s not to expect them to be the immediate answer.
• The Class of 2006 proved just how difficult of an adjustment it is from high school to college. Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt was criticized for his handling of the talented freshman class last season, but most of those who played weren’t ready to handle prominent roles.
Sure looks like they are now.
Look for tight end Nate Byham, right guard Joe Thomas, right tackle Jason Pinkston, receiver T.J. Porter, outside linebacker Dorin Dickerson, cornerback Aaron Berry and safety Elijah Fields to earn starting positions by the end of August, and for quarterback Kevan Smith, tailback Kevin Collier, defensive end Greg Romeus, nose guard John Malecki, outside linebacker Nate Nix and cornerback Jovani Chappel (nickel back) to be top reserves.
By my count, that’s 13 impact players from the same recruiting class – a major reason why the Panthers are expected to move into the upper echelon of the college football world by the 2008-09 seasons.
“I think our class is going to make a major impact this year,” Fields said. “I think we just needed to get one year under our belt just to get the system down, to learn the system, and we’re able to make plays now.”
Wannstedt isn’t ready to coronate that class just yet, but he’s already counting on its players to be productive.
“I like how they’re working and how they’re approaching it,” Wannstedt said. “They’re doing the right things. For us to take a step forward, it would be better. Those guys have got to play next year. They’ve got to perform.”
• One of the most intriguing developments of the spring was the play of Pinkston at right tackle after fifth-year senior Mike McGlynn was lost to a torn labrum.
Wannstedt said before spring drills started that he was looking for the five best linemen, and acknowledged that Pinkston played so well that he probably won a starting job.
“I don’t know what Jason did today,” Wannstedt said of the scrimmage, “but leading up to this point, Jason was definitely one of our five best.”
Pinkston’s play could cause the Panthers to move McGlynn, a three-year starter at right tackle, to another position. Don’t be surprised if McGlynn ends up at center, given that he played there in high school, knows the calls and is comfortable handling snaps (he’s a long snapper).
“That’s a definite possibility,” Wannstedt said. “I think the decision we have to look at after we sit down and do our evaluation is, who’s our five best offensive linemen?
“The guy that has the most flexibility, obviously, would be Mike McGlynn. Mike can play a lot of spots. Mike’s the leader of that group. He’s a senior and he’s the most knowledgeable. He can play guard, he can play center – he was a center when they recruited him – and he can play tackle.”
Of course, the Panthers also could move other players around, if they’re not satisfied with the play of centers Chris Vangas and John Bachman. It wouldn’t be a stretch to believe that Joe Thomas’ starting job is in jeopardy after a rough spring or that C.J. Davis could move to center and open room at guard for McGlynn or Pinkston.
The Panthers are looking for their best. For now, they can take comfort in knowing that they have five.
• Here are some Blue-Gold highlights:
On a third-and-9 at the Gold 49, quarterback Bill Stull completed a 20-yard pass to Porter despite getting hit by defensive tackle Gus Mustakas on his release.
On first-and-goal at the 10, Stull used a play-action fake and rolled left, connecting again with Porter for 8 yards. On the next play, fullback Conredge Collins scored on a 2-yard run.
• Defensive tackle Craig Bokor recovered a fumble when Kevan Smith lost the exchange from center Scott Corson. Bokor, who switched from the offensive line after Jared Martin was injured, finished with six tackles, including two for losses, and had a sack.
• Sophomore safety Elijah Fields read Smith’s eyes, then broke and intercepted his pass, returning it 53 yards for a touchdown. Fields finished with seven tackles, including two for losses.
• On the very next play, Smith almost threw another pick-six when his sideline pass intended for Derek Kinder was nearly intercepted by cornerback Kennard Cox, who would have had a direct path to the end zone.
• A lowlight saw punter Dave Brytus shank one to the left sideline for 10 yards. The Purdue transfer, a former Ray Guy Award finalist, averaged only 29.8 yards per punt on five attempts.
• Mustakas and defensive end Joe Clermond harassed Stull all day, combining to sack him once. Two plays later, Mustakas sacked Stull again for an 8-yard loss. The ball popped loose and Chris McKillop recovered at the Gold 35.
• The following series began with LaRod Stephens-Howling catching Berry playing too tight and bouncing outside for a 20-yard gain. On the next play, Stephens-Howling faked out safety Eric Thatcher with a hesitation move for a 23-yard gain. Stephens-Howling finished with a team-best 81 yards on 13 carries.
• Nose tackle Rashaad Duncan made the most physically impressive play of the day when he burst out of his stance and pushed Thomas backwards with such force that the right guard knocked over the ball carrier, Collins.
• After a questionable pass interference penalty was called against Berry on a fade to Kinder in the end zone gave the Gold a first-and-goal at the 6, defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads challenged his unit to “protect the goal line.” The Blue did just that. It held Stull to a 2-yard run. Clermond stopped Stephens-Howling for no gain. Then Scott McKillop tackled Stull on a draw for 1 yard. The Gold settled for a 20-yard field goal by Conor Lee.
• Shane Brooks continued his fumbling woes, losing one on his first carry that was recovered by Chappel, but proved to be a receiving threat out of the backfield. Brooks had four catches for 48 yards, including one where he bounced off cornerback Lowell Robinson for extra yards. Later, Brooks caught a screen pass, then ran over Dickerson and Thatcher en route to a 16-yard gain.
• After a 28-yard run by Collier, who finished with 54 yards on 12 carries, set up first-and-goal at the 7, the Blue stopped the Gold again. A 2-yard run by Collier was followed by incomplete passes intended for tight end Dustin Walters and receiver Austin Ransom, both walk-ons, and the Gold settled for a 22-yard Lee field goal.
• As he did in nearly every practice this spring, 6-foot-5 redshirt freshman defensive end Greg Romeus stretched his long arms to deflect a Stull pass. On third-and-5 of that series, however, Stull found Kinder on an underneath route for a 7-yard gain and a first down.
• Senior safety Mike Phillips timed a second-and-4 pass to John Pelusi perfectly, hitting the tight end just as he caught the ball and turned for a 3-yard gain. On the following play, a third-and-1 at the Blue 24, Chris McKillop pressured Stull into throwing it away. Stull threw off his back foot and it floated off the hands of Kinder and into those of Berry for an interception.
• Fields showed his nasty side when he grabbed Ransom after a short catch, spun him around by his jersey and tossed him to the sidelines for a 2-yard loss.
• After throwing a pair of interceptions and losing a couple fumbles, Smith collected himself and connected with Marcel Pestano for a 16-yard touchdown pass.
• The following players did not participate in the Blue-Gold Game: center John Bachman (knee), linebacker Jemeel Brady (shoulder), safety Irv Brown (shoulder), left guard John Brown (knee), quarterback Dexter Davidson (knee), linebacker Steve Dell (knee), defensive end Doug Fulmer (knee), guard Kevin Hughes (knee), nose guard John Malecki (shoulder), defensive tackle Jared Martin (shoulder), right tackle Mike McGlynn (shoulder), tight end Darrell Strong (shoulder), linebacker Greg Webster (Crohn’s disease) and defensive tackle Mick Williams (shoulder).
If you’re at all like me, you’re reading that and thinking the number of shoulder injuries is alarming. And that the depth chart could change drastically when some of the aforementioned players return to contact drills.
• The majority of Pitt’s recruits from the Class of 2007 were on hand to watch the Blue-Gold Game. Among those spotted on the sidelines were quarterback Pat Bostick, defensive linemen Myles Caragein and Tommie Duhart, safety Dom DeCicco, offensive linemen John Fieger and Jordan Gibbs, linebacker Max Gruder, running back Sharif Harris, cornerback Buddy Jackson, offensive lineman Chris Jacobson, linebacker Brandon Lindsey, offensive tackle Dan Matha, running back LeSean McCoy, linebacker Tristan Roberts and defensive end Tony Tucker.
Bostick watched next to Tyler Palko, who was predicting plays and pointing out how they would develop. Palko attended nearly every practice and often worked with the quarterbacks during drills. Only time will tell whether he makes it in the NFL or not, but this much is certain: His love for football is genuine and he’s going to make a great coach someday, probably at a high level.
• Prospective recruits in attendance included Thomas Jefferson lineman Lucas Nix with Zach DeCicco, Laurel Highlands defensive lineman Kaleb Ramsey, Johnstown Bishop McCort tight end Mike Cruz with grayshirt defensive tackle Wayne Jones and Johnstown receiver/cornerback Antwuan Reed.
• Number changes for the Pitt defense included Aaron Berry, who wore No. 38 last season, switching to No. 17 and walk-on safety Ross Ventrone switching from No. 4 (Fields) to No. 29.
Not good news for Tommie Campbell’s return.
• Announced attendance for the Blue-Gold Game was 2,103, which means that, if everyone paid $5 per ticket, the Pitt athletic department made $10,515. But Pitt staff and students with proper identification and children under 2 got in for free, so the take was probably half that.
Was it worth it?
The past eight days have been a public relations disaster for Pitt athletic director Jeff (Not For) Long, who moved the marquee home game (Navy) from a Saturday to a Wednesday night so it could be televised on ESPN and then charged admission to a scrimmage.
I’d be more forgiving if Long hadn’t issued a news release at 3 p.m. on Good Friday so that he wouldn’t have to answer for changing the game. Or if he hadn’t sat alone during the Blue-Gold Game in a coaches’ box, with a glass window separating him from having to deal with members of the media in the adjoining press box.
For an athletic department so desperate to sell season tickets that it’s practically giving away a second seat (at $10) to first-time buyers (of the $199 package), this was a poor way to promote the football program.
And an even worse way to answer for it.