Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt expected nothing less, this being the first scrimmage of spring drills, when the Panthers’ defense dominated from the outset Saturday afternoon at the South Side facility.
In its first three possessions, the first-team offense ran seven plays for minus-3 yards, not counting Adam Gunn’s sack of quarterback Bill Stull, before Shane Murray intercepted a Stull pass on the right sideline.
“I would have been highly disappointed if our defense didn’t come out there and play like we did,” Wannstedt said. “The defense pretty much shut us down today.”
Pitt’s strong suit is its defensive line, led by first-team ends Greg Romeus and Doug Fulmer and tackles Tommie Duhart and Rashaad Duncan.
On offense, it’s just the opposite. The only returning starter, Joe Thomas, has moved from right guard to right tackle. The rest of the line consists of redshirt freshman Jordan Gibbs at left tackle, senior Dom Williams at left guard, junior-college transfer Robb Houser at center and former defensive tackle John Malecki at right guard.
When the defensive linemen weren’t getting into the backfield, they were opening holes for the linebackers to blitz through untouched.
“We had a tough time blocking those guys,” Wannstedt said. “On one side, you say you hope you can be a little further ahead from an offensive line standpoint but at the same time you expect your defense to dominate. I thought for the most part they dominated.”
To be fair, LeSean McCoy was limited to six touches. He had four carries for 7 yards and two catches for 7 yards before being pulled. And LaRod Stephens-Howling had only six carries for 28 yards before following suit.
If there was one reassuring thing, it’s that the right side of the line held up under pressure and the left side will improve once redshirt sophomore tackle Jason Pinkston (shoulder), senior guard C.J. Davis (hamstring) and redshirt freshman guard Chris Jacobson (knee) return from injuries.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do on the offensive line,” Wannstedt said. “We really need to get the guys who have played – Pinkston and C.J. Davis – back as fast as we can, and we need to get (Chris) Jacobson out there.
“Overall, I was pleased with our defense. We know we have a ways to go on offense.”
• Wannstedt also is very concerned about how the lack of depth at tight end is affecting the blocking schemes. With Nate Byham and John Pelusi out with injuries, the Panthers didn’t have a scholarship tight end until they moved Dorin Dickerson and Ty Tkach there this spring.
“We only have two tight ends, and neither one was a tight end a year ago,” Wannstedt said. “Ty Tkach was a defensive end and Dorin was a linebacker. We’re really restricted as far as what we can do and how much we can run without a tight end in there.”
• What Wannstedt was looking for was players who separated themselves from their teammates, and several Panthers were up to the challenge.
“When you have a scrimmage like this, where the players are out there on their own, making decisions and making plays in front of people, you have a tendency to truly see what individuals can do and what they can’t do,” Wannstedt said. “It gives you a little clearer picture offensively, what you can and what you can’t do.”
What we found out: Dorin Dickerson can play tight end, as he had three catches for 22 yards and a touchdown; Greg Williams can play outside linebacker, as he had a team-best eight tackles despite moving there from running back just two weeks ago; and Steve Dell shouldn’t be counted out in the middle linebacker race just yet.
Dell might have been the biggest surprise, as he had seven stops (four solo) and dropped LeSean McCoy for a 2-yard loss and chased down LaRod Stephens-Howling from behind on a toss left for a 2-yard gain on second-and-3.
“Steve Dell was a guy we weren’t sure was going to make it physically,” Wannstedt said, referring to Dell’s surgically repaired knee, “and he showed up today.”
Another player who caught my eye was redshirt freshman outside linebacker Brandon Lindsey, who made three tackles in a six-play sequence and finished with five.
• Perhaps the player who had the best day was sophomore safety Dom DeCicco, who had four tackles (three solo), intercepted a bobbled pass and blocked a 47-yard Conor Lee field-goal attempt.
“That was actually my first one in my career,” DeCicco said of the blocked kick. “I was never on the field, except to be the holder (on extra points and field goals). I just kind of stuck my hand up and got it. … I got through the line and just got my hand up. Luckily, the ball hit my hand.”
DeCicco is battling redshirt sophomore Elijah Fields – the team’s most physically impressive athlete – for the strong safety job, and gave reason to remain in the starting lineup. Fields had one tackle, stopping Dickerson for a loss.
Some wonder why DeCicco and Fields are fighting for one spot while senior Eric Thatcher appears uncontested at free safety. New defensive coordinator Phil Bennett explained that the safeties now make the calls on defense (linebackers did so under Paul Rhoads), and Thatcher’s experience as a two-year starter is invaluable in that regard.
“Those positions are interchangeable. All three of them will play,” Bennett said. “They’ve really done a nice job. It’s crucial. They make all our calls. Besides that, you’ve got to have intelligence. You have to understand the package, what you’re trying to do and how you’re trying to do it.”
• Scrimmage highlights:
• On a third-and-1, Stull scrambled and found Oderick Turner for a 37-yard touchdown pass over junior cornerback Jovani Chappel.
“Billy made a nice play and Oderick made a nice catch,” Wannstedt said, “but that was really all that happened, in my opinion, on offense all day.”
• Redshirt freshman tailback Sharif Harris took a handoff right for a 7-yard gain, running over redshirt freshman cornerback Buddy Jackson along the sideline.
• Redshirt junior cornerback Danny Cafaro, a walk-on from Upper St. Clair who transferred from Virginia Tech, intercepted a Pat Bostick pass intended for Aaron Smith. Cafaro later broke up a Kevan Smith pass in the end zone.
• After ending one drive with an interception, DeCicco made a touchdown-saving tackle by tripping Stephens-Howling after a 16-yard run. DeCicco then blocked Lee’s field goal.
• Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Chas Alecxih, a walk-on, sacked Bostick twice for minus-14 yards. Alecxih came to Pitt from Penn Manor, where he was a teammate of Jordan Gibbs’ as a 215-pound end. Alecxih is now 265 and causing fits for offensive linemen because of his quickness.
• Junior-college transfer Greg Cross hasn’t proven he can pass, but his running ability was evident. He had six carries for 29 yards, including a touchdown run, but was 0-for-1 passing.