After the Grambling State game, Kevan Smith noted that he was discussing plays between series with offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh on the headsets.
What Smith mentioned in passing is actually a significant move for Pitt’s football program on game days. Cavanaugh has gone from calling plays while standing on the sidelines to doing so from press-box booth, where he can get a bird’s-eye view of defenses.
This was an in-season switch, as Cavanaugh was on the sidelines each of the past two seasons, when Tyler Palko was playing quarterback, and in this season’s opener against Eastern Michigan. That likely had to do with his trust in junior quarterback Bill Stull. When Stull was lost indefinitely to a thumb injury, Cavanaugh moved upstairs so that he could be Smith’s “eyes in the sky.”
“I know for a fact that you can see more from up there than you can on the field,” Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. “The last two years, with Tyler, we felt it was best to be down there with him because of the transition (to the West Coast offense). We put a lot more on the quarterbacks the last two years than we are this year.
“It’s more important for our offense and our team to have Matt up there, where he can think a little bit more, see a little bit more himself and, hopefully, make two or three decisions better that make a difference during the course of the game.”
A potential pitfall is that Cavanaugh isn’t in the same vicinity as his quarterback, but Wannstedt said it isn’t unusual for an offensive coordinator to call plays from the booth, noting that Norv Turner did it for the Dallas Cowboys and Chan Gailey for the Miami Dolphins.
“Every time he comes off the field, Matt’s talking to him on the ‘phones,” Wannstedt said. “Communication is not a problem.”
Coaching from the sidelines are receivers coach Aubrey Hill, who worked from the booth last season, offensive line coach Paul Dunn and running backs coach David Walker, who coordinates signaling the plays in.
Defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads, defensive line coach Greg Gattuso and special teams coordinator Charlie Partridge are on the sidelines, as well. That leaves Cavanaugh, tight ends coach Brian Angelichio, secondary coach Chris Ball and graduate assistants Joe Perri (offense) and Jeff Hafley (defense) working from the booth.
The new views from above should help the Panthers, considering Pitt essentially has a pair of coordinators in the booth. Cavanaugh held such titles with the NFL’s Chicago Bears and Baltimore Ravens before coming to Pitt, and secondary coach Chris Ball was a defensive coordinator at Missouri Western and Idaho State in the late 1990s.
“Chris is good,” Wannstedt said. “On defense, there isn’t much of a difference. Chris had been a coordinator before. Chris has a lot of experience. Jeff Hafley is up there with him. Jeff is our defensive graduate assistant, but he might as well be a full-time coach. He’s that good.
“That has worked smooth. I haven’t felt like we needed to do anything there.”
Cavanaugh’s new vantage point could pay dividends for Smith this week, when the Panthers visit Michigan State. Spartan Stadium holds 75,005, and the school is promoting a “white out,” both of which could create a hostile environment for the redshirt freshman quarterback.
“Everybody would have a better view from up above,” Wannstedt said. “The reason that coaches do it is they want to be down there with the players. Guys have success doing it both ways; it’s just a preference thing. We don’t have the pictures to look at, like the NFL. We don’t have replays. We have to make decisions on the mark, and I think with where we’re at on offense right now, we’re kind of a young group. He’s accountable making calls and this gives him the best chance to do his job.”
• Those ready to ordain freshman tailback LeSean “Shady” McCoy Pitt’s long-awaited feature back might have to wait until Wannstedt actually names him the starter.
Wannstedt was emphatic in declaring junior LaRod Stephens-Howling the starter at tailback, but bruised ribs have put his status at day-to-day for Michigan State.
“It’s not as much as how well he’s playing compared to LaRod; LaRod’s the starter,” Wannstedt said of McCoy, who rushed for 107 yards and three touchdowns in the 34-10 victory over Grambling last Saturday.
“With LeSean, it will come down to where LaRod is health-wise and who will give our team the best chance to win. If LaRod’s slowed up a little bit, then it’s an easy decision. If Shady takes all the practice reps, or most of them, then it’s an easy decision. But LaRod hasn’t done anything to not deserve to start. I look at it the other way. I’m excited about what LeSean’s done to this point. We’ve got two guys who can make plays.”
Look for McCoy to eventually get the bulk of the carries and for Stephens-Howling to evolve into a dangerous multi-purpose back who catches as many passes out of the backfield as he gets carries.
“Shady got in there when LaRod got banged up a little bit, and I thought he did a nice job,” Wannstedt said. “The more opportunities he gets, the better he’ll become. That was a step for him to play that much. This week will be another step in the right direction.”
McCoy continues to say all the right things about his playing time, voluntarily offering that Stephens-Howling is still the starter. McCoy realizes he has a lot to learn about college football, as evidenced by the shoestring tackles that kept him from breaking a few big runs against Grambling.
“I think it’s more inexperience,” McCoy said. “If I’m trying to break it, I have to just run through the holes. Once I start playing more, I’ll know when to pick my feet up and explode downfield. I have to accelerate faster. Once I see the hole, I have to hit it and accelerate. I did pretty good with my reads, but I have to stay consistent.”
Whether it’s LaRod or LeSean they’re blocking for, the offensive line has more incentive in knowing that their tailback has the ability to break a big run at any time.
“It makes it exciting to block for those guys,” McGlynn said, “because you know if you do your job as an offensive-line unit, if you’re all on the same page, those guys can make big plays for you.”
• Speaking of McGlynn, Wannstedt praised his play against Grambling after returning from a torn labrum in his left shoulder to make his first career start at right guard after starting 31 consecutive at right tackle.
“We take it for granted just because a player has played that he’ll jump right into the lineup and pick right up where he left off, but Mike hasn’t played for a long time. It’s one thing practicing and another thing playing out there when it’s full speed,” Wannstedt said. “I thought he did a good job. After watching the tape, we were very pleased. We think it helped us not just from a performance standpoint, but from a communications standpoint.”
McGlynn wasn’t as thrilled with his play, but understood that it’s going to take some time. After giving up a sack that caused Smith to fumble, McGlynn has some extra motivation to improve his play.
“Obviously, with a new position you’re going to learn,” McGlynn said. “I played a week and was thrown in there at guard. I believe I played not up to my standards – because every play I want to be dominating – but I think I played well for the first game and I’m looking to progress and play well in East Lansing.”
• When asked if he had any advice for the freshman backfield of Smith and McCoy playing in their first game away from Heinz Field, McGlynn answered: “Don’t psyche yourself up too much.”
McGlynn recalled rowdy road trips as a redshirt freshman in 2004. Pitt had a few that year. The Panthers lost at Connecticut, 29-17, in the infamous Palko slide game; eked out a 27-22 victory at Temple; and lost at Syracuse, 31-28, in double overtime.
What McGlynn remembered most vividly was playing at Notre Dame, a game the Panthers rallied to win, 41-38.
“I remember playing in Notre Dame Stadium and growing up watching Notre Dame, and you’re seeing Touchdown Jesus and all that,” McGlynn said. “You can get overexcited. Enthusiasm is great, but that’s only going to get you so far through the game. Buddy (Morris) says it’s only going to get you the first 30 seconds; the rest is on your talent and ability. All I can tell them is, ‘Be calm, put the game plan through your head.’ I think they’re going to be all right because they’re going to be excited to play in front of a packed house and make some plays for us.”
• Speaking of Morris, Pitt’s legendary strength and conditioning coach, Panthers players were saying that he would make a difference of one or two victories this fall.
The effectiveness of his off-season conditioning program could be on display Saturday. We’ll see whether the Panthers makes drastic improvements, as they have claimed, against a Michigan State team that manhandled Pitt last season in a 38-23 victory at Heinz Field.
“I think we’re tougher this year,” McGlynn said. “As a unit, we’re in better condition … and as a team. I’m very excited to go up there and see where we are. See how we are compared last year to this year.”
Wannstedt attributed the lack of conditioning, size and strength and inexperience to that loss, and believes the Panthers are better in all three areas this year.
“We’re in great shape, our players believe that,” Wannstedt said. “I’d like to think we’re a little stronger because of all those guys being back and having some game experience over the past year, we should be a little more experienced and a little smarter.”