Dave Wannstedt took a moment after practice to emphasize the effort the Panthers are giving, not just in practice but in staying out of the trainer’s room during two-a-days.
While a handful of players remained sidelined, the majority of those recovering from bumps and bruises returned to the practice field. Among those were defensive ends Chris McKillop and Greg Romeus, nose tackle John Malecki and weak-side linebacker Shane Murray, all players battling to keep or win starting jobs.
Murray had a big hit on a swing pass to LeSean McCoy, and McKillop put pressure on the quarterback, sacking Bill Stull on the final play of practice.
“Our guys have responded the way you hope they would,” Wannstedt said. “As I told the team, practicing good and physical and hard doesn’t guarantee you winning any games but without doing it you really are cutting your chances.”
Wannstedt believes it reflects a sense of urgency on his team. Not only do few Panthers have starting jobs absolutely locked up, but the returning starters don’t want their backups do get ahead by taking additional reps.
With good cause, as defensive tackle Gus Mustakas and right guard Joe Thomas were replaced by players having excellent camps in Mick Williams and Dom Williams, respectively.
“We’ve got a few guys banged up but we’ve got a tough football team,” Wannstedt said. “They’re fighting through some things right now. Sometimes when you have a young football team and you don’t have half a dozen who are household names, there is an attitude that you have to be accountable every day.
“Sometimes, those teams surprise people.”
• Perhaps the late arrival of Pat Bostick has lit a fire in the competitive spirit of Stull, as the junior quarterback was at his sharpest yet throwing the ball.
“Billy is continuing to get better every day,” Wannstedt said. “I don’t know what his completion percentage was, but we really weren’t a whole lot different going into today’s practice as we were a year ago at this time, as far as completion percentage with all our quarterbacks. We’ve got a lot of work to do but we do see progress being made.”
On the first series of team drills, Stull completed passes to Marcel Pestano and Oderick Turner in succession, picked up a first down on a draw and then found T.J. Porter. Stull later executed a play-action fake left, rolled right and threw a dart to Pestano on the sideline.
Stull showed off his arm in several different fashions. He zipped a pass to Porter in double coverage over the middle, and threw a perfect pass on a deep out to Cedric McGee on the right sideline.
Stull showed off his arm with a nice deep ball to freshman receiver Maurice Williams, who hauled in the pass between cornerback Aaron Berry and safety Eric Thatcher.
• The season-ending injury to senior receiver Derek Kinder (torn ACL) is opening opportunities for freshman receives Maurice Williams and Aundre Wright.
Williams is making the best case for early playing time. He has the distinction of being the first receiver to beat Berry deep during training camp. Williams also used a jab step with his left foot, then sprinted wide to beat linebacker Dorin Dickerson to the outside on a reverse.
Neither play went unnoticed.
“The No. 1 thing that has created the opportunity is Derek Kinder being out,” Wannstedt said. “We’d like to redshirt as many of those kids as we can, but he made a big play today and he’s one of the faster, more athletic guys we have on our team. We recognized that early. We’ve been trying to get the kids more work than normal.
“With Kinder being out and the way Mo Williams is working, he’s in the mix right now. We’ll see what happens.”
• Bostick, by the way, practiced in shoulder pads for the first time after sitting out the morning practice, per NCAA rules that you can’t participate in two-a-days until the fifth day.
After taking reps with the second- and third-team offense, Bostick and appears to be on schedule to participate in Saturday’s scrimmage.
Although Bostick is expected to push redshirt freshman Kevan Smith for the second-string job, he might be too far behind Stull to contend for the starting position.
• One misconception among fans appears to be the difference in arm strength between Pitt’s quarterback. Truth is, none of the three scholarship QBs throws passes with much velocity. Then again, neither did Tyler Palko.
Stull is overcoming a slow start and a cut to his right (throwing hand) thumb that required five stitches but isn’t having much trouble throwing with a glove on.
Smith has the strongest arm of the three, but has a tendency to throw the football akin to the way a catcher throws a baseball. Thus, he puts too much zip on his short passes and his deep balls tend to sail.
Bostick has an unorthodox delivery but a quick release. His passes are smooth spirals but occasionally float toward the sidelines.
• The overlooked player in the linebacker competition is fifth-year senior Jemeel Brady, a converted safety who is playing weak-side linebacker at 6-foot, 210 pounds.
Brady has worked with the first team in the absence of Murray, who was sidelined by blisters on his feet. A special teams star who has a knack for downing punts inside the 5-yard line, Brady started the final two games at free safety last season but was switched to linebacker despite missing all of spring drills following shoulder surgery.
“Jemeel Brady is probably a guy that we need to mention,” Wannstedt said. “He’s probably doing as good a job as anybody at linebacker. He’s muscled up. He’s a strong, fast guy who has been in the system a few years.”
And it doesn’t hurt that defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads has a liking for Brady.
• Both Wannstedt and Rhoads said they aren’t ready to name starters at linebacker – although Scott McKillop has the middle spot locked up – but it appears that eight players are contending for spots on the two-deep.
The first unit consists of McKillop, Murray and Adam Gunn, while the second team has Steve Dell and Dan Loheyde alternating in the middle, Brady and Nate Nix at weak side and Dorin Dickerson at strong side.
“I would hope to come out of here – we know we have to name three starters – but we’re hoping to come out with six guys we’re comfortable playing at the linebacker spot because there’s not one H.B. Blades.”
• Wannstedt said there are no plan to grayshirt freshman offensive tackle Dan Matha, who had surgery on both shoulders in the off-season and has been watching practice while wearing a sling.
“He’ll be redshirted,” Wannstedt said. “He needs to be here with us and rehab under our (medical) supervision.”
• When McCoy, a freshman, started taking reps with the first- and second-team offense, Internet rumors circulated that sophomore Kevin Collier would transfer.
Instead, it appears that McCoy’s emergence has inspired Collier to elevate his play. Collier has had several nice runs and has made great strides catching passes out of the backfield. It might not be enough to hold off McCoy, but Collier is no worse than Pitt’s third tailback for now.
• The Panthers practice at 2:30 Friday, and I’ll be a guest at 6:45 p.m. tomorrow on FSN Pittsburgh’s Savran on SportsBeat if you’re looking for more camp updates.