Dave Wannstedt has an appreciation for blue-collar football players – after all, he was one – and the Pitt coach holds junior quarterback Bill Stull in that regard.
Stull practiced for the second time Sunday after a cut to the thumb on his right hand required five stitches Friday. Stull looked sharper in the second session than he did in the first, although it’s clear that Wannstedt isn’t judging Stull so much on his passing ability as his character.
“It was good to get Billy Stull back here today,” Wannstedt said. “It definitely makes a difference when you have a player who has ability, knows the system, the team and coaches have confidence in him. It’s amazing how it gives a boost not just to your offense but your entire team.
“And Billy showed some toughness today. He had five stitches in his thumb. We had two practices today and he was out there in both of them. His thumb was bleeding a little bit. He has a glove off. He’s a tough guy and players that are surrounding him, they notice that.”
• Wannstedt once again addressed the injury to senior receiver Derek Kinder (torn ACL), who is out for the season but eligible to take a redshirt. Kinder’s parents came to practice and spoke with both Wannstedt and head trainer Rob Blanc, and Kinder will likely have surgery next week.
Kinder’s injury has been tough to swallow, even though the Panthers have plenty of depth at receiver.
“Derek is one of those players who nothing has been given to him, nothing comes easy,” Wannstedt said. “He’s worked extremely hard and deserves everything he’s received to this point.”
Wannstedt also reiterated that it was a “clean tear” with no other ligament or tendon damage to his right knee. That should help Kinder’s recovery, which could take six months or longer.
“I’m not an expert, but from what the doctors have told me, the good and the bad is that it was a non-contact injury,” Wannstedt said. “He was just planting. He cut on the grass and the tendon tore. It wasn’t from a tackle or a twist or an impact injury, which usually causes more damage in the knee. This was a very clean cut, very clean tear. Everybody from a medical standpoint has been very optimistic that he should do fine with it.”
• Kinder’s void has intensified the receiver battle, and you can’t help but notice the play of freshman receiver Aundre Wright, already one of the team’s fastest and most exciting players. Wright and fellow freshman Maurice Williams are both making a case for early playing time, but Wright was the one who made the play of the day.
Wright threw a big block on linebacker Shane Murray to spring Kevin Collier on a run. Then Wright caught a swing pass to the right side, slipped between cornerback Aaron Smith and safety Mike Toerper and outraced Elijah Fields to the end zone, diving in head-first for a touchdown.
Those antics, reminiscent of Terrell Allen on his 100-yard kick return against Louisville in 2005, drew the ire of receivers coach Aubrey Hill, who yelled, “Do not dive into the end zone! That’s a penalty!”
Wright also ran the wrong route on one pattern, cutting toward the sideline as Stull threw deep. Wright has a lot to learn but you can’t teach what he already has.
• Murray, by the way, continues to show why he’s in the starting lineup despite being undersized for the weak-side linebacker position. He tipped a Stull pass intended for Oderick Turner, and later made a diving interception of a Kevan Smith slant pass intended for tight end Darrell Strong after Smith held the ball too long.
• Another player who continues to impress is freshman safety Dom DeCicco, who delivered a big hit that caused Cedric McGee to fumble, then stopped T.J. Porter in the open field on the following play.
Wannstedt noted DeCicco’s smarts and toughness.
“He made two big plays today, caused a fumble and made a big tackle one-on-one with T.J. Porter, who’s a very good athlete,” Wannstedt said. “Dom’s running second team right now and, I’ll tell you what, he’s making as many plays as anybody. He’ll be in the mix. I look for him to be one of those freshmen we’re going to have to play this year.”
• The quarterback-center exchange has developed into such that the Panthers spent time after meetings Saturday with the offensive linemen and quarterbacks taking snaps. Those groups also were the first players on the field Sunday, trying to resolve the cause for the botches.
“We’re still not as clean as what we need to be with the quarterback-center exchanges,” Wannstedt said. “We’re going to spend the time and make the emphasis to get those little things cleaned up because they will eventually make a difference.”
Redshirt sophomore John Bachman is practicing at right tackle, but Wannstedt said Bachman can play any of the three positions on the offensive line. Bachman is one of Pitt’s top linemen, but his inability to adjust to snapping the ball made his transition to center torturous.
Alex Karabin is running with the second-team offense at center, ahead of Bachman and redshirt freshman Scott Corson, who has been playing guard. That opened a spot for Chris Jacobson at backup left guard, but Jacobson is having trouble grasping techniques.
“We’re not experimenting,” Wannstedt said. “We’re trying to put guys in that will help. There’s no decisions and there won’t be any made until after a couple of scrimmages.”
• On the brighter side, Mike McGlynn is making progress in his recovery from a torn labrum. McGlynn, the team’s long snapper, handled snaps for field goals and could be a potential solution at center when he returns.
For now, that’s up in the air.
“We’re taking it day by day,” Wannstedt said. “Every day, he’s getting stronger. Every day, he’s doing a little bit more drill work. He was out there snapping for field goals. We’re making more progress with him. We’re just trying to stay the course.”
• The first-team defense saw John Malecki return at nose guard, but had redshirt freshmen Greg Romeus and Tyler Tkach at end instead of Joe Clermond and Chris McKillop, who were being rested for bumps and bruises.
Redshirt sophomore Mick Williams alternated with Tommie Duhart at second-team defensive tackle, and Wannstedt mentioned Williams for having “a great camp, so far.” For the first time in his three-year tenure, Wannstedt appears to be pleased with the depth there. He noted that Craig Bokor is working with the third team at defensive tackle but could easily be with the first unit.
The big question mark is finding a fourth defensive end behind Clermond, McKillop and Romeus. Tkach is the underdog, but the coaches like his toughness. (Personally, I think he has the smarts and guts to make a great center). Freshmen Justin Hargrove, Jabaal Sheard and Tony Tucker also are options at defensive end, and the first two have ideal size and speed for newcomers.
“There’s some good healthy competition,” Wannstedt said. “We have the numbers and enough experience. I like what I see so far.”
• Highlights from 11-on-11 play:
• Cornerback Aaron Berry made a nice play on a Stull pass intended for Marcel Pestano deep on the left sideline.
• Cornerback Lowell Robinson hit Maurice Williams to cause a fumble that was recovered by linebacker Nate Nix.
• Walk-on defensive end Chas Alexcih chased down walk-on quarterback Spencer Whipple from the backside.
• LeSean McCoy spun off Rashaad Duncan in the backfield to pick up extra yards. McCoy has a nice burst but also understands how to use a spin to avoid defenders. He used the move again on a run up the middle, spinning off middle linebacker Scott McKillop, who made a shoestring tackle.
• Darrell Strong was split wide on occasion, and caught a pass from Stull over safety Eric Thatcher on an out route. A former quarterback and receiver, Strong is a backup tight end whose role could develop into that of a utility player if Pitt needs help at either position.
The 265-pound Strong caught a pass in the open field, with only Berry in front of him tried to juke the 175-pound cornerback instead of just running him over.
• The afternoon practice visitors included two Pitt recruits, Thomas Jefferson offensive tackle Lucas Nix and Greensburg Central Catholic defensive back Chris Hayden-Martin, as well as Central Catholic fullback-defensive end Dan Vaughan and former Steelers quarterback coach Mark Whipple, whose son, Spencer, is a walk-on quarterback.