Interestingly enough, Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt seems more concerned about the play of the offensive line than he is about who the Panthers’ starting quarterback will be, even though Kevan Smith and Pat Bostick are freshmen.
Maybe that’s because Wannstedt realizes the quarterback’s success or struggles will depend largely on the play of the front five.
Whatever the reason, Wannstedt didn’t like what he saw from the offensive line against Eastern Michigan, when the Panthers were limited to 130 rushing yards on 42 carries (3.1 ypc) and struggled mightily in the first half.
“I want to see a few of these offensive linemen practicing this week, to be quite honest with you,” Wannstedt said. “I’m not real pleased with how we played this past week, and we need to get back to work. We’ve got a lot of work to do. I’m not going to make any concrete decisions until I see how they respond, how they work and how they prepare.”
After Pitt’s 27-3 victory over Eastern Michigan, several Panthers said the Eagles gave them different looks than they had been practicing against. It wasn’t until halftime that Pitt adjusted and controlled the line of scrimmage.
Some of the credit should go to Eastern Michigan senior defensive tackle Jason Jones, an NFL prospect who Wannstedt said is likely the best defensive lineman the Panthers will face all season.
“They came out right off the bat and started pressuring and started moving. Was it anything we hadn’t seen before? No, but we didn’t handle it well,” Wannstedt said. “We just didn’t handle things as fast and as efficiently as we need to. I want to see how it plays out this week.”
Wannstedt also qualified the remark by noting that fifth-year senior center Chris Vangas and sophomore right tackle Jason Pinkston made their starting debuts, respectively, that senior left tackle Jeff Otah and sophomore right guard Joe Thomas are second-year players and that left guard C.J. Davis – a true junior – has the most experience of the bunch.
“There is some newness there,” Wannstedt said. “It’s not like it’s a group that’s played together for three years.”
Even so, their play was clearly unacceptable.
Which leads us to Mike McGlynn.
Wannstedt declared McGlynn a starter for Saturday’s game against Grambling State but has yet to determine which position the fifth-year senior will play. The best bet is at right guard, where Thomas has struggled to progress since taking over for John Simonitis last season. It’s also possible that McGlynn could replace Vangas at center.
“That will be determined later on in the week where he plays,” Wannstedt said. “I don’t expect Mike to play the whole game, but he will play, and he’ll get his first full-speed action this coming Saturday.”
McGlynn’s streak of 31 consecutive starts at right tackle was snapped against Eastern Michigan because of his recovery from a torn labrum, but he got in for one play to maintain another streak, 36 consecutive games played.
Playing center would be a first for McGlynn at Pitt, but it’s not entirely new to him. He played the position as a high school sophomore and has been the Panthers’ long snapper on point-after kicks and field goals.
“It’s nothing new for him. He is the most knowledgeable offensive lineman that we have,” Wannstedt said. “Mike’s capable of playing any of the three spots.”
That could be Wannstedt’s way of serving notice to all of the offensive linemen that their jobs are on the line. Wannstedt has said Pitt will play its best five, and McGlynn is clearly one of its best. That gives Wannstedt the luxury of using McGlynn as a motivational tool.
“We’ve got to make sure we don’t get locked in or give the impression that any of these kids has a job locked up,” Wannstedt said. “That’s not the case.”
• Redshirt freshman Ricky Gary is slated to make his second consecutive start at field cornerback, ahead of sophomore Aaron Berry (ankle).
The 5-foot-8, 168-pound Gary has been one of the most pleasant surprises, considering he missed most of spring drills with a nagging hamstring injury. But Gary beat out true freshmen Buddy Jackson, Sherod Murdock and Aaron Smith (now a receiver) for the backup job and now is keeping Berry on the sidelines for the time being.
“Ricky Gary has made plays in training camp, but most impressive thing is he’s come up and made tackles. He’s made plays, and, for a little guy, he’s playing physical. You love to see that.”
Wannstedt went so far as to call Berry “the heir apparent” to Darrelle Revis. Aside from the apparent ankle injury, Berry has had some discipline issues that could be contributing to his decreased role at the moment.
But give Gary credit. He has taken advantage of his opportunity, intercepting a pass against Eastern Michigan that set up a scoring drive. Wannstedt attributed Gary’s big-game mentality to playing at Pahokee High School, which produced Panthers great Rickey Jackson and won a state championship during Gary’s time there, and to his off-season workouts with strength coach Buddy Morris.
“He comes out of a good football community,” Wannstedt said. “We knew he had speed. It was the size and strength that was holding him back.”
• Not much new to report about junior quarterback Bill Stull, who is out with torn ligaments in his right thumb, other than Pitt coaches haven’t set a return date.
“There’s really not a definite timetable,” Wannstedt said, “so to sit here and try to figure it out if and when and how, we’re just wasting time.”
The early prognosis is that it should take two months for Stull to make a complete recovery. How the Panthers fare in their next four games will likely determine whether they rush Stull back or redshirt him.
If the Panthers can get through September with at least three wins, the might try to get Stull back for Navy Oct. 10 Navy or, more importantly, Cincinnati Oct. 20. Then again, if one of the freshman quarterbacks is playing well enough for Pitt to beat Michigan State, Connecticut or Virginia, it won’t be necessary.
• If there is one person on the coaching staff who can relate to Pitt’s quarterback situation, it’s offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh, who was on both sides of the injury issue during his career as a Pitt quarterback.
Cavanaugh took over starting duties in 1976 when Robert Haygood was injured against Georgia Tech in the second game of the season. Cavanaugh then was injured against Louisville and replaced by walk-on Tom Yewcic for three games – victories over Miami, Navy and Syracuse, before returning to lead the Panthers to the national championship.
“I very well could’ve been a career backup here at Pitt, but when Robert Haygood got hurt I was ready,” Cavanaugh said. “And I got a chance to play and played well enough that they decided to keep me in there until I got hurt. Then, someone else came in, but I got the job again the next year. And that pretty much was my career in the NFL. When you’re backing somebody up, you better be ready to play. And you’re not going to get the reps that you need during the week, but mentally you’ve got to get yourself ready to play.”
The following season, Cavanaugh’s senior year, he suffered a broken wrist on the opening play against Notre Dame and Pitt’s 9-0 lead was wasted in a 19-9 loss. Rick Trocano took over for several games before Cavanaugh returned for the Florida game, which ended in a tie.
“I probably can sympathize more with Billy Stull than I can with Pat or Kevan,” Cavanaugh said. “I was really depressed. I was really down. I didn’t know how long I was going to be out. They gave me a number (of weeks), and I had to deal with that.
“I was very supportive of the guy behind me. Billy has already done that. He was here (Monday), probably a little drugged out still from some of the meds. But he was up here, being supportive, talking to the two guys and giving a lending hand. So, I think that’s important, but it has to come from the heart. You can’t make somebody do that, and he really cares about those guys and this team.”