Dave Wannstedt has been emphatic that Pitt won’t form a depth chart until after Saturday’s first scrimmage, but by limiting the participation of two players the Panthers coach let slip that a pair of positions are set in stone.
Wannstedt said Pitt will run 80-to-90 plays, giving every player 25-to-30 snaps in the scrimmage. Everybody, of course, except for the nine scholarship players coming off surgeries and two All-America candidates: tailback LeSean McCoy and middle linebacker Scott McKillop, who will see a limited number of snaps.
“This will be, as I told the players, the first time that they’ll be really looked at and graded to the point where we’ll look at the depth chart for the first time next week,” Wannstedt said.
Not that the depth chart that comes out of spring drills will at all resemble the starting lineup for the season opener against Bowling Green. Not with fullback Conredge Collins, receiver Derek Kinder, tight ends Nate Byham and John Pelusi, offensive linemen Chase Clowser, C.J. Davis, Chris Jacobson and Jason Pinkston and defensive lineman Gus Mustakas either limited or not participating.
“We’ll probably have 10 starters not scrimmage,” Wannstedt said.
Which, depending on your point of view, is either a good thing, a bad thing or a little bit of both. While you’d prefer to see McCoy and McKillop play, after Pitt’s luck with injuries last season it’s better to be safe than sorry.
* The Panthers went without pads Friday for the third time during spring drills, fulfilling NCAA rules that mandate three of the 15 practices are without contact. Tomorrow, they will have a live – or full-contact – scrimmage with Big East Conference officials.
Ever the defensive-minded coach, Wannstedt said the quarterbacks will not wear green jerseys, which protect them from contact. But …
“They’ll be live on my whistle, and I’ll have a quick whistle” Wannstedt said, noting that it will be mostly for the benefit of Pitt’s “bread-and-butter,” the defensive line. “They’ll all get hit a little bit. … When they get a hold of them, I’ll control the whistle.”
• Such tactics will put to the test the pocket presence of quarterbacks Pat Bostick, Greg Cross, Kevan Smith and Bill Stull, who are playing behind an inexperienced defensive line but are surrounded by talented skill players.
Stull showed some ability to escape pressure (and gets a high mark for creativity) during the two-minute drill. Flushed to his right, he wheeled back left and used Wannstedt as a screen before throwing a touchdown pass to Dorin Dickerson in the end zone.
• At first glance, I believed Dickerson might have found a home. Now, I’m starting to think he’s a natural at H-back. He made a few catches today that raised eyebrows.
Two came during red-zone drills. On the first, he beat corner Aaron Berry and safety Dom DeCicco in the upper right corner of the end zone to catch a Stull pass for a touchdown. Then he got a step on safety Elijah Fields on a crossing pattern and leapt to pull down a Bostick pass in front of McKillop for another score.
Later, in 11-on-11 drills, Dickerson made a spectacular one-handed grab with safety Eric Thatcher in coverage. Not only does Dickerson bring size and speed to the tight end position, but he’s a legitimate downfield threat.
• If you’re wondering why, then, Dickerson couldn’t cut it at receiver as a freshman, consider this: Pitt’s receiving corps is as deep and talented as it has been in a long time. Because of an ankle injury, Dickerson was never given much of a chance before being switched to tailback. By comparison to his competition he appeared stiff.
Now, at tight end, he’s smooth and sure-handed.
Receiver might be one of the spring’s best position battles, even without the services of All-Big East pick Kinder. The Panthers return starters T.J. Porter and Oderick Turner, top backups Cedric McGee and Maurice Williams and redshirt freshmen Aaron Smith and Aundre Wright.
“We’ve tried to do a couple things the last couple years, recruit guys who can make plays and recruit guys who give us more speed,” Wannstedt said. “I think we’ve done that. Unfortunately, there’s only one football to go around. We’re going to try to do some things to get as many of these guys on the field as we possibly can. That’s why we practice. Right now, we kind of have a pecking order of guys who practice well, guys who know what to do and make plays in practice will be the ones who play.”
• The 6-foot-3 Turner took advantage of a mismatch against 5-9 Jovani Chappel, catching a corner fade from Stull for a touchdown in red-zone drills and three consecutive passes (two sideline and one over the middle) in 11-on-11. Chappel later got revenge, closing quickly to break up a sideline pass intended for Turner.
Wright also made a couple leaping catches, one from Bostick for a touchdown and another near the sideline, and Porter caught a touchdown pass from Stull.
• The surprise of spring last year was walk-on Ross Ventrone, who used his spring highlight tape to earn a scholarship to Villanova, where he started at safety last fall.
This year, keep an eye out for Danny Cafaro, a 5-9, 170-pound redshirt junior cornerback who transferred from Virginia Tech after the mass-shooting tragedy.
Cafaro picked off a pass and returned it along the sideline with surprising quickness, unless you saw him play in high school. Cafaro was a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Terrific 25 selection in 2004, when he starred alongside Penn State linebacker Sean Lee at Upper St. Clair High.
• Finally, I mentioned yesterday that Pitt will have an interesting position battle for its starting safety jobs. Today, Wannstedt was effusive in his praise for sophomore Dom DeCicco, a Thomas Jefferson graduate.
“Dom’s doing a heck of a job,” Wannstedt said. “We’ve got some good players – you’ve got (Eric) Thatcher with the experience and Elijah (Fields), as talented a player as we have on the team – but Dom DeCicco has probably made as many plays this past week as any defender we have. You trust him back there. It’s a good situation for our football team right now. I wish we had that kind of talent and depth at a few other spots.”