Apologies to those who wrote for my late arrival to Pitt spring football drills, as I was following the Pitt women’s basketball team on its first-ever run to the NCAA Sweet 16.
After missing the first five practices, Thursday marked my first visit to the football facility so I spent the majority of practice observing the Panthers and catching up.
Here’s my initial impressions:
• LeSean McCoy hasn’t lost a step.
I’d heard talk that McCoy didn’t have a great off-season, but the tantalizing tailback showed on his first carry the flash of his freshman season. He bounced left, waited for right guard John Malecki to pull and then used Malecki as a screen to spin out of the grasp of a would-be tackler that left the defense sending out an SOS:
Same Old Shady.
• Pat Bostick has lost a lot of weight.
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt has said Bostick has dropped anywhere from 17 to 21 pounds, and it’s obvious the sophomore quarterback is slimmer. And better for it. Bostick said afterward that he has changed his diet, learned to eat healthier and feels faster for it.
“His arm is a little bit stronger,” Wannstedt said, “and he’s moving around a bit better than he ever has.”
• But Bill Stull hasn’t lost his job.
“If I would say who I’m most pleased with right now,” Wannstedt said, “it would be Billy Stull. It seems like he’s picked up right where he left off.”
Where Stull left off was as the starting quarterback for the season opener against Eastern Michigan before a fractured thumb on his right (throwing) hand ended his season. Kevan Smith started the next three games and Bostick the final eight games.
Now, Stull is back and leading the QB battle.
This news, of course, comes with a warning: Wannstedt said that the quarterback job is “open right now” and Bostick is throwing better than he did last season, when he struggled to put zip on his passes.
Bostick showed that he has improved his velocity by threading the needle between three defenders to complete a pass over the middle to Maurice Williams.
Stull also made some nice throws, the best being a deep ball to a streaking Oderick Turner over corner Jovani Chappel for a touchdown. (Turner needs to show more consistency, however; I saw him short-arm a Stull pass over the middle that was picked off by Aaron Berry).
Either way, Wannstedt has to be pleased that he has an abundance of contenders at quarterback instead of a dearth. The Panthers were one injury away from having to put a walk-on in last season, a scary situation for any coach.
For now, we’ll just call Stull the frontrunner.
“The thing about quarterback is Billy Stull is back healthy, and his arm looks a little stronger right now,” Wannstedt said. “The rehab and all that was good. The training he did in the off-season is paying off.”
• But don’t count out Smith or Greg Cross …
Smith still has the strongest arm (by far) in camp, throwing a pair of deep balls that overshot receiver Aaron Smith but could have been touchdowns if intended for faster targets like Maurice Williams or Aundre Wright.
And Cross has the fastest legs (by far) in camp. He’s a physical specimen, just like his predecessor in wearing No. 14 (Darrell Strong). Where Cross is a raw passer, he appears to be a dynamic runner. I can see a scenario where he runs the Wildcat package in short-yardage or red-zone situations as a change of pace, which would only make McCoy and Stephens-Howling more dangerous if they are paired together.
• Speaking of Stephens-Howling, if he can stay healthy, it’s easy to envision Stephens-Howling enjoying a playmaker role as a multi-purpose back who lines up sidecar to McCoy or in the slot. He gives Pitt both options.
Hard to believe, but LaRod will be a senior this fall. He made several sparkling runs Thursday. One went for about 60 yards, where he sped past the defense until safety Elijah Fields, who had an angle, chased him down and pushed him out of bounds at the 5-yard line.
• Speaking of Fields, I’m told he has been the star of spring drills so far. He brings a nasty streak to the secondary and his competition with Dom DeCicco for the starting strong safety job should be fierce.
DeCicco might appear to be the underdog, but he was taking first-team reps and continues to show that he’s a playmaker. He forced a fumble by stripping fullback Henry Hynoski near the sideline, then made a diving interception of a Stull pass.
DeCicco and Fields appear destined to battle it out for the starting job – opposite senior Eric Thatcher at free safety – but Pitt should be better for it in nickel packages.
• Dorin Dickerson has found a home.
The West Allegheny grad has played receiver, running back and outside linebacker in two seasons at Pitt. Where some saw him as the second coming and others view him a bust, Dickerson at least deserves a chance to learn a position before we crown or condemn his career.
As a hybrid tight end, Dickerson showed the hands to catch the ball over the middle and speed to turn downfield and outrun linebackers and safeties. He had one catch for a big gain, another from Bostick for a touchdown.
Now, Dickerson just has to prove he can block.
It’s always something.
• Scott McKillop has found a backup.
Redshirt freshman Max Gruder has moved up to second-team middle linebacker, behind the All-American McKillop, and is showing good instincts.
Gruder dropped LaRod Stephens-Howling for a loss on one run in seven-on-seven drills. Later, he made a nice read and displayed closing speed on a screen in the flat to Stephens-Howling, who nevertheless anticipated the hit and sidestepped Gruder. Although he missed the tackle, it got Wannstedt’s attention, which wasn’t a bad thing.
• Pitt’s next practice is Friday afternoon. The Panthers will hold their first intrasquad scrimmage Saturday morning, when they are planning play host to a number of upper-echelon recruits.