The mere mention by Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt that Eastern Michigan employs a read-option offense immediately brought a number of follow-up questions about how it will prepare the Panthers for West Virginia.
Wannstedt could have quashed them with one answer:
Not that the time invested preparing for Eastern Michigan’s scheme is going to waste. Actually, it’s quite the opposite. Pitt will play several teams with dual-threat quarterbacks – Virginia, Navy, South Florida and WVU come to mind – and it’s difficult to simulate game speed with the scout team’s freshmen and walk-ons in practice.
“With this first game,” redshirt junior middle linebacker Scott McKillop said, “it’s a good test for us to get confidence toward the end of the season when we play a team like West Virginia.”
Wannstedt acknowledged that, because of the schedule, the Panthers made a “concentrated effort” in spring drills and the summer practicing the read-option and studying schemes that give them “the best chance to defend it.”
“There have been a couple periods every practice where our eyes have been opened to this offense,” McKillop said. “The coaching staff has got us accustomed to this type of scheme to better prepare us for this game.”
Eastern Michigan has had success with the spread-option, evidenced by its 427.9 yards per game (21st nationally) in 2004. The Eagles struggled offensively last season, proving the spread-option is only as good as the person playing its most important position.
The Eagles were 1-11 last season, as sophomore Andy Schmitt led the team in both passing (1,182 yards) and rushing (461 yards) while splitting starting quarterback duties with junior Tyler Jones, who passed for 754 yards and rushed for 310 in six starts last season.
Not quite Pat White-like rushing statistics. More like two good games for the WVU star. Plus, both EMU quarterbacks underwent off-season shoulder surgery and had limited repetitions during training camp.
It’s players like White, rare as they are, that make the read-option so dangerous. When an electrifying quarterback has the ball in his hands, he opens a multitude of possibilities by keeping the defense guessing.
“This scheme is no different than any other one. You’ve still got to get in position to make plays. You have to make sure the quarterback is accounted for on all the plays. He’s the guy that makes it go,” Wannstedt said. “The handoffs aren’t any different than any other type of offense. The threat of the quarterback and his ability to run and make plays, that’s what separates this offense from others.
“Our guys are well-prepared. We’ve been talking about this. It’s not a surprise for us. We’ll play well.”
• Wannstedt cleared up at least one depth-chart issue by naming starters in redshirt junior Adam Gunn (Kiski Area) at strong side and redshirt sophomore Shane Murray (Central Catholic) at weak side for the season opener.
Wannstedt added that sophomore Dorin Dickerson (West Allegheny) and redshirt freshman Nate Nix (Thomas Jefferson) “will play a lot.” That means Pitt’s top five linebackers, including McKillop (Kiski Area) are all WPIAL products. Redshirt freshman Dan Loheyde (Gateway) makes it six of the top eight, with Floridians Jemeel Brady and Steve Dell the others.
• The only area of the depth chart where Wannstedt seems genuinely concerned is on the offensive line, but that unit will improve immensely once fifth-year senior Mike McGlynn is ready to play in games.
Wannstedt said McGlynn, who has been cleared to participate in full-contact drills, is “day to day” but “real close” to returning. Although McGlynn is widely expected to move to center, he took reps at both guard spots on Friday night and is capable of playing all five positions.
“Offensive line-wise, we’re better than we have been but not where we need to be yet,” Wannstedt said. “That’s probably the last position on offense that comes together.”
• Wannstedt confirmed that LeSean McCoy will play against Eastern Michigan, but continues to evade questions about the freshman tailback’s role in the offense.
McCoy showed flashes in camp of becoming the big-time back the Panthers have lacked. For now, however, he remains the backup to junior LaRod Stephens-Howling.
“We’ll see how LaRod is doing,” Wannstedt said. “We’ll take it one series at a time. With running backs, you have to be careful. They have to get into the flow of the game. You can’t stick one in and let him have two carries, then he’s pass blocking and you take him out and stick him back in. We don’t have anything set.”
• Some took Wannstedt seriously when he made a quip about taking out an ad in The Pitt News to find a kickoff specialist, but he has valid concerns about an NCAA rule change that moved kickoffs back 5 yards to the 30.
“If teams are going to kick the ball to you and give you a chance to return, I think that will be a big positive,” Wannstedt said, knowing that he has a dangerous pair in senior Lowell Robinson and sophomore T.J. Porter. “I think it will have a little bit of an effect.”
Although teams are expected to employ more sky and squib kicks to limit long-distance returns, Wannstedt anticipates that it could determine something as simple as whether a coach defers after winning the coin toss.
“I’ve always been one if you win the toss, let’s defer,” Wannstedt said. “There’s something there that you need to think about, also. You defer and they return it to the 40-yard line, make one first down and they’re kicking a field goal. There’s going to be a lot of scenarios that are going to be affected by moving the ball back, both from a return and coverage standpoint.” • As a follow-up, Wannstedt was asked what he would do if Pitt wins the toss Saturday, considering Stull is making his first start at quarterback: Receive or defer?
“The natural thing would be to give him time to settle in, but I think we have to wait and see what the wind is doing, the conditions of the game,” Wannstedt said. “Between now and Saturday, a lot of things will come up to make that decision a little easier.”