Dave Wannstedt likes to use themes, and it appears the Pitt coach has a new one after a rash of serious injuries has given the Panthers several early tests on how to handle adversity.
First, it was the cut on quarterback Bill Stull’s thumb in training camp. Then, it was receiver Derek Kinder’s torn ACL. Soon after, it was offensive guard Chris Jacobson’s dislocated knee. Now, it’s Stull’s torn thumb ligaments.
Although the injuries have provided distractions, they also appear to have brought the team’s focus together and provided healthy competition at pivotal positions. Instead of worrying about who was lost, they have concentrated instead on finding a replacement.
“This is not a football team that’s depending on one superstar. This is not a football team that’s really depending on one particular player at a position,” Wannstedt said. “I think by having that as our theme, saying, ‘We’re a team. We’re going to be the best 11 players every time we go on the field’ when you do get someone hurt, it’s not as much of a crisis as it would be a year ago if Tyler Palko goes down in the first game. Or H.B. Blades. Now, it’s headlines, and what are we going to do. I think guys will step in and step up and do what we have to do to win.”
Stull’s latest injury has caused the commotion because it involves throwing a pair of untested freshmen into the game’s most prominent position. Wannstedt won’t budge on naming a starter, preferring to make a game-time decision, but it’s likely that redshirt freshman Kevan Smith will get the start ahead of true freshman Pat Bostick.
While Wannstedt and offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh have said both quarterbacks will play, they have declined to reveal their plans for using them against Grambling State Saturday at Heinz Field.
Smith and Bostick have split repetitions in practice this week – ideally, Wannstedt said, the starter would get 70 percent to the backup’s 30 percent – and the Panthers have put them in situations they can expect to see in games.
“We’ve tried to make it as difficult on them as possible,” Wannstedt said. “I think it’s important to not fool them. If you were coming in and facing a freshman quarterback, you’re going to try to pressure them and give them some looks hoping to force them into some bad plays.”
Wannstedt was asked if he was concerned how his quarterbacks will perform under pressure against Grambling, a Division I-AA program that has struggled in recent years but always has athletic skill players.
“I wouldn’t use the word ‘concerned.’ I’m cautiously optimistic that these guys will get in there and perform better than any of us think,” Wannstedt said. “Billy Stull did that, quite frankly. He stepped in and performed at a better level than I thought he was going to. And Scott McKillop did that. Every time, we’ve had somebody step up. That’s kind of been a trademark for the team. I believe it will happen at quarterback.”
More important than how Pitt uses its quarterback is how the Panthers control the tempo. If the offensive line can’t create running room or protect the passer, then Pitt’s problems are far greater overall than at any one position.
Even the most important one on the field.