The Panthers wore shoulder pads for the first time in training camp, and the defense dominated play as heavy thunderstorms forced the Panthers indoors for the first time at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex.
Most impressive was the play of the defensive front, long an area of concern. Even with split-squad practices, it’s obvious that Pitt now has a two-deep full of experienced and explosive personnel.
The first-team defensive line saw Joe Clermond and Chris McKillop at end, with John Malecki and Gus Mustakas inside. The second-team unit might be even more impressive, with Greg Romeus and Ty Tkach on the ends and Tommie Duhart and Rashaad Duncan inside.
The lines gave the offensive line all the trouble they could handle and repeatedly either stopped backs behind the line of scrimmage or pressured quarterback Bill Stull.
“The first thing you walk away with is the depth at this point on the defensive line shows up,” Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. “The first week you’re in pads, your defense should be ahead of your offense. Now, all of a sudden, when things happen for real, the timing is off.
“We had some pressure on the quarterback, some guys turned loose because things were moving faster than what they normally do without pads.”
In 11-on-11 play, Chris McKillop beat tackle Jason Pinkston to stop LaRod Stephens-Howling for a 5-yard loss. Linebacker Adam Gunn burst through an opening and made a diving stop of Stephens-Howling. Malecki stopped Stephens-Howling in the backfield.
That’s not to say Stephens-Howling had a bad day. He had several nice runs, slipping through the line and into the secondary. In fact, Wannstedt raved about his junior tailback.
“From an offensive standpoint, I think the most underrated player in the Big East is probably LaRod Stephens-Howling,” Wannstedt said. “That guy, he makes things happen.”
But the defense dominated the day. Chris McKillop came from the left end to chase down Shane Brooks from behind on a toss the opposite way. Clermond deflected a Stull pass. Linebacker Jemeel Brady, a converted safety, shed Kevin Collier’s block attempt and sacked Stull.
Maybe the most impressive player was Romeus, the 6-foot-5, 250-pound redshirt freshman defensive end. He used a swim move to get past freshman tackle Jordan Gibbs and bat down a Stull pass. Romeus also opened eyes by running step for step with receiver Marcel Pestano on a reverse, sealing the edge to force him out of bounds.
“What were my thoughts?” Wannstedt said, repeating a question. “We need to recruit more guys like that.”
That’s not to say the offense didn’t have its moments.
In early 11-on-11 play, Stull connected with tight end Darrell Strong over the middle for a 20-yard gain. Stull also made a nice play when the pocket collapsed, stepping up and tossing a shovel pass to Stephens-Howling.
But Stull had trouble handling the exchange a couple of times, once with Greg Gaskins at center and once with Chris Vangas, which seemed to frustrate the quarterback.
Fullback Conredge Collins had a strong practice. During inside-run drills, he took an inside handoff and spun off a defender for extra yards. Somewhere on either that play or the next, though, Collins got his bell rung. He fell to a knee, then stood up and staggered and was escorted to the sideline. A few plays later, however, Collins returned. Later, he took another inside handoff and broke outside, lowering his shoulder to get past Cox in the open field.
Perhaps most impressive was what Collins did after practice. The team has been running gassers from sideline to sideline following every session, and the linemen were gasping because of the heat and lack of air circulation inside the indoor complex. Junior left guard C.J. Davis struggled the most, so Collins walked beside him and encouraged Davis to finish his runs.
Also, kicker Conor Lee converted 5 of 6 field-goal attempts, connecting on a 30- and 35-yard from the middle before missing wide left from 40 yards. He then made three attempts from the left hash, drilling one from 40, one from 36 and one from 33 yards.
Because of the weather, the Steelers returned to the South Side and will practice at the indoor facility. The Panthers will either practice outside this afternoon or wait until the Steelers are finished to practice.