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Inside the Ropes at Pitt football media day

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With the most hoopla surrounding the Pitt football program since his arrival four years ago, it was with guarded optimism that Dave Wannstedt addressed his opening remarks at the Panthers’ media day festivities at their South Side practice facility.

After riding the wave of momentum from the West Virginia victory in the season finale that led to another stellar recruiting class, preseason top-25 rankings and a predicted third-place finish in the Big East Conference, Wannstedt tried to temper the expectations from going overboard.

“As we get started the enthusiasm and the energy amongst our players and our fans is very evident. I think that’s good and that’s exciting,” Wannstedt said. “From a coaching standpoint, it’s excellent to see your players have legitimate enthusiasm. At this time of year, every player and every coach on every level feels their team has a chance to finish near the top. However, when you step back, there is a select group that can truly accomplish that.”

The Panthers have yet to open training camp – their first practice is Tuesday morning – and Wannstedt has a warning for those heaping high praise: “We gotta prove it.”

&#149 It’s no surprise, then, that Wannstedt is trying to distance the Panthers from that 13-9 victory. It will go down as his first signature win at Pitt (although his first victory over a ranked opponent came earlier, against Cincinnati), he’s already tired of answering questions about its significance to the football program.

“I think the first day we put the pads on and we’re out there screaming and yelling and coaching, that game will be the last thing on a player’s mind,” Wannstedt said. “That game helped us finalize our recruiting class and helped us springboard into our off-season program. It won’t do anything for us when we line up to play Bowling Green (Aug. 30) in the opener.”

To that end, Wannstedt isn’t talking about going undefeated, winning the Big East title or competing for a national championship. He put that pressure squarely on the Mountaineers.

“I definitely think West Virginia is the favorite,” Wannstedt said. “To me, they’re still the team. They were the champs last year, and they’re the team to beat. When you look at the conference after that, it’s very wide open. South Florida’s certainly got a lot of good guys returning. In making these kinds of preseason evaluations, I think you have to look at quarterback. South Florida’s got Matt Grothe coming back, who’s an excellent player. Rutgers returns a three-year starter (Mike Teel) at quarterback. It’s going to be very competitive, I have no doubt.”

&#149 Two players (redshirt junior fullback Shane Brooks and sophomore receiver Maurice Williams) have left the program, but all of the injured Panthers have been cleared to practice and all of the freshman recruits appear to be academically ineligible.

That includes quarterback Bill Stull, tailback Kevin Collier, receiver Derek Kinder, tight ends Nate Byham and John Pelusi, offensive linemen Jason Pinkston, Chris Jacobson and Dan Matha and defensive linemen Gus Mustakas and Doug Fulmer.

“As we get ready for opening day, the exciting thing is that all of our players who did not participate in spring practice are ready to go,” Wannstedt said. “They’ve been practicing full speed from a run standpoint and a lift standpoint for a while now. To get them back on the field, not just their talent, but also their leadership is going to serve us very well in getting where we want to go.”

&#149 What speaks volumes about Pitt’s talent and depth – easily the best it’s been under Wannstedt and perhaps the best since 2003 – is that the Panthers aren’t expecting any of the incoming freshmen to compete for starting positions like last August, with quarterback Pat Bostick and tailback LeSean McCoy.

“As I stand right here, I’m not counting on any one of the guys to be a necessary performer for us to go out there and win games,” Wannstedt said. “Do I think that some of these freshmen will contribute? Yes I do, but I can’t say exactly who that’s going to be. Obviously, you have a need for greater depth at certain positions, so that will definitely play a factor.”

The freshmen have yet to practice in pads, but several made strong impressions on their teammates during seven-on-seven drills this summer. Most likely to make an early impact is Aliquippa receiver Jonathan Baldwin. But don’t be surprised to hear the names of Thomas Jefferson offensive lineman Lucas Nix – who will play left guard – or Easton cornerback Jarred Holley.

That’s quite a change from years past, including last year, when true freshmen Bostick, McCoy and Mo Williams and redshirt freshmen Kevan Smith and Ricky Gary all made starts for Pitt.

&#149 Pitt will split the squad for the first four practices of training camp, with the first-teamers and freshmen in the morning session (8:30-11 a.m.) and the second- and third-teamers in the afternoon session (2-5:30 p.m.). Not only does it allow the Panthers to adhere to NCAA rules that teams only practice once a day but it gives players plenty of repetitions before they put on the pads for the first full-contact practice Saturday afternoon.

“Under this system, everyone is at least second on the depth chart,” Wannstedt said. “This way, when we bring it all together on Saturday, we’ll hopefully have a very clear evaluation of our talent level.”

The only twist is that two special teams starters, kicker Conor Lee and long-snapper Mark Estermyer, will practice in the afternoon. That was done to accommodate backup long-snapper Scott McKillop, who will practice in the morning session.

&#149 Here’s a look at how the groups were split:

Group 1 offense – Quarterbacks Bill Stull, Greg Cross, Tino Sunseri; tailbacks LeSean McCoy, Kevin Collier and Chris Burns; fullback Conredge Collins; split ends Cedric McGee and Oderick Turner; flankers Derek Kinder, T.J. Porter and Austin Ransom; tight ends Nate Byham and John Pelusi; left tackles Jordan Gibbs and Chase Clowser; left guards C.J. Davis and Lucas Nix; centers Robb Houser and Jared Martin; right guards John Malecki and Jacobson; and right tackles Joe Thomas and Frank Kochin.

Group 1 defense – Left ends Doug Fulmer and Jabaal Sheard; nose tackles Gus Mustakas and Mick Williams; defensive tackles Rashaad Duncan and Tommie Duhart and right end Greg Romeus; strong-side linebackers Adam Gunn, Greg Williams and Brian Kaiser; middle linebackers Scott McKillop and Steve Dell; weak-side linebackers Shane Murray and Nate Nix; boundary cornerbacks Jovani Chappel and Ronald Hobby; field cornerbacks Aaron Berry and Holley; strong safeties Dom DeCicco and Mike Toerper; and free safeties Eric Thatcher and Andrew Taglianetti.

Group 2 offense – Quarterbacks Pat Bostick, Kevan Smith and Andrew Janocko; tailbacks LaRod Stephens-Howling and Shariff Harris; fullbacks Henry Hynoski and Chris Bova; split ends Aundre Wright, Baldwin and Caleb Wilson; flankers Aaron Smith, Mike Shanahan and Cameron Saddler; tight ends Dorin Dickerson, Mike Cruz and Justin Virbitsky; left tackles Greg Gaskins and Ryan Turnley; left guards Dom Williams and Josh Novotny; centers Alex Karabin and Wayne Jones; right guards John Bachman and John Fieger; and right tackles Jason Pinkston and Dan Matha.

Group 2 defense – Left ends Tony Tucker and Justin Hargrove; nose tackles Myles Caragein and Keith Coleman; defensive tackles Craig Bokor and Chas Alexcih; right ends Tyler Tkach and Scott Corson; strong-side linebackers Brandon Lindsey, Joe Trebitz and Jon Taglianetti; middle linebackers Max Gruder and Shayne Hale; weak-side linebackers Tristan Roberts and Manny Williams; boundary corners Buddy Jackson and Danny Cafaro; field corner Ricky Gary; strong safeties Elijah Fields, Antwuan Reed and Justin Edwards and free safeties Irvan Brown, Scott Shrake and Marco Pecora.

This, of course, is all subject to change on a daily basis.

But those groupings generate some interesting thoughts. For one, a message is being sent to Jason Pinkston that nothing is going to be handed to him.

Another is that Pitt coaches placed players in direct competition for a position in the same groupings, with a few exceptions: Pinkston and Thomas at right tackle, Chappel and Jackson at boundary corner and DeCicco and Fields at strong safety. That Pinkston is competing for the starting job at right tackle (instead of the left side) and working in the afternoon session is either a sign of the coaching staff’s dissatisfaction with his work ethic or that it really likes Gibbs.

Maybe both.

&#149 Wannstedt also noted as a positive the dramatic difference in the appearance of Thomas, who is down to 285 and is wearing his hair closely cropped. You probably wouldn’t recognize him.

“When you see our guys today, take a look at some of our linemen. We have drastically changed the bodies of some of the guys,” Wannstedt said. “Joe Thomas and C.J. Davis have both lost more than 30 pounds.

“I love the way our football team looks. We’re a lean and very athletic group right now – what we were shooting for. In spring practice, Mick Williams, who’s a great athlete, was essentially unblockable. Tony Wise, our offensive line coach, then made the observation that the toughest guys to block in our conference fit that mold — they’re athletic, they’re mobile and they can run. We took this to another step and tailored our offensive line conditioning work to matching up with those kinds of players.”

&#149 Also passing the eyeball test in a big way was Bostick, who is so much leaner; Baldwin, who looks every bit of 6-5, 220; and Malecki, who is more compact up top and thicker downstairs. Perhaps the most noticeable difference was Mick Williams, who lost his belly. When the players were horsing around with a football, Mick actually beat Baldwin to a loose ball.

While Pinkston is up to 310 from 290 a year ago, two freshmen offensive linemen also did not pass the look-test: Lucas Nix and Turnley. Nix was expected to compete for playing time at either tackle, but instead is being moved inside to left guard. Turnley is at left tackle, behind Gibbs, Clowser and Gaskins.

&#149 Wannstedt gave perhaps his most ringing endorsement of Bill Stull as the likely starter at quarterback, not only saying that it’s his “job to lose – with competition” but adding this caveat:

“Coming out of camp a year ago, I really believed Bill Stull was going to be the best-kept secret in the Big East,” Wannstedt said. “When he came out of camp a year ago, his statistics were as good in two categories (during training camp) as Tyler Palko’s when Tyler was a senior.

“Bill never redshirted when he came in, so I think the redshirt last year will help him out. He’s bigger. I know his arm’s stronger. He’s more mature. Hopefully he’s smarter, but I was very pleased with how he performed and progressed at spring ball. Coming out of that, he was our most complete quarterback.”

&#149 With all of the hype surrounding McCoy making it hard to imagine he can live up to it. Yet, Wannstedt believes the sophomore tailback has a chance to be better than last year, when he set a Big East freshman rushing record and broke Tony Dorsett’s school records for points and touchdowns by freshman.

“He showed up last May as a very talented player; however, he didn’t even know the snap count of our offensive system,” Wannstedt said. “I would like to believe that from an intelligence standpoint of knowing our offense, he’s a lot more comfortable. That will enable us to do a lot more things with him. I think in his own way, he’s becoming a leader on the team with the energy he brings, and the way he approaches things. This is also the first full off-season program he’s ever been a part of, so I’m sure he’ll be stronger and in better shape. He understands the finer points of the game better now, too. I expect him to be an overall better player.”

&#149 Wannstedt also pointed to boundary corner Buddy Jackson as a potential breakout player on defense, saying the 6-foot, 175-pound Jackson is “the guy with more talent maybe than anyone.” “He’s a redshirt freshman who needs to just mature,” Jackson said. “If we can get him to a point where we can just trust him, then he could be a guy we’re talking about as a starter. He ran the fastest time on the team (the 40-yard dash in the 4.3-second range) in the spring, and with his height and weight, he’s the picture-perfect image of how you want a corner to look. If we can just bring him along a little bit, he definitely has the potential to make an impact.”

Numbers of note: receiver Cameron Saddler is wearing No. 5 (which formerly belonged to Kennard Cox); receiver Aundre Wright switched from No. 82 to No. 10 (Mike Phillips); quarterback Tino Sunseri is wearing No. 16; safety Antwuan Reed is No. 22 (Collier, who switched to No. 24); corner Ronald Hobby is No. 23 (Lowell Robinson); tailback Chris Burns is No. 29 (Sherod Murdock); linebacker Tristan Roberts switched from No. 39 to 32 (Shane Brooks); linebacker Manny Williams is No. 36; corner Jarred Holley is No. 39; safety Andrew Taglianetti is No. 41 (Chris McKillop); linebacker Shayne Hale is No. 46; kicker Kevin Harper is No. 47; offensive lineman Lucas Nix is No. 52 (Dan Loheyde); linebacker Joe Trebitz is No. 53 (a duplicate with Alex Karabin); offensive lineman Ryan Turnley is No. 75 (Mike McGlynn); receiver Jonathan Baldwin is No. 82; tight end Mike Cruz is No. 85 (Dustin Walters); receiver Mike Shanahan is No. 87 (Marcel Pestano); and tight end Justin Virbitsky is No. 92.

On that note, it’s worth adding that Murdock, Loheyde, Walters and Pestano are no longer with the team. Pestano was dismissed late last season. Murdock was suspended indefinitely this past spring and did not return. Loheyde reinjured his knee and was placed on medical hardship. And Walters quit playing. Also gone are walk-on quarterbacks Dan Gustine and Spencer Whipple, who transferred to Massachusetts, which his father (Philadelphia Eagles QB coach Mark) once made a Division I-AA powerhouse.

&#149 On a final note, Wannstedt pulled out a surprise motivational tactic in a team meeting this afternoon when he challenged the tenacity of his “mad-dog defense,” which ranked fifth nationally last season. Wannstedt opened the door for two city police officers, one wearing a Pitt shirt. Then a German shepherd entered the room and attacked the officer wearing a Bowling Green shirt (who, thankfully, was wearing a protective cast on his arm).

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