Watch Pitt scrimmage from the sidelines while trying to follow the ball, as I did, and you wonder whether the Panthers will have time to utilize their passing game.
The offensive tackles are getting tortured by the defensive ends, which says something about the inexperience of Jordan Gibbs and Joe Thomas and the explosiveness of Greg Romeus and Doug Fulmer.
Watch the scrimmage from Dave Wannstedt’s view, about 10 yards behind the ball, and you can understand why the Pitt coach was frustrated with both his team’s inability to generate a running game and his interior defensive line’s ineffectiveness against the pass.
Wannstedt expressed concern that the Panthers aren’t running the ball the way he wants, and that the lack of pressure by the defensive tackles allowed the quarterbacks to step up in the pocket and make throws.
Interestingly enough, those concerns are related. If Pitt can’t run the ball, it will be forced to pass. And if the tackles can’t protect the edge, the quarterbacks are going to be forced to step into the pocket to make their throws.
The first 20 plays of Pitt’s second spring scrimmage were the most important – because both starting lineups were on the field – and it must have been a frightening experience for the offensive staff.
LeSean McCoy was stuffed for a 1-yard gain on his first carry and a 2-yard loss on his second. Bill Stull completed his first pass to Oderick Turner, but was sacked by Fulmer and Romeus. Stull’s next pass fell incomplete and Jovani Chappel intercepted a third attempt.
Somehow, Matt Cavanaugh put on a happy face.
“If these were games, I’d be frustrated,” said Cavanaugh, Pitt’s fourth-year offensive coordinator. “But it’s practice. We’re playing a lot of young kids (on the offensive line) who, a year ago, were in high school. They’ve come here, spent a year on the scout team and were redshirted. They didn’t get the attention some of the older guys got, and now it’s their turn because of some injuries and because that’s our depth. They’re getting a lot of reps. They’re making some mistakes, but they keep working hard.”
It’s no wonder the star of the scrimmage was Greg Cross, the junior-college transfer. He was able to escape the pocket and make plays, adding a new dimension to the offense because of his quick feet.
That brings us to the quarterbacks, although you’d imagine it’s difficult to assess their play because of the immediacy they have make decisions under so much pressure from the defensive line.
Cavanaugh, however, views it differently.
“To me, spring is about making good decisions and showing that you are smart enough to play the position,” Cavanaugh said. “We’ll have talented enough people around the quarterbacks that they’ll make plays for them. If they’re smart with the football and not turning it over, we’ll have some success.”
• Cross had five carries for 14 yards and a touchdown, despite getting sacked once for a 6-yard loss, and completed 3 of 6 passes for 50 yards, including a 28-yard touchdown pass to Maurice Williams.
That Cross was effective against the first-team defense is a promising sign, especially considering that his knowledge of the offense is light years behind that of Stull, Kevan Smith and Pat Bostick. Which is probably why he got sacked twice, despite his ability to escape.
“He made a lot of nice strides today, which is going to do a lot for his confidence,” Cavanaugh said. “He really hasn’t had a lot of throws. … Most of the time he ran, and that was by design. Today, we let him throw it. He still has a few mechanical flaws he has to work, and we’ll get that corrected, but it was encouraging.”
Cavanaugh was referring to Cross’ slingshot release, which might affect his accuracy. Where Bostick has too long of a windup and a hitch in his delivery, Cross probably could generate more zip if he wound up more.
• Stull has been the frontrunner for the starting job all along, and he finished strong for the second consecutive week by completing 11 of 14 passes for 98 yards.
But his slow starts in these scrimmages have been troubling. After a season in which quarterback play was costly, the Panthers need a game manager who will keep them from falling behind. This defense can protect a lead.
Cavanaugh noted that the line play has forced the quarterbacks to make quick decisions, but told them that he didn’t want any turnovers today. When Stull threw one on his third pass, Cavanaugh blamed it on a lack of focus.
“I was disappointed on the interception he threw,” Cavanaugh said. “The receiver he didn’t think he was where he was supposed to be so he made an adjustment with his throw, which was stupid and he knows better. Throw it where it’s supposed to be thrown, and if the receiver can’t get there I can yell at him.
“Other than that, he didn’t do anything special. But what he’s doing real good is he’s stepping up in the pocket and he’s keeping his vision downfield and he’s not getting flustered by the rush. I’m encouraged by that.”
* Kevan Smith continues to make a push for the second-team spot. He completed 5 of 7 passes for 65 yards with an 8-yard touchdown to Aaron Smith.
While Smith has all the tools, what he is missing is the savvy to see the plays develop before they do. Thus, he occasionally misses an open receiver.
“I think Kevan Smith threw the ball a little bit better today,” Cavanaugh said. “He still has moments where his mechanics fail him and he has guys open and doesn’t get the ball there. He’s aware of it and he’s working real hard at that.”
• If Bostick is falling behind, it’s not for the lack of opportunities. He has split repetitions with both Stull and Smith, but the only advantage of running the second team is that you don’t have to face the first-team defense.
Bostick was 6 of 10 for 45 yards with two interceptions and one touchdown. One was excusable, as it came when a receiver stopped short on a slant route.
But Bostick still doesn’t have the nimble footwork of the others and suffers the most from a lack of protection because of it. The other interception came when Bostick was crushed on a blitz by Greg Williams and his pass fluttered into defensive end Tony Tucker’s hands when.
“He was at the mercy of the guys up front. He was getting banged around a little bit, but he needs some of that,” Cavanaugh said. “He spent a lot of time this off-season losing weight, trying to get quicker foot speed and a stronger arm and some of those things are showing up for him when he needs them and it’s good experience.”
Although the quarterback race appears to look like Stull as the starter, Smith as the backup with Cross changing the pace out of the Wildcat formation or in short-yardage situations, Cavanaugh said it’s far from resolved.
“I can’t tell if there is (separation),” Cavanaugh said. “We’ll find out this summer, when we’re working two-a-days, sweating a lot, tired and sore. That will clear it up.”
• Cavanaugh also jumped on the Dorin Dickerson bandwagon this week, liking what the junior brings to the offensive passing game as a hybrid tight end.
Dickerson reminds some of Kris Wilson, now with the Philadelphia Eagles, but will likely be used similarly to Darrell Strong. Although Dickerson isn’t as big of a target as Strong, he’s more reliable and better after the catch.
“He’s got skills to play that position,” Cavanaugh said. “He’s explosive, a little undersized as far as the blocking but he’s got very good quickness that makes up for some of that lack of size. He can get downfield and has good hands. Between him and Cedric McGee, I’d say those are the two most improved guys this spring.”
• Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett deployed a 3-4 formation at one point, with Mick Williams at nose tackle, Greg Romeus and Doug Fulmer at end and Shane Murray and Scott McKillop as inside linebackers with Adam Gunn and Tristan Roberts outside.
Bennett also used, for the first time, the combination of Dom DeCicco and Elijah Fields at safety together. DeCicco was the free safety and Fields the strong in that alignment.
“The safety position is interchangeable,” Bennett explained. “(Eric Thatcher) has had more reps than any of them. I wanted to see Dom and Elijah in there together.”
• Pitt’s defensive ends are dangerous.
Romeus continues to dominate, and his stat line was impressive. He had four tackles, all solo, and two sacks (for minus-10 yards). In the first series, he dropped McCoy for a 2-yard loss and Stull for a sack.
Fulmer’s recovery from knee surgery is going better than expected. He sacked Stull for a 4-yard loss and is showing his old quickness off the edge.
Jabaal Sheard looks like the No. 3 end, but Tony Tucker had a great scrimmage. He had three tackles, two for losses, 1.5 sacks for minus-10 yards and an interception. More impressively, one of the sacks was on Cross and, although Tucker didn’t make the tackle, he forced Aundre Wright outside on a reverse for a 2-yard loss.
• Don’t underestimate the importance of middle linebacker Scott McKillop, who saw his number of plays increase to the first 20 or so plays. He had a team-best seven tackles (four solo), and always seemed to be there to make the stop when McCoy cut back against the grain.
• Maurice Williams had his best day, catching seven passes for 89 yards with touchdown grabs of 28 and 7 yards. He is the team’s most dangerous deep threat, especially effective on jump balls in the end zone. An occasional lapse in concentration seems to be the only thing keeping him from making a move into the starting lineup.
• That said, Oderick Turner is proving more consistent and, as a result, is becoming one of Stull’s favorite targets. Turner had five catches for 48 yards and twice made catches over the middle when Stull stepped into the pocket.
• Kicker Conor Lee was spot-on, converting field goals of 24, 25 and 42 yards. Only a day earlier, Lee learned that his younger brother, Penn State linebacker Sean, was going to miss his senior season with a torn ACL. Devastating news, no doubt, but Conor didn’t let it affect his kicking.
Lee has improved his leg strength and would like to add kick-off duties this fall. He understands the intricacies of the kicking game, from operation time to hang time, and wants to play a pivotal role in field positioning.
• One guy who has had an up-and-down camp is junior cornerback Jovani Chappel, who has been burned regularly by Turner. But Chappel had one of his best days, recording six tackles (all assists) and an interception.
• It shouldn’t be long before Greg Williams works his way into the rotation. One week after recording eight tackles in the first scrimmage, he had six stops and lit up Bostick on a blitz that forced a turnover.