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Crossing the line

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After a sub-par scrimmage Saturday afternoon was followed by several off-field incidents that night, you would think the Pitt football team got the message that this wasn’t the time to slack off.

If Dave Wannstedt wasn’t happy about the run game or the interior defensive line play – and he wasn’t – you can only imagine his mood after a weekend of dealing with disciplinary issues. Safety Sherod Murdock was suspended indefinitely Monday, and offensive tackle Jason Pinkston is under university investigation for an on-campus altercation.

Wannstedt said he sent a message loud and clear that even though this is the last week of spring drills, it’s an important week of practice. It’s one that he believed (at least, before practice) that was well-received by his team.

“This being our last week of spring, with the limited amount of days and as many young people we have to work, it’s important that we don’t get ahead of ourselves,” Wannstedt said. “I know how the players get excited about the spring game and playing on TV. It will be their first time ever playing as Pitt Panthers, but it’s so important we have a good practice today and it’s so important that we practice good on Thursday. We cannot afford to waste a moment and that’s the message that was relayed.

“We had a chance to watch the scrimmage tape from Saturday, and we expect to come out today and make improvement in the areas that we weren’t very good at. I think our players understand that.”

That’s what made the final scene of Tuesday’s practice an eye-opener, as Wannstedt abruptly stopped it, chewed out his team and ordered them to run early tomorrow morning. Wannstedt isn’t typically one to rant and rave, but he had drawn a line that his players clearly crossed.

Maybe they’ll get the message this time.

&#149 Murdock’s suspension leaves the safety spot very shallow. Eric Thatcher and Dom DeCicco are running with the first team, and Elijah Fields is the top backup.

After that, it’s all walk-ons: Michael Toerper. Austin Ransom. And one guy who’s not even on the roster. Murdock switched from cornerback to safety this spring to replace Irvan Brown, who was excused for “personal reasons.”

With neither Murdock nor Brown looking like they will return to the team any time soon, if ever, Wannstedt was asked if it would precipitate position changes.

“We moved Murdock there in the beginning to give us a little depth,” Wannstedt said. “We’ll see what happens there. We’ve got three safeties that we can play with. A year ago, we had two – Mike Phillips and Thatcher. Elijah wasn’t here and Dom was a freshman who didn’t know where to line up. We’re better right now than we have been in the past – I know that – from a depth standpoint.”

&#149 Problem is, Pitt doesn’t have any safeties in its recruiting class. Manny Williams played safety but is projected as an outside linebacker and is coming off an ACL tear. Antwuan Reed could move from corner. Or Pitt could elect not to greyshirt Andrew Taglianetti.

Possibilities from the current roster to move to safety could include Aaron Smith, a cornerback last season who has been a pleasant surprise at receiver this spring; Tristan Roberts (a high school safety) or Greg Williams, but both have looked good at outside linebacker this spring; and Jovani Chappel, who played safety last season but is now starting at the boundary corner.

Safe to say, safety should be a priority for Pitt’s recruiting efforts for the Class of 2009.

&#149 As for Pitt’s second scrimmage, Wannstedt expressed concerns about the offense’s inability to run the ball after gaining only 1.3 yards (despite having two runs of 10 yards or longer) on 37 carries.

“We just didn’t make enough plays running the football to get ourselves out of long yardage situations,” Wannstedt said. “And we’re not going to be a team that if we can’t run the ball, we’re not going to be a team with our young offensive linemen, particularly, to be able to drop back and protect and throw the ball.”

&#149 Even so, Wannstedt liked what Greg Cross brought to the quarterback position. Cross averaged 2.8 yards a carry, had a long of 10 yards and balanced the attack by completing 3 of 6 passes for 50 yards and a touchdown.

“We’d like to run the ball 5 yards on a carry,” Wannstedt said. “The thing with Greg Cross is he scrambles and makes 7 yards. Everybody is hanging their heads that it’s just a 7-yard run and not a 70. Well, 7 yards is more than we’ve averaged around here in a long time. We’ve got to keep things in perspective.”

&#149 On that note, Cross is giving the impression that he can at least be effective in the Wildcat offense or out of the West Coast offense in short-yardage situations. Although his repetitions with the first- and second-team offense have been limited, Cross has shown an explosive first step.

“We’re still evaluating what he does best, and we’ll try to figure that out,” Wannstedt said. “He did throw a long touchdown pass. The thing that ran us out of Wildcat last year was after a couple weeks when they knew we were incapable of throwing the ball. Greg gives us the ability to run it and throw it. He brings a different dimension and something else that the defense has to prepare for.”

&#149 Wannstedt downplayed the importance of deciding on a quarterback this spring – which means it likely won’t happen – but did say that the Panthers will have to decide well before the Aug. 30 opener against Bowling Green.

“The biggest concern is to try to be fair and get them enough work. The first week, we highlighted Billy Stull and (Pat) Bostick. Last week, we gave Kevan Smith and Greg Cross some more work,” Wannstedt said. “I think we’re all getting a better understanding of what each kid can do. They’re all a little different players. …

“Their attitudes are good. Sooner or later, once we get into training camp, we’re going to have to work two quarterbacks and the other two guys are going to have to get reps whenever they can. But we can’t get ready for Bowling Green working four quarterbacks like we’re doing now.”

Don’t forget that Tino Sunseri is set to make it five.

&#149 Wannstedt was asked if the defensive line is as good as it appears or if going against Pitt’s offensive line is just making the defense appear better than it is.

“That’s probably the question: How good is our d-line? How much are we struggling on the offensive side right now?” Wannstedt said. “It’s probably a little bit of both, just a matter of who you talk to, (defensive line coach Greg) Gattuso or (offensive line coach) Tony Wise.”

&#149 Speaking of the offensive line, Wannstedt delivered “good news” about the knee injuries suffered by receiver Cedric McGee and offensive tackle Dan Matha in Saturday’s scrimmage: Neither will require surgery.

McGee practiced Tuesday, but Matha is out for the rest of the spring and “will continue to rehab.” Wannstedt said Matha’s injury is a “sprain” and McGee is “similar.”

Matha was running with the second-team offense at right tackle. He was replaced in the scrimmage by fifth-year senior Frank Kochin, who has been primarily a special-teams player. At one point, John Bachman worked with the first team at left guard, with Dom Williams moving to second-team right tackle, Scott Corson replacing Bachman at left guard and Jared Martin snapping at center.

If Matha’s injury was more severe, it would have been bad news. He took a redshirt last season to recover from surgery on both shoulders. Matha could have greyshirted, but Wannstedt wanted Matha’s rehabilitation to be under the supervision of Pitt’s trainers and strength coaches.

“I think the biggest thing with Matha is he gained some confidence from the standpoint that, when you have double shoulder surgery, the biggest question mark is, Can I come back and will I be able to hold up physically and be strong enough?” Wannstedt said. “I think he knows he can. Now, he’s a redshirt freshman. He’s got to get better.”

&#149 Wannstedt called new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett a “high-energy guy” and noted that the former Southern Methodist University head coach has “done a great job of communicating with the coaches, tying the coaching thing together with the assistants.”

While Wannstedt doesn’t want wholesale changes to the “foundation” of the defense, he has given Bennett the freedom to add to the package and tweak it by letting Bennett make the defensive calls in certain situations.

“My thinking with that is to let them get in a rhythm of making calls,” Wannstedt said. “I can tell you what (offensive coordinator) Matt Cavanaugh is going to call. He knows what I like. I know the way he’s thinking. Phil and I need to get on that same wavelength.”

&#149 Wannstedt is running special-teams drills, with certain position coaches helping out. The Panthers worked on punt coverage and returns, and the deep men were Aaron Berry, Aaron Smith, Aundre Wright and T.J. Porter.

The return men were at a significant disadvantage because they were trying to field punts in a swirling wind while staring into the glare of a bright sun. The highlight (or lowlight, depending on your vantage point) came when Berry muffed one near the goal line and LaRod Stephens-Howling rolled and recovered it between his legs at the 1.

&#149 The quarterbacks also had to squint into that sun and throw into the wind, which made for few pass highlights.

One came when Stull and Dorin Dickerson connected on a nice deep ball on the right sideline, with Dickerson adjusting to the ball despite having DeCicco all over him.

Fields intercepted a Kevan Smith pass to Dickerson in the left flat, ripping the ball out of the hands of Dickerson (who later broke up a potential pick by Buddy Jackson). Later, however, Smith threw a beautifully timed out pattern to Aaron Smith on the left sideline for a first down.

&#149 Jackson had another strong practice performance and is making his case to be the starting boundary corner. The 6-foot redshirt freshman broke up one pass intended for walk-on Samson Horne and another intended for Dickerson deep on the right sideline, then later delivered a shoulder shiver that broke up a swing pass and sent tight end Tyler Tkach sprawling to the ground.

&#149 Roberts continued to show his football smarts and deceptive speed by sniffing out a reverse to Porter and tackling him in the backfield for a loss.

Roberts already is on the field in some nickel situations and 3-4 alignments, and could push Shane Murray for time at weak-side linebacker.

&#149 Horne, a redshirt sophomore from Fayetteville, Ga., made the catch of the day by snaring a pass over the middle and hanging on despite absorbing hits from Fields and middle linebacker Max Gruder.

&#149 Pitt’s final practice is Thursday afternoon. The Blue-Gold Game is at 6 p.m. Saturday at Heinz Field.

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