With its second scrimmage looming Saturday, Pitt added some excitement to a light practice in shoulder pads by adding pressure to situational drills.
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt had his players watch two-minute drills from last season, then put the Panthers through a two-minute drill during 11-on-11 play.
“It’s remarkable how things come up to make a difference in winning or losing that you see on film,” Wannstedt said. “So, hopefully, if that situation were to come up in a game, we’d be able to respond right away.”
On the first series, junior quarterback Bill Stull directed the first-team offense, completing passes to receiver Marcel Pestano and tight end Darrell Strong. Linebacker Dorin Dickerson sacked Stull, who then completed two passes to T.J. Porter and another to Strong at the 10-yard line.
With time running out, Stull spiked it to stop the clock. He tossed a swing pass to tailback LaRod Stephens-Howling, who was stopped at the 5. After another spike, the offense had one second left to run one last play. But cornerback Aaron Berry broke up a fade pass intended for Strong in the left corner of the end zone to end the drive.
When backup Kevan Smith took over, his first pass tipped off the hands of fullback Shane Brooks and into those of corner Ricky Gary, who returned it for a touchdown.
Smith got another chance but had his first pass dropped by Austin Ransom and his second was behind Aaron Smith. LeSean McCoy gained a few yards on a draw, and Kevan Smith picked up a first down on a sneak. After completing passes to Ransom and Maurice Williams, Smith was sacked by defensive end Tony Tucker, spiked to stop the clock and threw an incompletion on fourth down,
• Wannstedt raised the stakes by turning to come-from-behind circumstances. He told the Panthers they had a nine-point deficit and challenged them to try to score twice starting at their own 45 with three minutes remaining.
The Panthers’ offense passed that test.
Stull’s first pass was incomplete, but he found Pestano twice to pick up a first down. Stull connected with tight end John Pelusi for a 9-yard gain, but was sacked on second-and-1 by defensive tackle Gus Mustakas. Fullback Conredge Collins was stopped short on third down, so Wannstedt automatically gave the offense a field goal.
On the second drive, Stull connected with Porter for a 16-yard gain and to Stephens-Howling for 9 yards. On second-and-1, Stephens-Howling ran a draw for a first down. Stull hit Strong for an 18-yard gain, then spiked it to stop the clock. Stull rolled right and threw a 2-yard pass to Cedric McGee, who was hit immediately by corner Kennard Cox but stayed inbounds. Stull threw it away on third down, and had two seconds remaining for a final play. Stull threw a slant pass to McGee for a touchdown.
Wannstedt was impressed with his quarterback play.
“I thought Billy did well,” Wannstedt said. “He had an 80 percent completion percentage. He’s doing a great job of not forcing things and working with what the defense gives him. He’s throwing the ball very accurately, so I’m very pleased with where Billy is.”
• Backup Kevan Smith didn’t fare as well. He completed a 17-yarder to tight end Nate Byham, but was sacked by nose tackle John Malecki on second down and a pass to tailback Kevin Collier went for a 1-yard loss. On fourth-and-3, the offense drew an illegal procedure penalty. On fourth-and-8, a pass to Byham went for 6 yards.
• Wannstedt changed the situation again, this time giving the offense the ball at the opponent’s 25 down by six points. Stull passed to Pelusi for 9 yards. Stephens-Howling picked up a first down with a 3-yard run. But on fourth-and-2 at the 5, Stull stumbled in his drop and his fade pass intended for receiver Oderick Turner fell incomplete.
• Wannstedt has already anointed redshirt junior Scott McKillop the starter at middle linebacker, but the competition for the outside spots is wide open.
The Panthers tinkered with different combinations, giving a handful of players an opportunity to run with the first-team defense.
McKillop did not practice, so the first lineup saw Adam Gunn in the middle, flanked by Dorin Dickerson and Jemeel Brady. The initial second-team lineup was Steve Dell inside and Shane Murray and Nate Nix outside. Freshmen Max Gruder, Brandon Lindsey and Tristan Roberts also got reps with upperclassmen.
The most likely starting lineup will have McKillop in the middle, with Dickerson on the strong side and Murray at weak side. Gunn might move to the middle, which would allow Brady and Nix to man the outside positions.
“Other than Scott McKillop in the middle, all the other positions are open so there is a lot of competition going on,” Wannstedt said. “So whether they are working first-team, second-team or third-team is not significant.”
• Among the practice highlights were:
• Aundre Wright taking a pass on the left sideline, then speeding past the secondary and outracing Lowell Robinson, who came from the other side of the field, to the goal line for a touchdown.
• Defensive tackle Gus Mustakas pressured Stull, who looked to dump the ball to a running back. The defense picked up on the ploy, yelled “screen” and dropped into coverage, forcing Stull to throw it into the ground.
• Stull, who has found a nice rhythm, zipped a pass to Porter over the middle. Stull also found Pestano in the back of the end zone, and Pestano beat Berry with a one-handed catch for a touchdown.
• Robinson broke up a pass intended for Maurice Williams with a perfectly timed hit as the ball arrived. Shortly after, Robinson broke up a catch by Aundre Wright with another big hit.
• Aaron Smith, in only his second day of practice at receiver, caught a sideline pass from Kevan Smith and made sure to drag both feet before stepping out.
• Nose tackle Rashaad Duncan pushed center Chris Vangas back so fast that Vangas stepped on Stull’s foot during his drop and caused Stull to do a somersault.
• Safety Jovani Chappel plugged a hole at the goal line, standing up Collier for no gain. A few plays later, Tucker drilled fullback Henry Hynoski and pushed him backwards.
• Kevan Smith threw a touchdown pass to Porter on the left side.
• Defensive end Jabaal Sheard read a reverse and dropped Porter in the backfield.
• Strong bobbled a Stull pass at the goal line, but pulled it in as he absorbed a hit from safety Mike Phillips, who grabbed him by the jersey and whipped him around. Strong somehow landed in the end zone.
• Pat Bostick threw his first touchdown pass in camp, tossing it to Maurice Williams, who cut inside then broke outside past corner Buddy Jackson thanks to a block by tackle Frank Kochin.
• Another TD pass by Bostick, this time Ransom, after a pair of crack-back blocks in succession from Kevin Collier, who flattened linebacker Miguel Pena, and Aaron Smith, who then drilled Jackson.
• Wannstedt cited the play of Collier, who is becoming a well-rounded tailback despite sitting third on the depth chart behind Stephens-Howling and LeSean McCoy.
“Kevin Collier probably has the made the most improvement from last year to the next,” Wannstedt said. “I was kidding him the other day and he said, ‘Hey, do you see who I am competing against every day?’ He’s McCoy and LaRod. It’s tough competition.”
• The Panthers will conduct a 100-play scrimmage at 10:45 a.m. Saturday at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex on the South Side.
Wannstedt said Bostick will participate in Saturday’s scrimmage, “so we’ll get a better feel for where he is mentally and physically with the offense when it’s real.”
Wannstedt also said that the Panthers will spend more scrimmage time on more special teams work under live situations – except tackling – and will focus on covering kicks and punts and working on kick returns.
• Wannstedt also raved about Stephens-Howling, who has had an outstanding camp and appears to be set as the starting tailback, although it’s likely he won’t have to carry such a heavy workload because of McCoy and other backs.
“LaRod will be the one guy that we have to be careful with since we know where he is and what he can do,” Wannstedt said. “He has been the best and may have had the best camp out of anybody. I keep on saying that he is the best-kept secret in the Big East.”
Senior receiver Derek Kinder attended practice, on crutches, for the first time since suffering a torn ACL last Saturday. Kinder appeared in good spirits, and said he has surgery scheduled for Tuesday. The first-team All-Big East selection can redshirt this fall and return for a fifth year of eligibility in 2008.