Just when the defense appeared to be dominating another scrimmage, Pitt turned to LeSean McCoy, and the freshman tailback from Harrisburg proved to be the real deal.
McCoy rushed for a team-high 78 yards on 10 carries, and his opening series with the first-team offense was nothing short of sensational. He broke runs of 32 and 13 yards, caught a swing pass for an 11-yard gain and scored a 6-yard touchdown by juking safety Mike Phillips.
As electrifying as McCoy was on the field, he remains humble off the field. Kid sounds like he was coached by Crash Davis for interviews.
“It felt good,” McCoy said. “The line played excellent today, holding their blocks and reading their keys. It takes a lot of pressure off the running backs when the lines blocks like they did today. When the running back breaks a long run like I did today, it’s because the wide receivers are doing their downfield blocking. We executed as an offense.”
Funny how, only a series earlier, LaRod Stephens-Howling only rushed for 4 yards on five carries.
Not that LaRod, who has had a spectacular camp, is in danger of losing his starting tailback job to LeSean (if only his name was spelled LaSean, we would be in La-La Land). Instead, it’s more likely we’ll see them in the backfield together in some combination.
“People make us to be, I wouldn’t say enemies but to be battling all the time. We’re great friends. He’s more like my dad, teaching me everything,” McCoy said. “I know my role. He’s the starter. I’m just going to follow after him.
“Some plays, we have a formation with both of us in the backfield. LaRod is a great player. I’ve never seen a guy that fast, that can make moves that quick like he does.”
Stephens-Howling can take that as a compliment from the player expected to complement him in the backfield. Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt believes the competition can only help the Panthers, and will do so on several levels.
“The better football team we become over the years,” he said “the more competition is going to be constantly getting better and better.”
• By the way, Pitt’s crowded backfield is giving its defense lots of looks in anticipation of a season in which it will face Rutgers’ Ray Rice, West Virginia’s Steve Slaton and a handful of other terrific tailbacks.
The Panthers have a small, quick back in Stephens-Howling. They have a game-breaker in McCoy. They have a scatback in Kevin Collier and a big back tailback in Shariff Harris and three versatile but powerful fullbacks in Conredge Collins, Shane Brooks and Henry Hynoski.
“That’s going to help us out a lot,” middle linebacker Scott McKillop said. “If you look at the Big East and some of the competition we’re playing this year, the backs we’re playing against are all great backs. No matter who we have back there in our offense, we have to play as hard as we can.”
• Not that it’s a bad idea, but Wannstedt objected when someone suggested Stephens-Howling could move to the slot to give McCoy a shot in one-back sets.
“I don’t know,” Wannstedt said. “I think in the slot, I’d like to get the ball to Aundre Wright. He’s exciting, probably the fastest guy on our team and it shows up. A tough guy, too. When we get down to the goal line, he can play tough.”
After all, Wright was the second-leading rusher with 40 yards on two carries, both reverses. The first was a 34-yarder, the second a 6-yard touchdown. Wright didn’t have any receptions.
• If not for McCoy and Wright – who were teammates at Milford Academy in New Berlin, N.Y., last season – we would again be talking about the defense’s dominance.
Instead, their combined 118 yards were a big difference in helping boost the rushing totals from 38 for 81 yards in the first scrimmage to 41 for 160 in the second. Harris, another freshman, was the third-leading rusher with 18 yards on six carries, while Collier had 17 on six.
The defense is showing that it’s opportunistic, as it had four interceptions, four passes defended and was credited for three sacks, although it had at least three others.
Weak-side linebacker Shane Murray picked off Stull’s swing pass intended for Stephens-Howling and returned it for a touchdown. Safety Dom DeCicco intercepted a Kevan Smith pass that tipped off the hands of tight end Darrell Strong. Cornerback Ricky Gary swiped a deep ball intended for Wright. And nose tackle John Malecki made a diving pick after a pass was batted at the line of scrimmage by freshman end Jabaal Sheard. (It was Malecki’s first interception since pee-wee football and, as his father recounted, that one was returned for a TD).
“I think we’ve got a bunch of guys over there that are smart guys and guys who’ve got quickness,” Wannstedt said. “Everybody talks about turnovers and, ‘How do they happen?’ They happen when you force things and you’re reacting quick and take advantage of it.”
• Although he threw the worst of the four interceptions, junior quarterback Bill Stull capped a week where he won over the coaching staff with his toughness and resolve by completing 9 of 15 passes for 58 yards and a touchdown.
Outsiders seem to want freshman Pat Bostick to win the starting job, but by fighting through a thumb injury and raising his level of play when Bostick returned from a week-long absence, Stull has earned the right to take the snaps in the Sept. 1 opener against Eastern Michigan.
“I think it’s Billy’s job today,” Wannstedt said. “I’m not going to name another starter yet. We’ve got another scrimmage coming up and a couple more two-a-days, but I’m pleased with the progress Billy’s making.”
• That said, Bostick is already making a push to move past redshirt freshman Kevan Smith for the backup job. Bostick was 10 of 13 for a team-high 79 yards, throwing two touchdowns, in his first practice in full pads. “Today was good for Pat,” Wannstedt said. “He got about 25 plays and I think he did great. When you think of him showing up here four days ago and coming in and (dealing with his) teammates, the media and everything that’s involved in that… From the start, I thought he responded very well and got his feet wet.”
Those who believe Bostick should be the starter have to see him practice. Outside of dealing with “personal issues” that caused him to return home to Lancaster on the eve of training camp, Bostick has to adjust to major-college football and the rigors of a Division I lifestyle.
The main difference will be adjusting to the speed of the game. Bostick has the slowest feet of Pitt’s quarterbacks, which hinders his drops and is an area where he needs to improve. He’s more accurate than Smith, who has been erratic at times, but not on the same level of Stull.
Bostick is off to a good start, which is good for Pitt. The worst thing that could happen to Bostick is for fans to expect him to be the “savior” of Pitt football.
That’s not fair to any true freshman.
But if it were, that tag would belong to McCoy.
• Wannstedt said he is pleased with the play of the defensive line and the secondary, where Aaron Berry and Kennard Cox are entrenched as starters and Gary and Lowell Robinson appear to be capable backups.
The two areas of concern are on the offensive line and at outside linebacker.
The former is a major issue, at least until fifth-year senior Mike McGlynn returns and finds a spot in the front five, which consisted of Jeff Otah at left tackle, C.J. Davis at left guard, Chris Vangas at center, Joe Thomas at right guard and Jason Pinkston at right tackle.
“I’m not sure where Mike is going to play, but as soon as he gets back, with his experience and ability, we’ll need him,” Wannstedt said. “We need him to get out there as fast as he can. He put the shoulder pads on and did some things (this week). We’ll see where he is at the end of next week.”
The latter is a matter of figuring out who will start and who will be the backups. The starters were Scott McKillop in the middle, with Adam Gunn at strong side and Murray on the weak side. The second team saw Dan Loheyde and Steve Dell inside, flanked by Dorin Dickerson and either Jemeel Brady or Nate Nix.
“I’ve really got to focus in on when watching this tape and try to bring something together,” Wannstedt said. “We’ve got a lot of guys making plays and competing, but I’m not comfortable with stacking them right now.”
McKillop led all defenders with nine tackles, while Gunn had four, Loheyde three and Murray and Brady two each and Dickerson one. Brady also had a 5-yard sack, while Dickerson wasn’t credited with any sacks but was repeatedly in the backfield before the whistle was blown.
My guess is that Dickerson will move into the starting lineup very soon, alongside McKillop and Murray. Gunn could shift to the middle, with Nix and Brady outside, although I think Nix would be a more natural fit inside.
• Pitt’s offense also played well in the red zone, as all three quarterbacks led scoring drives starting at the defense’s 25.
Stull threw a touchdown pass to T.J. Porter, who was wrapped up by Brady but spun out of his grasp to score. Smith led a drive that included a play-action pass to tight end Nate Byham for 6 yards but saw four running plays capped by Brooks’ scoring run. Bostick’s drive ended with Wright scoring on a 6-yard run.
Bostick also threw a TD pass to tight end Darrell Strong – although Dickerson contends Strong bobbled it – and Collins scored on a run to end the scrimmage.
“That’s the red zone and, on money downs, you need to put up six every time,” Stull said. “Every single time we get in there we need to score points, and we’re looking to put up six instead of three.”
• Some other scrimmage highlights:
• Defensive end Chris McKillop sacked Stull on a third-and-8 to end the second series.
• Brady ended one series by sacking Smith and forcing a fumble.
• Under pressure from Dickerson, Smith dumped a pass to Hynoski for a 2-yard gain. On the next play, he threw a screen pass to Hynoski for 15 yards and a first down.
• On a fake reverse, McCoy bounced off a leg tackle by defensive end Joe Clermond for a 13-yard gain. He then used a jab step to freeze safety Mike Phillips at the goal line and score on a 6-yard run. Both Clermond and Phillips are fifth-year senior starters; McCoy is a true freshman.
• Dickerson shed two blocks in chasing Smith out of the pocket and toward the sideline. His ability to rush the passer is going to play a big role in landing a starting job.
• Defensive end Ty Tkach and tackle Myles Caragein came off the edge to sack Smith on a third-and-5.
• Punter Dave Brytus boosted his average to 40 yards, booming a couple and dropping one inside the 10.
• Linebacker Tristan Roberts and defensive end Tony Tucker, both true freshmen, dropped Harris for a 5-yard loss.
• Bostick’s first completion was a slant pass to Maurice Williams for a 10-yard gain on third-and-15. On his next series, Bostick completed a 17-yarder to Austin Ransom, the longest pass play of the day.
• Bostick also gave great effort on a fake reverse that saw Wright go left, cut right and race downfield. Bostick chased the play and was in position to throw a block. Moments later, Bostick found Wright for a touchdown.
• I’ll leave you with this, a feel-good quote of the day:
LeSean McCoy: “Guys are hungry. We feel we can be a good team. Pitt, in the past, has been a great team with a great tradition. I feel we can do it again.”