If one thing is apparent about this training camp, it’s that the Panthers are practicing every day as if their starting jobs are on the line. And, of course, they are.
That has led to a spirited atmosphere at the indoor facility this afternoon at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex, one Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt called “impressive” because it came so late in camp.
“The guys, I thought, responded extremely well,” Wannstedt said. “I was real happy. We got a lot of work done today. It was a good, physical practice. We got better, and I think that’s the key for the next three days. We need to keep working those basic fundamentals, things that will eventually win games for us.”
Wannstedt won’t set a starting lineup until after Wednesday, when the Panthers conduct their third scrimmage, but it’s becoming evident the lineup is beginning to take shape for the Sept. 1 season opener against Eastern Michigan at Heinz Field.
“Once we get into game-planning, we’re not going to do much juggling around unless there’s an injury,” Wannstedt said. “We’re getting pretty close right now.”
When asked what criteria will determine the starting quarterback, not only the most important position on the field but also one where the Panthers must replace three-year starter Tyler Palko, Wannstedt offered the following:
“The No. 1 thing is just being efficient. I think our offense this year, with a new quarterback being the starter, it’s going to be important that he understands that we have good players around him. (He has to be) a guy who doesn’t force things, a guy who moves the chains, who moves the football team.”
If the opener were today, Wannstedt reiterated, junior Bill Stull would be the starting quarterback. Although Stull has struggled to throw the deep ball, he has shown nice touch on short and intermediate routes and no one has questioned his toughness or leadership since he returned one day after needing five stitches on his right thumb.
If we play today, obviously, Billy Stull’s the guy,” Wannstedt said. “Billy’s had two or three really good practices. He’s performed well in scrimmages. His completion percentage is good. I think he’s just going to get better and better.”
While Wannstedt noted that all three quarterbacks “have made progress,” it’s clear that neither redshirt freshman Kevan Smith nor true freshman Pat Bostick is game-ready. Both have potential to become good quarterbacks – Pitt is counting on as much – but also need to improve their mechanics and overall play.
“Kevan needs as much work as he can get,” Wannstedt said. “Pat’s playing a little bit of catch-up right now. He missed that first week, so you’re a week behind, trying to play catch-up on the plays we installed, along with the physical work.”
• Most impressive in today’s practice was the play of Oderick Turner and Marcel Pestano, who have emerged as the frontrunners to be the starting receivers.
Stull lofted a pass over middle linebacker Scott McKillop into the arms of Turner along the left sideline for a touchdown. When Stull threw a pass to Pestano on an underneath route, Pestano juked corner Aaron Berry.
Then Stull threw a high pass over the middle to the 6-foot-3 Turner, who leaped over cornerback Kennard Cox and scored a touchdown. Pestano also hauled in a high pass on the move, again with Berry in coverage.
Wannstedt acknowledged that, as upperclassmen, Pestano and Turner have an edge. But the Pitt coach also noted that T.J. Porter and Cedric McGee are in the race.
“T.J. Porter made some plays today and Cedric McGee had a chance to catch one and didn’t, but up to this point he’s been consistent,” Wannstedt said. “Obviously, you’re going to give the older guys, if things are close, the first opportunity. Oderick is a returning starter and Marcel was the third guy, so that would be the right thing to do.
“But … they’ll all play.”
• Wannstedt’s words that Craig Bokor could move into the second team by switching to the offensive line proved prophetic, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.
The knee injury to freshman left guard Chris Jacobson will require surgery, although Wannstedt didn’t rule out a return this season. Jacobson, a U.S. Army All-American from Keystone Oaks High School, was Pitt’s top offensive line recruit and was running with the second-team line.
Bokor has taken Jacobson’s spot, which further diminishes the depth on an offensive line that lost freshman tackle Dan Matha to shoulder surgery. The Panthers also have been without the services of redshirt sophomore guard John Brown, redshirt freshman guard Jared Martin and Purdue transfer Jason Kacinko, as well as fifth-year senior tackle Mike McGlynn, who could return sometime soon.
• With one fifth-year senior defensive end (Joe Clermond) sitting out of practice, another (Chris McKillop) went down with an apparent right elbow injury. That pushed a pair of redshirt freshmen, Greg Romeus and Ty Tkach, into first-team duties at the position.
Wannstedt said the injury to McKillop, who had pressured Stull on successive plays, didn’t appear serious.
• Other practice highlights:
• One play after Stull tossed a pass over Scott McKillop for a TD, the redshirt junior middle linebacker intercepted a sideline pass intended for Porter.
• On a deep route intended for Pestano, cornerback Lowell Robinson closed in and deflected the pass at the last second. Robinson later came up limping and had his left foot treated with ice.
• When Kevan Smith threw a pass behind tight end Nate Byham, freshman free safety Dom DeCicco made a diving interception. DeCicco has been one of Pitt’s most opportunistic players, picking off a handful of passes.
• Maurice Williams made another athletic catch, reaching back to one-hand a slightly underthrown pass from Bostick despite tight coverage.
• As Wannstedt mentioned, Porter pulled in a deep sideline pass from Stull with Cox in coverage and McGee let a deep pass from Smith slip through his hands as cornerback Ricky Gary closed in. Gary later made another nice recovery, closing in fast to break up a pass just as Pestano caught it and turned near the sideline.
• Smith also showed off his arm strength by throwing a bomb to Aundre Wright, who had a few steps on Gary, but the ball slipped through Wright’s arms.
• Freshman walk-on defensive lineman Chas Alexcih drew cheers by sacking Bostick near the end of practice. A teammate of Jordan Gibbs’ at Penn Manor, Alexcih turned down a scholarship offer from Connecticut and has been a camp surprise because of his ability to play end or tackle.