Pitt practiced in full pads for the first time during training camp, which resulted in a session that delighted and disgusted Panthers coach Dave Wannstedt.
First and foremost, Wannstedt had to be concerned when senior receiver Derek Kinder, a first-team All-Big East selection, injured his knee during 11-on-11 drills. Wannstedt called it a “non-contact injury” and said he would know more after seeing Kinder’s X-rays.
Wannstedt said the effort was “encouraging,” mentioning that newcomers LeSean McCoy, Aundre Wright and Tommie Duhart will have a chance to help.
What was “discouraging” was the penalties and center-quarterback exchange problems the offense endured. To be fair, junior quarterback Bill Stull (thumb) didn’t practice, and the majority of the mishaps came with either redshirt freshman Kevan Smith or freshman walk-on Spencer Whipple at quarterback, taking snaps from converted centers John Bachman and Greg Gaskins.
Smith fumbled the opening snap from fifth-year senior Chris Vangas in 11-on-11 play. Whipple fumbled a snap from redshirt freshman Scott Corson, which was recovered by linebacker Jemeel Brady. At one point, freshman walk-on Andrew Janocko fumbled two of three snaps from Bachman. Janocko didn’t see much action after that.
“For practicing four days, that’s ridiculous,” Wannstedt said. “Whether it’s the quarterbacks, and we do have some new kids, (or that) the center is somewhat new to John Bachman and Greg Gaskins … but after this many practices, we cannot put the ball on the ground.
“That kind of takes the wind out of your sails when you make a nice run or a nice play on defense and, all of a sudden, you get in there and fumble the snap. That’s ridiculous. Those are things you work on in junior high, not in college. So we’re back to the basics, we’ve got to get those things corrected and make sure we take care of the little things first. That’s where we are right now.”
The Bachman to center move is starting to look like a failed experiment, which could either make Chris Vangas the starter or open the door for Mike McGlynn to move.
• McCoy struggled with his first few snaps, getting dropped by middle linebacker Scott McKillop for a loss on his first carry, getting dropped by nose tackle Rashaad Duncan for a loss and blown up by defensive tackle Gus Mustakas on a play that also drew a flag for holding.
McCoy, however, had one run where he went left, cut back inside and stiff-armed safety Jovani Chappel. He also showed nice initial burst on a run off left tackle. Wannstedt isn’t saying much about McCoy yet, but everyone who watches practice is buzzing about the freshman’s ability.
Of course, they’re also buzzing about fellow freshman tailback Shariff Harris, who has drawn notice for his aggressive running style after ripping off a pair of first downs in 11-on-11 drills.
As promised, Pitt worked on situational plays, practicing third-and-3, third-and-6 and third-and-9 repeatedly. The first big hit of training camp came on the fifth play, when 210-pound freshman safety Dom DeCicco crushed Oderick Turner, breaking up a pass from Whipple that hung in the air and left the 6-foot-3 Turner susceptible.
In back-to-back plays, a pass tipped off the hands of one receiver and into those of another. First, T.J. Porter leapt for a high pass, deflecting it to Austin Ransom. Then a pass deflected off tight end Nate Byham and into the hands of fellow tight end Darrell Strong 5 yards behind.
Strong, by the way, is having a nice camp. He’s made several one-hand catches look effortless, including one on his shoulder pads, and is showing signs of consistency for maybe the first time in his career.
That’s a welcome sign for a talented senior who drew a two-game suspension for flipping off South Florida fans last season and then drew bad press for an off-field incident on Memorial Day weekend.
“With Darrell Strong, I think we’ll wait and see,” Wannstedt said. “We’ve given him opportunities. He’s working hard. Now, it needs to happen. His clock’s running. He’s got three months of being a Pitt Panther. He’s got to decide what he wants to do.”
Some practice highlights:
• After escaping pocket pressure from end Joe Clermond and Mustakas, Smith picked up a few yards thanks to a nice block from tiny tailback LaRod Stephens-Howling on outside linebacker Adam Gunn.
• Although the play could have been ruled dead when Duncan tagged him for a sack, Whipple dumped it to McCoy, who spun off Tommie Duhart in the backfield. McCoy followed that with another nice run the next play.
• Converted cornerback Lowell Robinson tipped away a deep pass intended for Marcel Pestano. Corner Aaron Berry also made a nice play in knocking away a pass, this one intended for Porter.
Robinson later showed his inexperience at the position when freshman Maurice Williams caught a pass in the left flat and lost him with a nifty move.
•Turner later made a big play, catching a pass on a wide receiver screen and darting through the defense for a big gain while being chased by Duhart and Duncan before being caught by linebacker Dorin Dickerson.
• Dickerson made a big play when he intercepted a Whipple pass intended for Shane Brooks, then used a cutback move to slip by Brooks on the sideline and score a touchdown. Even on defense, Dickerson is dangerous with the ball in his hands.
• Vangas had the second big hit of the day when he leveled unsuspecting outside linebacker Shane Murray on a cutback move by Stephens-Howling. To Murray’s credit, he took a big shot and got right back up. Murray’s willingness to follow his assignment is a big reason why he’s in the starting lineup, as his positioning forced Stephens-Howling to stay inside, where he was tackled.
• Pitt finished practice with a red-zone drill where the offense got four plays from the 10-yard line. On fourth down, Aundre Wright caught a corner fade over cornerback Sherod Murdock for a touchdown and was mobbed by white jerseys. But the play was waved by a flag for an off-sides penalty by the receiver on the opposite side.
On the second fourth-down attempt, the white looked to Wright again but Murdock jumped up and knocked the pass down, much to the enjoyment of those in blue jerseys.