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Cause for Concern

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Thanks for the timely responses to my question about which position on the Pitt football team is the cause for most concern after the completion of spring drills.

Now that the Panthers won’t be practicing again until August, I’ll be writing about a wider scope of sports and events. Next on my agenda is previewing and covering the NFL Draft.

Recruiting season picks up steam in May, when coaches are allowed to visit high schools. In June, I’ll be involved in our coverage of the U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club and Pitt’s football camps.

In the meantime, I’m considering ideas – a weekly mailbag, an off-beat Q&A or an occasional top-10 list – to keep Sitting Ringside going strong in the off-season. If you have any suggestions, feel free to e-mail me at kgorman@tribweb.com.

Here’s your take on Pitt’s greatest concerns, with my comments:

Statman from New Castle: “The biggest problem for concern on the team is punter, Dave Brytus. If he cannot get off good punts for decent yardage, we will be setting ourselves up for disaster all year long on defense. To solve this problem, we have to make sure this guy punts all summer long and make sure he quits his ultimate fighting matches (where his kick motion is getting messed up by his side kicking in fights). He needs to punt five days a week and kick about 25 balls per day. He needs to go back to the basics and start punting like he did in high school. A 29-yard average in the spring game just won’t cut it in real college football games.”

KG: It’s fair to say Dave Wannstedt shares your concerns, Statman. Now you know why Pitt was recruiting Brandon Walker of Findlay, Ohio – who picked Notre Dame – so heavily this past winter. I don’t know if competing in ultimate fighting is affecting Brytus’ punting motion (or his concentration), but it’s probably something he will be encouraged to give up, at least temporarily, and if he’s serious about a pro football career, maybe for good.

Brytus averaged 39.5 yards per punt and was a Ray Guy Award finalist in two seasons at Purdue before transferring to Pitt, so he’s performed well in games. I think he spent more time this spring booting balls off the roof of the indoor facility at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex than he did working on punting the ball with accuracy and consistency. He also has not taken the responsibility of being a holder very seriously, which directly affects kicker Conor Lee and could force backup punter Lucas Stone into that role.

I’ll say this about Dave Brytus: He’s a good kid with a strong leg and a lot of talent. Now, it’s up to him to realize it and start working harder on reaching his potential.

Dick from Uniontown: “The biggest cause for concern for the Pitt Panthers is LEADERSHIP. They haven’t much in that department. Winning breeds winning. Pitt players haven’t won much and don’t come from many high schools that had winning programs. I do not believe they know what it takes to be a winner or how to win. Evidence of this glaring weakness is looking at their records the past three years. Nobody has fire. Nobody has pride. Nobody is leading on the field. Too many guys are looking in the stands and smiling during games.

To fix this, coach Dave Wannstedt needs to have a meeting and talk to the 10 players he feels that have character to be a leader and should talk to them about being leaders on the team, and what it takes to be a good leader. Leaders set a good example and give respect to others on the team and get it back in return. Pretty soon confidence and chemistry builds among the ranks and you now a have true TEAM.”

KG: I couldn’t agree more that leadership is an issue for the Panthers, Dick. Wannstedt did just what you suggested last season, putting leadership duties on the shoulders of players like seniors Tyler Palko, H.B. Blades, Steve Buches and Adam Graessle and junior Darrelle Revis. After the Rutgers loss, however, players started pointing fingers at each other instead of working together.

As for the winning-breeds-winning mantra, it takes more than just recruiting players from the top high school programs. Last season, Pitt’s roster included two of the most successful players in recent WPIAL history. Palko led West Allegheny to three consecutive WPIAL Class AAA titles and played for three PIAA titles – I dare you to find another Western Pennsylvania QB who can claim that feat – and Darrelle Revis single-handedly led Aliquippa to WPIAL and PIAA Class AA football crowns and a WPIAL basketball title.

Furthermore, Pitt’s roster is filled with players who led their teams to district and state titles. Craig Bokor (Hopewell), Shane Murray and John Pelusi (Central Catholic), John Malecki (Franklin Regional) and Nate Nix (Thomas Jefferson) all were on WPIAL and PIAA championship teams, while Bill Stull (Seton-La Salle) and Elijah Fields (Duquesne) won WPIAL titles and Dan Loheyde and Aaron Smith (Gateway) and Greg Webster (Woodland Hills) were on WPIAL finalists.

That’s just the Western Pennsylvania kids. Jemeel Brady and Kennard Cox played on state playoff teams at Miami Killian. Conredge Collins won a state title at Miami’s Monsignor Pace. Rashaad Duncan played at perennial powerhouse Glades Central. Ricky Gary and T.J. Porter won state titles at Pahokee. Aaron Berry was on two PIAA semifinalists at Harrisburg’s Bishop McDevitt.

My point is, the Panthers have recruited winners. What Walt Harris failed to do was surround his best recruits with a great supporting cast. Especially up front. Wannstedt has rebuilt the lines, but the players are very young and the college game is very different than high school. You can’t win purely on athletic ability. Once the Panthers experience some success, the winning will come.

But you’re right. For that to happen, it’s going to take some leadership. This team has motivation, as it hasn’t been to a bowl game since 2004. None of this team’s starters saw much of the field in the Fiesta Bowl, so the players have a chip on their shoulder.

Which is a good thing.

Reed from Columbia, Md.: “Linebacker has to be our greatest concern right now. We are inexperienced there, but seem to have talented players to fill the spots. To rectify the situation I’d get Shane Murray into the weight room to have him put on 10 pounds, and get Dorin Dickerson as many reps as possible. Also, I believe Adam Gunn is talented and should compete for a position. Scott McKillop looks set.”

KG: Linebacker is a position that has neither proven players nor depth, Reed, but you’re right about the talent. Scott McKillop has earned a starting spot at middle linebacker. Some believe there won’t be too much of a drop off between H.B. Blades and McKillop – which is saying something, as Blades was the Big East Defensive Player of the Year – but the outside linebacker spots are a major question mark.

The good news is Murray made a nice transition from safety. He already knows the position better than Tommie Campbell ever did but Murray needs to add some bulk, so long as it doesn’t slow him down.

When healthy, Dickerson showed glimpses that he can be a defensive force. Don’t be surprised if he’s moved back to the strong side to compete for a starting spot with Gunn, a special teams ace who needs to elevate his play the same way McKillop did.

The bad news is the inexperience and depth issues. The linebackers survived the spring without Jemeel Brady, Steve Dell and Greg Webster, all potential backups. Nate Nix is still learning, which is slowing down his reaction time. Dan Loheyde isn’t fully recovered from a torn ACL, but showed that he might have a future in the middle. The Panthers could be looking for freshmen Max Gruder, Brandon Lindsey and Tristan Roberts, and perhaps running backs Sharif Harris and Greg Williams, for immediate assistance.

Chris from Powell, Ohio: “The safety position remains the biggest concern as it was the weakest amongst an overall porous defense. Unfortunately, it got to the point where they couldn’t tackle Kevin Gorman, let alone Steve Slaton or Ray Rice. It’s imperative that Elijah Fields and Eric Thatcher stay on the field for 90 percent of the snaps because the drop-off is far too steep after them. Elijah clearly needs to be the difference maker, supporting the run at the line of scrimmage, blitzing, cover skills downfield, etc. He is an elite athlete, which we have not had an excess of, now he needs to become an elite football player at this level.”

KG: The long-awaited emergence of Fields, at least on the surface, appears to have eased some concerns at safety. He’s still a work in progress, as Wannstedt is want to say, but an ultra-talented one at that.

As for Pitt’s defense, I’m not volunteering any time soon to become a tackling dummy. This might be the hardest-hitting position on the defense, with Fields, Phillips and Thatcher, who both appear to be fully recovered from their injuries.

The biggest issues at safety last season were scheme and speed. Wannstedt and defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads have worked to resolve both problems. They switched Brady and Murray, both a step slow at safety, to outside linebacker. This fall, Irv Brown will return from shoulder surgery and Dom DeCicco joins the team.

The safeties were moved closer to the line of scrimmage, eschewing a straight Cover 2 (both safeties split deep) for what resembles more of a 4-4 front. Also added were safety blitzes, where Fields has the instincts and potential to be an absolute terror.

All of which, by the way, should help the linebackers.

Dennis from Pittsburgh: I think it’s, by far, the offensive line, and especially at center. It sounds like Mike McGlynn is the answer there because of some of the experience he’s had as well as the problems the other potential centers have seen. We’ll need him and the entire line to be solid to get anything going on offense.

KG: McGlynn just might solve that riddle and, if so, it potentially gives the Panthers their best offensive line in years. McGlynn and left guard C.J. Davis have two seasons as starters in offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh’s system, while left tackle Jeff Otah and right guard Joe Thomas both have one. Jason Pinkston appears to be a fixture at right tackle, and saw spot duty last season.

If McGlynn moves to center, which is becoming a strong possibility, it would allow the Panthers to have solid backups at every position: Chris Vangas at center, Dom Williams at guard and John Bachman, who can now play all three spots.

McGlynn, however, is recovering from surgery for a torn labrum and might not be ready by the season opener against Eastern Michigan Sept. 1. That would leave another Bachman/Vangas battle and could stunt the development of the quarterback competition.

Considering that the center touches the ball on every play, that the starting quarterback is going to inexperienced and the difficulty Bachman had making clean exchanges, it might just be the position of most pressing concern to the Panthers.

Which, after reading your responses, is really saying something.

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