The dominance of the defense in Pitt’s first scrimmage was rewarding for defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads, perhaps the most embattled member of Dave Wannstedt’s staff.
The Panthers are trying to shore up a defense that allowed an average of 274.8 rushing yards and 467.6 total yards in the final five games last season and are doing so without the benefit of a bona fide superstar.
Now that Rhoads has taken over the duties of coaching the linebackers, there is an added emphasis on the play of the front four and how it affects the linebacker corps. That the defense kept the first-team offense out of the end zone until red-zone drills lifted their spirits.
“What I’m most pleased with is what I thought all along this group is: They’re very blue-collar. They’re very intent. At this point in camp, when you’re tired physically and mentally, they’re still pushing,” Rhoads said.
“I thought there was popping going on in that scrimmage. Then, coming back, there’s a lot of tendency historically to take a practice off. There was very little rah-rah on the field, but there was a whole lot of work getting done. That’s what I’m most pleased with from what I’m seeing out of this outfit right now.”
Despite being in full pads, the Panthers went light in their morning practice session. They used different combinations at linebacker, trying to not only figure out a starting trio but auditioning players at different spots.
That led to some interesting combinations. After spending Wednesday as second-team middle linebacker, Adam Gunn returned to first-team on the strong side. Gunn played alongside middle linebacker Scott McKillop and weak-side linebacker Jemeel Brady, filling in for Shane Murray, sidelined for a second day with blisters on his feet.
The second unit consisted of Nate Nix, Dan Loheyde and Dorin Dickerson. At one point, Dickerson played with the first unit while Gunn and Nix flanked Steve Dell.
• After being limited by a sore hamstring, senior defensive end Chris McKillop returned to contact drills and made his presence known during a goal-line drill.
McKillop came from the backside to drop fullback Conredge Collins for a loss, then pressured – and possibly sacked – quarterback Bill Stull. No whistle was blown, and Stull threw a touchdown pass to tight end Darrell Strong.
• Freshmen defensive tackles Myles Caragein and Wayne Jones got a look with the second-team defense and made the most of their opportunity.
The 315-pound Jones blew up a play, beating right guard John Fieger and leading the way to stop fullback Henry Hynoski at the 3-yard line. Hynoski also got stopped short by Dell, who stood Hynoski up and allowed safety Jovani Chappel to knock him over backwards.
• Hynoski has been impressive, but the play of redshirt sophomore ultraback Shane Brooks might allow the Panthers to redshirt the former Southern Columbia star.
Brooks has picked up the blocking schemes better than expected after converting from tailback, hasn’t had any fumbles and showed off his hands by catching a short touchdown pass from Kevan Smith.
• Freshman quarterback Pat Bostick did not participate in practice, as NCAA rules prevent him from doing full contact drills until his fifth practice.
Bostick is scheduled to put on the full pads for the first time Saturday, when the Panthers scrimmage, but will work out this afternoon in shoulder pads and shorts.