On a damp, dreary morning that forced the Panthers to practice indoors at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex, several players showed their resiliency.
First was kicker Conor Lee, who was 1 of 3 on field-goal attempts in Saturday’s second scrimmage. Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt never wavered in his faith in the former walk-on from Upper St. Clair, and Lee rewarded him.
It wasn’t just that Lee converted all four of his field-goal attempts, it was the distances from which he delivered. Lee drilled a 30-yarder, then a 36-yarder before moving back to 49 yards. The kick dropped over the crossbar, bringing cheers from his teammates. Lee then hit a 42-yarder for good measure, the finishing touch of a fine day.
Next was strong-side linebacker Adam Gunn, who lined up with the first-team defense once again, ahead of sophomore Dorin Dickerson.
Although Dickerson is being put in a position to succeed – it’s no secret Pitt coaches want his combination of size and speed on the field – Gunn continues to perform admirably and hold onto his starting job.
Gunn doesn’t possess the physical tools that Dickerson does, but Gunn also is playing relatively mistake-free and is, at worst, one of the top four linebackers on the team. With Dan Loheyde and Steve Dell both coming off knee surgeries, the coaching staff has tinkered with moving Gunn to the middle but Dickerson has yet to supplant him.
Finally, redshirt freshman quarterback Kevan Smith might be the most overlooked player on the team now that junior Bill Stull is settling in as the likely starter and freshman Pat Bostick has returned to camp.
After shining in training camp last summer, Smith has struggled this year with everything from center exchanges to making his drops in the pocket to getting sacked. Today was his best day of camp and the first time he looked truly comfortable and confident in the pocket.
Smith has the strongest arm among the quarterbacks – second only to Darrell Strong on the team – and showed it off in seven-on-seven drills when he launched a deep pass to freshman Aundre Wright for a touchdown. Later, Smith rolled right and threw a rocket to the sidelined that Marcel Pestano caught for a 15-yard gain.
Smith’s best throw was a deep pass to freshman Maurice Williams, who reached over cornerback Lowell Robinson and tipped the ball to himself for a touchdown.
At 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, Smith has the best physique among Pitt’s QB candidates. He also is the best runner in the open field, has the strongest arm and is one of the best students on the team.
What Smith lacks is game experience, having played only 12 varsity games at Seneca Valley High School. Until his senior season, he was considered a better prospect as a catcher in baseball, and his inexperience showed during training camp and adversely affected his confidence.
Even so, Smith has better tools and more upside than Stull or Bostick, who are more polished and might move ahead of Smith on the depth chart. That’s no reason for the Panthers to give up on such a young player and, more importantly, no reason for Smith to give up on football.
* The morning practice was the first session of a two-a-day for the Panthers, so they went with full pads after wearing only helmets and shells Sunday. That meant senior offensive lineman Mike McGlynn (torn labrum) did not participate in contact drills.
Sitting out the entire practice were senior defensive end Joe Clermond and freshman left guard Chris Jacobson. When the Panthers went to team drills, senior left tackle Jeff Otah also stood on the sidelines.
Redshirt junior Chase Clowser replaced Otah with the first-team offense and freshman Jordan Gibbs took Clowser’s spot on the second team. Redshirt freshman Greg Romeus replaced Clermond at right end, and freshman Jabaal Sheard took Romeus’ place with the twos.
Redshirt sophomore Craig Bokor filled in for Jacobson, working at left guard with the second- and third-team offense.
* Sophomore right guard Joe Thomas took an earful from right tackle Jason Pinkston after defensive tackle Gus Mustakas beat Thomas to sack Stull in 11-on-11 play.
* Senior tight end Darrell Strong continues to show flashes of brilliance followed by lapses in judgment.
On one play, the 6-foot-5, 265-pounder showed his ability to be a major mismatch, lining up wide and catching a pass over the middle. He later drew the ire of offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh by running the wrong route on a Bostick pop pass that was intercepted by Dickerson and returned for a touchdown.
Strong can be a dangerous weapon, but only he can determine whether that’s a good or bad thing for Pitt.
* Dickerson, by the way, showed nice instincts in blitzing situations by sacking Smith before the quarterback could even react. The sooner Dickerson can show similar instincts in reading plays and making sound decisions, the earlier he’ll supplant Gunn as the starter at SAM.
Until then, he’ll be a backup.
* Once again, Wright made some big plays with his speed. Working with the kick return unit, he broke up the middle untouched before the coverage team even saw him. And he took an end-around with such a burst that he spun off safety Eric Thatcher for a 20-yard gain.