If there is one thing about which Pitt fans should be reminded, it’s that the spring football scrimmages are relatively meaningless. The Blue-Gold Game is usually the most meaningless, considering that it’s a controlled scrimmage sometimes designed to favor one unit.
The game can be, and sometimes is, manipulated.
When there were major concerns about Pitt’s defense last year, the Blue (defense) defeated the Gold (offense), 62-48, under the modified scoring system. This year, after the offense struggled all spring, the Gold won, 60-25.
It didn’t hurt that the defense blitzed infrequently and the cornerbacks played very little press coverage. Given time to throw the ball, Pitt’s quarterbacks combined to complete 25 of 40 passes (62.5 percent) for 251 yards without an interception but six sacks.
By comparison, they threw three interceptions, lost two fumbles and were sacked five times last year. “I liked it from the perspective that it was not sloppy,” Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. “We’ve all seen these games when quarterbacks throw three interceptions and are getting sacked, a bunch of flags and penalties and guys fumbling the football. I thought our guys were pretty focused under the circumstances of everything that went on today. We did a good job of protecting the ball.”
Last year, Wannstedt praised the defensive line, which foreshadowed its playing a major role in the defense finishing with a top-5 national ranking last season. This year, he praised the quarterbacks and offensive line.
“I did like how our quarterbacks played as a group,” Wannstedt said. “I thought our offensive line, for the most part, performed a little better today than they have all spring. The guys that were in there met the challenge.”
• There were many promising signs in the 2008 Blue-Gold Game, especially on the first drive. It was the most efficient of the game, an 11-play, 65-yard scoring drive capped by LeSean McCoy’s 1-yard run. The Gold scored three touchdowns, converted a pair of field goals and had three other drives end in Blue territory.
Bill Stull showed why he’s the clear frontrunner to start at quarterback, going 6 of 6 for 52 yards and connecting with four different receivers. He found Oderick Turner for 8 yards, McCoy for 5, Cedric McGee for 4, Dorin Dickerson for a 10-yard gain on the left sideline, McGee for 8 and Dickerson on a 17-yarder to set up the TD.
“Billy’s first drive, he hit (four) different receivers. I like that. That tells me, ‘I’m not focusing on one guy. I’m throwing the ball to the open guy,'” Wannstedt said. “With the talent we have on offense, whether he throws it to Shady (McCoy) or to T.J. (Porter) or Dorin or whoever, he’s got to have confidence that we have enough talent around him to make some plays.”
• Stull played only two more series and finished 7 of 10 for 56 yards, but he was thrilled to be able to take Heinz Field once again as the starting quarterback after being knocked out for the season in the third quarter of the opener against Eastern Michigan with a serious injury to the thumb on his right (throwing) hand.
“To finally have my family and people from Youngstown come over and actually be able to see me play meant a lot to me, to get out there and be in front of the Pitt fans,” said Stull, an Ohio native who moved to Mt. Lebanon in middle school. “My thumb’s not hurting anymore. I’m not going to get injured. I’m done thinking about all that stuff. It’s time to get some work done.”
Stull also recognized the importance of the offense putting points on the scoreboard early, especially with so many returning starters on defense. It’s no coincidence that the early drive provided momentum for the Gold.
“That pretty much set the tempo,” Stull said. “We wanted to play mistake-free football the first series. Usually, it’s been like, the first series we make some mistakes, I throw a pick or something and then second series we start rolling. It was awesome we were able to get the first series under our belt and actually putting six (points) on the board.
“If we play as an offense, mistake-free from turnovers and penalties – things we can control – that’s what happens: We go out and play good football. I definitely think they saw a little glimpse of what’s to come this fall.”
• McCoy had only four carries and one reception before being pulled from the scrimmage after the first drive. That probably didn’t sit well with the NFL Network – the sophomore tailback was likely one of the selling points for getting the Blue-Gold Game televised nationally – but his limited workload proved productive.
McCoy averaged 4 yards per carry, picked up three first downs and scored a touchdown. He caught a 5-yard pass on a third-and-4, ran for 6 yards on a second-and-6, took a toss left 5 yards on a third-and-1 and scored on a first-and-goal. And his confidence was contagious.
“Just to see us in the huddle, getting first downs, you looked into everybody’s eyes and could see that everybody was determined to score,” McCoy said. “Just being in a game situation – in previous scrimmages, the ‘D’ just had the best of us – to come out here with an audience and the game being on TV kind of motivated us. And we produced.”
• Pat Bostick had the best day of the passers, numbers-wise, by completing 11 of 15 attempts for 105 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions and two sacks. (By comparison, Stull and Kevan Smith combined to go 12 of 20 for 104 yards).
Most impressive was that Bostick completed several third-down passes for first downs, including a 14-yarder to Maurice Williams on the second drive, a 19-yarder to Porter on the eighth drive and a 15-yarder to Aaron Smith on the 11th drive.
But Bostick’s sacks proved costly. He was dropped for a 3-yard loss by Greg Williams to set up a third-and-13 at the 26. After an 8-yard pass to Maurice Williams, the Gold settled for a 35-yard Conor Lee field goal. The second sack was by Chas Alecxih, for a 4-yard loss on a third-and-6.
Bostick was the only quarterback that didn’t finish a touchdown drive, although it should come with a disclaimer: He took the first seven snaps of the 11th drive, leading the Gold to a first-and-10 at the 15 before being replaced by Greg Cross, who handed off to Shariff Harris for a 15-yard touchdown run on the following play.
Bostick was asked the difference for him between the Blue-Gold Game this year and last year. (It was an innocent question by a reporter relatively new to town).
“When I was at the spring game last year, I wasn’t playing. So that was the big difference. I was in street clothes,” Bostick said politely, without a hint of sarcasm. “The physical transformation and the confidence factor. I’m a little bit upset right now because the one deep ball I had a chance to throw, I moved a little bit and it slipped out of my hand. It looked like I threw a kickoff. I wanted to put a little zip on some balls and show people that I have made some improvements. I’m doing all I can to get better. I took the next step, I think, in becoming a better player but I’m far from where I know I can be and where I want to be.”
• Kevan Smith’s first drive was impressive, especially because he was running with some second- and third-team players (although Harris should be moving up the depth chart; more to come on that later). Smith connected with Maurice Williams on an 18-yard pass to start the drive and found him again on a 15-yarder for a touchdown.
Smith finished 5 of 10 for 48 yards, and was the only quarterback to lead the Gold to two scoring drives. The first was a touchdown, the second ended with a 20-yard Conor Lee field goal.
Smith’s numbers could have been even better. They don’t include two 15-yard pass interference penalties, one by Buddy Jackson and the other by Jovani Chappel, which set up first-and-goal situations.
“I think he’s more accurate. Kevan’s always had a strong enough arm. Kevan’s always been smart enough. I think his accuracy is the No. 1 thing that hurt him last year,” Wannstedt said. “When the guy’s open, you’ve got to get him the football. I think Kevan has worked real hard at that and has gotten better and will continue to get better.”
• Cross is the wild card in this quarterback battle, and although he’s the longest shot to win the starting job he might have the best chance to play a prominent role.
His first snaps didn’t come until the ninth series, but he made a nice first impression. He ran a bootleg right for 5 yards to pick up a first down on a third-and-3 and then threw a 37-yard pass to Maurice Williams.
On a second-and-10 at the 16, Cross eluded defensive end Tony Tucker and ran left for a 7-yard gain. Harris picked up 3 yards for a first down, then ran for 4 yards on third-and-goal to give the Gold the ball at the 1. An offsides penalty by Alecxih pushed it a half-yard closer, but tight end Ty Tkach was called for a false start and Dan Hutchins’ 22-yard field goal was partially blocked.
After finishing Bostick’s drive, Cross ran the final series and followed a 9-yard sack (Tucker’s revenge) with a 29-yard run on a third-and-20. Cross also recovered from a big hit by Greg Williams on second down to complete a third-and-5 to Aaron Smith for a first down. But the drive stalled after an illegal formation penalty and, facing a fourth-and-10 at the 36, Lucas Briggs attempted a 53-yard field goal that fell short.
“We know what Greg can do because we see him at practice, but he made some extra plays out there,” Stull said. “We saw Greg out there making some plays throwing the ball. He can run also. I think he definitely proved that.”
Despite his limited playing time – 22 snaps total – Cross was involved in the longest plays of the scrimmage, the 29-yard run and the 37-yard pass to Maurice Williams.
“Greg comes in there at the end and makes some plays, athletic things that’s different than anybody else we have and moves the chains,” said Wannstedt, clearly impressed.
• Which leads to the obvious question:
What does Pitt do with its quarterbacks this fall?
The Panthers already are carrying four scholarship players at the position, add another this summer in Central Catholic’s Tino Sunseri, and have three walk-ons. There’s not enough balls (or reps) to go around in training camp.
“We can’t practice all of them like we did today and like we’ve done this spring,” Wannstedt said. “I was very pleased with all our quarterbacks. … We’re going to have to sit down and figure this thing out. It’s a nice problem to have. I like where we’re at now, compared to this time last year, when I didn’t think we had one.”
Stull looks like the starter, with Cross potentially being used in the Wildcat formation, as well as out of the West Coast sets in short-yardage and red-zone situations, and Bostick and Smith vying for the backup job.
Not that I put much stock into scrimmage numbers, what with different quarterbacks lining up with and against the first- and second-team units, but here’s a look at the four quarterbacks’ combined passing numbers this spring:
Stull threw for the most yards, had the second-highest completion percentage and averaged 9.2 yards per completion. He took the most sacks (seven) but also faced the first-team defense exclusively.
Smith had the best completion percentage and didn’t throw an interception in the scrimmages, but he also attempted fewer passes than Stull or Bostick. Smith also wasn’t sacked this spring.
Bostick completed a high percentage of passes but also threw the most interceptions and took the second-most sacks (five).
Cross’ best attribute was his big-play ability, as he averaged 18.4 yards per completion. But his accuracy is an issue and he also took three sacks despite limited reps.
• Despite starting eight games last season and having the most experience of the four quarterbacks, Bostick could be the odd man out despite transforming his physique and working to improve the long windup in his delivery.
“We have three or four guys playing for the same position,” Bostick said. “Being in there together and being in that situation, having to deal with the ups and downs that go with getting limited reps and not knowing what to expect, that’s a mental barrier I had to break just made me a better player and stronger for it.”
Wannstedt could name Smith the backup for no other reason than that he has used his redshirt season and Bostick has one available. But the Pitt coach likes that the competition is bringing out the best in his quarterbacks, and sees no reason to name a starter or a backup just yet.
Bostick, however, seems resigned to accept his fate.
“You’ve got to look at it as it’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon. You can’t really say, I’m going to throw all my money into a basket and say, ‘This is all I’ve got,'” he said. “You put all you have in every day and know that it’s going to be four, maybe five years of hopefully, just year-in, year-out, coming in and working every day. That’s my attitude, my mindset. No matter what day it is, no matter what the circumstances are, I’m going to bring the same attitude. The same person is going to be there. When the dust settles, I’m still going to be sitting there, ready and just letting everyone know that I’m there to help the team and I’m going to put all I’ve got into everything.”
Bostick’s attitude is great, and for good reason. When Bostick returned to the team after missing 10 practices for “personal reasons” during training camp last August, Wannstedt informed Bostick that he would redshirt.
A few weeks later, he was starting against Virginia.
• Wannstedt did say this week that Pitt coaches were putting more emphasis on using scrimmages to grade and evaluate players than before. If that’s the case, two players certainly helped their causes in the three scrimmages.
“No positions were definitely solidified today, but – and I say that with a big but – I did like Shariff Harris,” Wannstedt said. “I thought he did some things today to help himself.”
Harris led all rushers with 22 carries for 117 yards in the three scrimmages, averaging 5.3 yards per carry. The redshirt freshman ran with aggression and power, breaking tackles and showing some speed.
Harris was most impressive in the Blue-Gold Game, when he ran for 65 yards on nine carries and scored on a touchdown where he spun off the line of scrimmage and sprinted 15 yards untouched into the end zone.
• Wannstedt also said that he “thought that Dorin Dickerson continued to make some progress, doing some things that we can utilize.”
Dickerson moved to tight end this spring, his fourth position in two seasons, and had seven catches for 67 yards and a touchdown in the three scrimmages. He made a beautiful grab along the sideline in the opening drive of the Blue-Gold Game, leaping high and touching his feet down to stay in bounds on a 10-yarder. He also had a 17-yarder, tiptoeing the sidelines to set up McCoy’s touchdown run.
“It feels good, but I still have a lot of stuff to work on,” said Dickerson, who has played receiver, running back and outside linebacker. “They say hard work pays off, and I knew what I wanted to do coming into this. I was focused and nothing could break my focus. I knew what I wanted to accomplish this spring. There’s a saying, ‘It’s not what you do when everyone is looking; it’s what you do when no one is looking.’ I took that saying in.”
So it’s no surprise that Dickerson and receiver Cedric McGee (offense) and defensive tackle Mick Williams (defense) were honored with the Ed Conway Award as the Most Improved Players of spring drills.
Where Dickerson might be relegated to a situational role – playing in the slot on passing downs like Darrell Strong the past two seasons – McGee might have moved past T.J. Porter and into the starting lineup at flanker. McGee has earned a reputation for his hard work and consistency, as well as his toughness in catching passes over the middle and downfield blocking.
“I like that the coaches say they have a spot for me,” McGee said. “We have a deep, great and talented receiving corps. I know that everybody is going to be pushing each other. As long as everybody is competing, our receiving corps is going to continue to get better.”
Williams has shed his status as a malingerer, after missing most of his first two seasons with an assortment of injuries. He came on strong in place of the injured Gus Mustakas, starting seven games and finishing with 31 tackles, including eight for losses totaling 35 yards, and three sacks last season. “The injuries were an ongoing problem for a while,” Williams said. “I learned to play through some of the nicks and pains I was going through.”
This spring, Williams was dominant. He had six tackles and two sacks in the three scrimmages, and has the makings of being a disruptive force in the mold of a Tyree Young.
“I came back real strong. Last year was my first full season, so I was playing,” Williams said. “I actually had a good spring because I had played a full season already. I missed two spring balls – this is actually my first spring ball – and I missed out on a lot of reps. I started getting a feel for the game. The game started slowing down.”
Williams, surprisingly enough, credited offensive guards John Malecki and Dom Williams for battling and making him better this spring. “They made me better and I made them better,” he said. “The award goes just as much to them as me.”
• Although he didn’t get an award this spring, LaRod Stephens-Howling probably deserved one. The senior was outstanding, joining McCoy to give Pitt a dynamic one-two punch at tailback.
Stephens-Howling rushed for 79 yards on 20 carries, and his 25-yard run in the Blue-Gold game was a thing of beauty. He followed a 10-yard run to the Blue 44 by reversing field and splitting the defense to the 18.
If Stephens-Howling can stay healthy – and that’s been a big if – and Matt Cavanaugh can find some creative ways to use he and McCoy, they can make defenses dizzy.
• After catching seven passes for 107 yards and a touchdown, Maurice Williams left those at the Blue-Gold Game wondering why he isn’t in the starting lineup.
Williams led all receivers with 17 catches for 217 yards and three touchdowns in three scrimmages, but his inconsistency in practice has been bewildering.
All Wannstedt would say was, “he made plays.”
Williams, however, finished spring drills strong whereas starting split end Oderick Turner went out with a whimper. After using his height advantage to beat Chappel regularly throughout camp, Chappel got the better of Turner in practice and the Blue-Gold Game last week.
It should make for an interesting competition this fall, especially with Aliquippa All-American Jonathan Baldwin joining the mix and former All-Big East selection Derek Kinder returning at flanker.
Porter was the second-leading receiver this spring, with 10 catches for 98 yards and a touchdown, followed by Turner (eight for 100, TD), Aaron Smith (seven for 92, TD) and Dickerson (seven for 67, TD).
• Defensively, the leading tackler was redshirt freshman Greg Williams, who had 19 stops (10 solo) after moving from running back this off-season.
Williams is battling with classmate Brandon Lindsey for the backup job at strong-side linebacker. Fifth-year senior Adam Gunn appears entrenched as the starter, but Williams is making his case for playing time.
Other players who registered double-digit tackles over the three scrimmages were safety Dom DeCicco (15), cornerback Buddy Jackson (13), middle linebacker Steve Dell (12), defensive tackle Chas Alecxih (11) and corner Jovani Chappel, middle linebacker Scott McKillop and weak-side linebacker Tristan Roberts, with 10 apiece.
• Alecxih, by the way, had an outstanding spring and is positioning himself for future playing time. A walk-on from Penn Manor, he has grown from 215 pounds to 265 and has thrived since moving from end to tackle. He had nine solo stops, including team-bests of five tackles for losses and 4.5 sacks for minus-27 yards.
• Although the Gold (offense) got most of the attention, the Blue (defense) had its share of big plays:
End Greg Romeus sacked Stull for a 2-yard loss on the second play, the only negative yardage of the opening drive.
Williams sacked Bostick for a 3-yard loss, forcing a third-and-13 that led to a field goal.
Chappel made a nice breakup of a pass intended for Turner, who has at least a six-inch height advantage.
Mick Williams sacked Stull for a 6-yard loss, forcing a punt on the third series.
Tony Tucker and Myles Caragein hurried Kevan Smith into throwing an incomplete pass on the fourth series. Later in the same series, Tucker snuffed out Aundre Wright on a reverse and dropped him for a 5-yard loss.
Alecxih, thanks to pressure from Craig Bokor, sacked Bostick for a 4-yard loss, forcing another punt. Bokor had another excellent spring game, finishing with two tackles, one for a loss but is stuck behind Rashaad Duncan at nose guard and contending with Caragein for playing time.
After Stephens-Howling ran for a 25-yard gain, Mick Williams and Chappel combined to drop him for a 3-yard loss on the next play. DeCicco made a nice breakup on a pass intended for Dickerson in the end zone, forcing a Conor Lee field goal.
• Lee was 2-for-2 in field goals (35 and 20 yards) and 2-for-2 on point-after kicks. He was 7-for-10 on field goals this spring, but 5-for-5 in game conditions the past two scrimmages (the first scrimmage was a special teams drill).
Dan Hutchins wasn’t as fortunate. He missed both attempts, one from 52 and another from 22 (which was partially blocked). Lucas Briggs missed a 54-yard attempt.
• It was unusual to see Dave Brytus punt without going against a rush or return. He had three punts for an average of 40.3 yards, with a long of 47.
• Defensive tackle Myles Caragein and offensive guard Chris Jacobson – both redshirt freshmen from Keystone Oaks – were recipients of the Pitt Academic Award, presented to freshmen for academic achievement.
• Players who did not participate in the Blue-Gold Game: tight end Nate Byham (knee), offensive tackle Chase Clowser (shoulder), fullback Conredge Collins (knee), offensive guard C.J. Davis (hamstring), defensive end Doug Fulmer (hamstring), Jacobson (knee), receiver Francis Johns (knee), linebacker Brian Kaiser (knee), receiver Derek Kinder (knee), offensive tackle Dan Matha (knee), defensive tackle Gus Mustakas (knee), tight end John Pelusi (shoulder) and offensive tackle Jason Pinkston (shoulder).
• Mustakas has been named to the watch list for the Outland Trophy, presented to the top interior lineman in college football by the Football Writers Association of America All-American committee.
Before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee against Grambling last Sept. 8, Mustakas had played in 25 consecutive games and was a starter at defensive tackle for 14 consecutive contests. He had 11 tackles, including two for losses, at the time of his injury.
Pitt’s lone Outland Trophy winner is offensive tackle Mark May, who won it in 1980.
• Now that Pitt’s spring drills are over, I’ll try to break down the Panthers position by position. If you have any thoughts, suggestions or questions, feel free to drop me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.