Dave Wannstedt promised that Pitt’s first scrimmage of spring drills would warrant some depth-chart changes, but the Panthers coach wasn’t necessarily talking about starters.
Although neither a starter nor a backup has been named at quarterback, it’s obvious that redshirt junior Bill Stull has created separation as the frontrunner for the starting job and the battle for second-string, between sophomores Pat Bostick and Kevan Smith, has begun.
Smith took a step forward Tuesday when Wannstedt indicated the Seneca Valley High School graduate would be getting more second-team repetitions after running mostly with the third unit in Saturday’s scrimmage.
Smith was 6 of 8 for 32 yards, with a long completion of 11 yards in the scrimmage. But he displayed an ability to escape pressure in the pocket, throw on the move and take quick, decisive action – traits lacking last season.
“We’re going to give Kevan Smith a few more reps than what he’s been getting,” Wannstedt said. “The things that we saw when we recruited him are the same things you saw in that scrimmage. He can move around. The guy’s got a big-time arm. His accuracy and consistency is the big thing we need to improve on …
“I think Kevan needs to get a few reps with a few of the better guys and see what happens.”
• Another player drawing prominent mention was redshirt junior receiver Cedric McGee, who hasn’t unseated T.J. Porter as the starting flanker but has at least pulled even with his sure hands and downfield toughness.
“The guy that has probably been the most consistent of all our receivers has been Cedric McGee,” Wannstedt said. “I don’t really look at him as a backup. T.J. and him are splitting time in the starting lineup. Ced McGee is probably as close to taking a step forward as anybody on our team. And T.J. had a very good scrimmage. We’ve got some good depth there and experience, so I like that.”
Porter had two catches for 29 yards and a touchdown, while McGee, surprisingly enough, didn’t have any receptions in the scrimmage. But McGee showed Tuesday what makes him valuable. On a third-and-4, he caught a short pass and fought for a first down until he was gang-tackled. That play drew Wannstedt’s notice and praise.
• Wannstedt also singled out senior tailback LaRod Stephens-Howling, who lost his starting job to LeSean McCoy but remains a dangerous backfield threat.
Stephens-Howling ran for 28 yards on six carries in limited action in the scrimmage, and it was his effort on a broken play that attracted Wannstedt’s attention. So much so that the Pitt coach made the rest of his team take notice.
“LaRod can be a starter in this conference,” Wannstedt said. “LaRod’s a heck of a player. I showed four or five plays to the team of some effort things. There was a third-and-2 where we didn’t block anybody. There were three guys loose in the backfield and he found a way to dip and dodge and plow ahead and get two yards for the first down. That guy is a heck of a player and probably the most underappreciated kid on our team.”
• The competition for two starting spots in the secondary is heating up, and Wannstedt acknowledged the wealth of talent at the safety positions.
Senior Eric Thatcher is the returning starter at free safety, while sophomores Dom DeCicco and Elijah Fields are battling to start at strong safety. In Wannstedt’s eyes, that isn’t a bad problem to have.
“I feel like when spring’s over, we’re going to have three safeties who can line up and start for us. That’ll be good if we can get to that point,” Wannstedt said. “Dom is making progress and Fields is making progress.”
DeCicco is running with the first team, although Wannstedt noted that Fields was expected to be behind at this point because he missed last season while serving a suspension for violating team policy. Where DeCicco was a backup, Fields played strictly for the scout team.
“The thing you’ve got to remember about Elijah is that last year, because he wasn’t playing with the team, he wasn’t involved in game plans and wasn’t involved in practicing with the defense. He was on the scout team and kind of lost that year,” Wannstedt said. “He’s just two weeks back into the fold, and with a new coach coaching him there’s a little bit of a transition with some terminology there but I’m pleased with his attitude and how he’s working.”
Wannstedt also said Fields would see work at the free safety spot, but he played primarily on the strong side. Even so, it’s worth noting that Pitt is exploring for ways to put its most talented players on the field.
• The other starting job up for grabs in the secondary is at boundary corner, where junior Jovani Chappel and redshirt freshman Buddy Jackson are vying to replace the graduated Kennard Cox.
Generously listed at 5-9, Chappel was a special-teams star with a knack for big hits who saw his playing time increase late last season – he recovered a fumble on the opening kick return of the second half at West Virginia – but has had difficulty defending 6-3 Oderick Turner.
The 6-foot Jackson is one of the team’s fastest players, and brings great recovery speed to the position. While he doesn’t pack Chappel’s punch, he isn’t afraid to mix it up.
“Buddy Jackson continues to make progress. We’ve got some competition at the one corner spot with him and Jovani,” Wannstedt said. “I like it. Jovani is the tough, knowledgeable scrapper. Buddy Jackson has so much ability he doesn’t even know. That guy can run and jump and do it all. He’s just a young kid who can grow up.”
• Wannstedt also mentioned tight end Dorin Dickerson, the subject of Wednesday’s feature story in the Trib, and that he “really liked” the progress of a young linebacker corps that includes redshirt sophomore Nate Nix and redshirt freshmen Max Gruder, Brandon Lindsey, Tristan Roberts and Greg Williams.
Another redshirt freshman making an immediate impact is Jordan Gibbs, who is starting at left tackle while Jason Pinkston (shoulder) is out.
“The one guy of all the young guys, Jordan has probably been the most pleasant surprise to this point,” Wannstedt said. “He was a tight end in high school. He’s about 280 right now and he’s done a very good job at left tackle. He looks like he’s turning the corner a little bit.”
A converted tight end, Gibbs is making a good case for playing time even though he’s getting beaten on the edge on a regular basis by defensive end Greg Romeus.
“Hopefully,” Wannstedt said, “we won’t see as good as defensive lines week in and week out as we see here.”
• That said, Wannstedt was disappointed with the number of mistakes on offense, especially up front. As expected, a young unit has had its hands full with the veteran defensive line. Don’t be surprised to see changes on the offensive line as the spring drills progress.
“We have to get it cleaned up,” Wannstedt said, “and we have to get it cleaned up fast.”
• Practice highlights: Wannstedt, who has taken over the special teams now that Charlie Partridge left for Wisconsin, spent a good portion of practice on punt coverage. All-American middle linebacker Scott McKillop was doing the long-snapping.
Derek Kinder (knee) is doing limited work with the receivers in non-contact drills, and gave a scare when his braced knee buckled on one route. You could hear his teammates gasp, but Kinder bounced up quickly and a few receivers clapped to see the former All-Big East pick OK.
It wasn’t Maurice Willliams’ day on deep passes, but that had to do with excellent coverage by Buddy Jackson on one deep route and Danny Cafaro on two others.
Aaron Smith made a nice play, tipping a pass to himself as Fields and corner Ricky Gary closed in, then escaping and catching the ball as they collided.
Center Robb Houser, who has performed well so far, struggled with shotgun snaps and drew the ire of Wannstedt when he sent a few over the head of his quarterbacks.
Stull ran a nice play-action fake to McCoy, then bootlegged right and hit Dickerson in stride for a first down.
Sharif Harris showed some nice power on one run, and Stephens-Howling patience and then good burst on another by following the lead pull block of left guard Dom Williams.
• Former Pitt offensive tackle Jeff Otah will conduct his pro day at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, and is expected to attract dozens of NFL scouts, coaches and even some general managers.
Otah has spent time on the South Side working out for this, especially hoping to improve his 40-yard dash time, which was clocked in the high 5.5s at the NFL Combine. Wannstedt said he hasn’t “heard anything negative.”
“I know he was not pleased with his workout at the combine. That’s why he felt like he needed some more time to be 100 percent for this workout. I know he’s looking forward to working Wednesday and trying to improve his stock a little bit.”
Otah is hoping to follow Darrelle Revis, the 14th overall selection by the N.Y. Jets last year, as Pitt’s first back-to-back NFL first-round picks since 1988-89. Craig Heyward was the 24th pick in ’88, by the New Orleans Saints. The next year, Burt Grossman went eighth to the San Diego Chargers and Tom Ricketts 24th to the Steelers.
“That would be very nice, and I think that’s probably going to happen,” Wannstedt said. “Everything I’ve heard, he’s being talked about in that echelon.”
• Finally, Pitt will host a coaches clinic, with former Panthers coach Foge Fazio as special guest speaker, Friday and Saturday at its UPMC Sports Performance Complex on the South Side at a cost of $50 per coach.
The clinic includes sessions with Wannstedt and strength and conditioning coach Buddy Morris and meetings with the coaching staff. For more information, contact the football office at 412-648-8700 or e-mail director of football operations Chris LaSala at email@example.com.