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Center of Concern

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The center position has been an area of major concern at Pitt, but Dave Wannstedt is getting more and more used to the idea of Robb Houser in the starting lineup.

That’s comforting, considering Houser was a junior-college recruit brought in to compete for the starting job. The 6-foot-2, 285-pounder has had troubles hiking shotgun snaps and, like everyone else, blocking the likes of Tommie Duhart, Rashaad Duncan and Mick Williams.

But, overall, Houser is as good as expected.

“I’m happy with Robb Houser. I like where he’s at,” Wannstedt said. “I think he has a chance to be actually better than what we anticipated when we signed him, to be quite honest. He’s picked things up well, he’s got good feet. I’m pleased with him.”

What has Wannstedt worried is finding a backup.

When John Bachman couldn’t solve his snap problems for the second consecutive spring, he was switched to second-team left guard. That left the Panthers with a walk-on, Alex Karabin, and a converted defensive tackle, Jared Martin, who has missed more practices than he’s made over the past two seasons.

“Right now, we don’t have a backup that I’m happy with,” Wannstedt said. “We may even take a look at C.J. (Davis) in there. I’m not sure. We’ll see how it unfolds. We went the whole season last year with Alex Karabin. … but I’m not prepared to say we’re solid there.”

I’ve suggested trying Davis at center, where the three-year starter could end up playing if he makes it professionally. Wannstedt’s reasoning for not making the move, however, was sound. If Pitt moved Davis to center, it created another problem. The Panthers would have to find a replacement at left guard, leaving two positions would have new starters instead of one.

I also have mentioned here that Tyler Tkach could make a good center because of his combination of toughness and smarts (he is a former high school coach’s son), but the converted tight end would need to add about 20 pounds to his 265-pound frame.

So here’s my next suggestion: Dom Williams.

Williams has taken pre-practice snaps, as have Bachman and Chris Jacobson. What separates Williams is the 6-4, 305-pounder is a fifth-year senior who knows the offense inside-out and can play either guard position. I don’t know if he has ever played center, but in filling in for Davis as the first-team left guard this spring, he’s proven capable of playing at a higher level.

&#149 Wannstedt was asked if Pitt’s receivers will stretch the field and allow the Panthers to throw more deep balls this season, but he hedged in giving an affirmative answer.

With downfield threats like Oderick Turner and Maurice Williams, as well as Aundre Wright and T.J. Porter, you’d think the pass would try to go vertical.

There’s two problems with that line of thinking: One is that the line needs to protect the quarterback long enough to give the receivers time to get open. The other is the one Wannstedt chose: that it’s on the receivers to make plays.

“I think we’ve got some ability at wide receiver,” Wannstedt said, but “we haven’t been consistent enough catching the ball. We’ve had some opportunities to make some more big plays than what we have this spring. We’re going to have to make some plays downfield if we’re going to score enough points to beat most teams we play. It’s something we’re working on.”

Receiver might be the most well-stocked position at Pitt, what with returning starters in Turner and Porter, top backups in Williams and Cedric McGee, the impending return of All-Big East pick Derek Kinder and the elevation of redshirt freshmen Wright and Aaron Smith. (That’s not even mentioning the additions this fall of Jonathan Baldwin, Cameron Saddler and Mike Shanahan).

“I like the competition that we have there,” Wannstedt said. “We have four or five guys competing for a couple spots. Maybe they’re pressing a little bit, but that’s OK. That’s all part of it. … We’re going to throw the ball and be balanced. We have to get more production of them than what we have, that’s for sure.”

&#149 That said, the best day of practice once again belonged to McGee. The 6-foot, 200-pound redshirt junior has been a standout this spring and is pushing to pass Porter as the starting flanker.

McGee showed some savvy by catching one pass in the left flat, waiting for Dom Williams and then pushing the lineman into two defenders to escape for a big gain.

Later, McGee caught a pass over the middle and spun out of the grasp of safety Dom DeCicco for extra yardage. McGee also got open when Bill Stull stepped up in the pocket and fired a pass for a 10-yard gain.

Perhaps McGee’s best play came during red-zone drills, when he caught a pass on the right sideline and breezed through for a touchdown, leaving three blue jerseys in his wake

&#149 Other practice highlights included:

&#149 Kevan Smith earned his second-team repetitions by throwing a picture-perfect pass to Maurice Williams for a touchdown over freshman corner Ronald Hobby.

&#149 Redshirt freshman linebacker Tristan Roberts taking advantage of his second-team splits with Nate Nix by intercepting a Smith pass intended for Dorin Dickerson.

&#149 Nix and Kevin Collier colliding violently near the left sideline as Collier tried to turn the corner.

&#149 Nose guard Craig Bokor sacking and stripping Pat Bostick of the ball in one motion before coaches could blow a whistle to rule the play dead. (Bokor, by the way, appears to be in the best shape of his life).

&#149 Pitt announced Thursday that its annual spring scrimmage, the Blue-Gold Game, will be televised nationally on the NFL Network and locally on WPCW at 6 p.m. on April 19 with KDKA’s Bob Pompeani calling play-by-play, and Wannstedt providing color commentary.

Admission to the Blue-Gold Game is free, with parking available in Gold lots 1 and 2 for $5. Before the game, a FanFest at the Gate A plaza will include Pitt players available for autographs from 4-4:30 p.m. and live music and entertainment and the Pitt Pep Band and cheerleaders.

It shows that Steve Pederson has grasped in only a few months what Jeff Long never could in four years as Pitt’s athletic director. That something as simple as a spring football game is meant to attract fans, not alienate them.

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