Dave Wannstedt let the news slip before he actually announced that Pitt has a leader in its competition for the starting quarterback job, even if the coronation came with the following caveat:
Today, if we were playing, Billy Stull would start.
Of course, the Panthers aren’t playing a meaningful game until Bowling Green visits Heinz Field on Aug. 30, so the four-way quarterback race is far from officially over.
But Wannstedt acknowledged that Stull, who won the starting job last year only to suffer a season-ending thumb injury in the opener, has created separation from Pat Bostick, Kevan Smith and Greg Cross.
That news came Thursday, the final practice of spring drills, when Wannstedt said Stull will take first-team repetitions and be the only quarterback off-limits to contact during Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game.
“We’ll probably put the red jersey on Billy Stull, since I won’t be down there to blow the whistle,” Wannstedt said. “The rest of our quarterbacks will be live, but he will be the only because coming off the injury – the thumb’s fine – we’ll take an extra precaution with him only.”
Although none of the quarterbacks have shined this spring, largely because the offensive line’s protection problems, Stull’s command of the offense and consistency in practice gives him the edge heading into the summer.
Wannstedt said he is “pleased” with all four quarterbacks, quite the opposite of how he felt about the position this time last year. Following the spring game, he said “we have a lot of work to do.”
“I came out of last spring – if you look at my quotes – not feeling good about either quarterback,” Wannstedt said. “It was a two-man race. It was Bill and Kevan, and I thought that both of them were OK. I probably feel better about all four of these guys at this point.”
* Wannstedt singled out a pair of redshirt juniors for their strong performances this spring, receiver Cedric McGee and defensive tackle Mick Williams. Both have made their case for spots in the starting lineup.
“Cedric McGee, in my mind, he’s had an excellent spring, one that I feel good about him if he’s lining up,” Wannstedt said. “He’s kind of an unsung player around here from a performance standpoint because he hasn’t had many opportunities. But every time we’ve called his number, he’s responded.
“I think the other guy that’s kind of been off the charts is Mick Williams. He’s been as dominant a player on either side of the ball as we’ve had around here in the spring since I’ve been here. That was real good to see.”
* Wannstedt was dismayed that spring drills were coming to an end, if only because he sees the amount of work the Panthers need and the progress some players were making. Now, they have to wait until August.
“We need to be sure to utilize every moment,” Wannstedt said. “We need 15 more of these is what we need, but I’m sure that every coach around the country would say that.”
Wannstedt used redshirt freshman cornerback Buddy Jackson as an example of a player who could use more practice time under the supervision of the coaching staff.
“Buddy has gotten better every day. Buddy is one of those guys you wish you had 15 more days right now because he’s really starting to take strides. Physically, he’s got it all – and he’ll be a factor. Right now, he’s our third corner. We’re comfortable with him being the third corner. He’s going to come in here this fall and be battling with Jovani (Chappel).”
* One unit that’s far from resolved is the offensive line. The Panthers were missing two starters, senior left guard C.J. Davis (hamstring) and redshirt sophomore tackle Jason Pinkston (shoulder), along with fifth-year senior tackle Chase Clowser and redshirt freshman guard Chris Jacobson, so the depth chart could change drastically.
“We’ve got a ways to go there,” Wannstedt said. “I wish I could stand here and tell you that we’re close. We’re going to need Jacobson, C.J. and Pinkston. And, hopefully, Lucas Nix can bring something to the table.”
* Spring games are typically a dog-and-pony show, an opportunity for the fans to see the players in a competitive atmosphere for the first time since the season ended.
Wannstedt, however, said he’s putting more stock in evaluating players in scrimmages, and the Blue-Gold Game will be Pitt’s third of spring drills. The format will be offense against defense, first team against first team, etc., and could help shape up the depth chart for August.
“We’ve put more and more emphasis on grading scrimmages from a mental mistake aspect, from an effort standpoint,” Wannstedt said. “If you start comparing guys and if there’s two guys are close, it can definitely be a determining factor as far as who lines up at the top of the depth chart come fall camp.”
* If Jackson is pushing for the starting boundary corner job, it’s certainly working to motivate Chappel. The diminutive junior had one of his best practices, intercepting one pass and breaking up several others. One was a deep post intended for Oderick Turner – who has beaten Chappel routinely – where Chappel came over top to knock down. Later, Chappel stripped Maurice Williams in the end zone.
* Myles Caragein had his best practice, as well, including a sack of Kevan Smith. The defensive tackle was hobbled by an ankle injury early this spring, but a temporary demotion to the third team got his attention.
* Field cornerback Aaron Berry made a couple big plays, diving to recover a Shane Brooks fumble and picking off a Stull slant pass intended for Turner.
* Free safety Eric Thatcher had a nice hit to break up a Bostick fade pass intended for Turner, who had a rough day largely because of his failure to fight for the ball. Bostick later threw a scoring pass to Williams on a slant.
* Tight end Tyler Tkach scored after catching a Stull pass, shedding the attempted tackle by outside linebacker Tristan Roberts and breaking free down the sideline.
* Dorin Dickerson beat Thatcher on a fade from Smith for a touchdown in red-zone drills. Soon after, Smith got a nice block from Kevin Collier, who picked up a blitz, and drilled a pass to Henry Hynoski in the back of the end zone.
* One of the best plays came near the end, when tailback Shariff Harris rumbled over walk-on safety Michael Toerper to score a touchdown in a goal-line drill.