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Inside the Ropes with Pitt football – Day 2 afternoon practice

The difficult thing about practicing without pads – commonly denounced by coaches as football in shorts, which essentially means it’s not really football – is evaluating line play.

That added intrigue to Dave Wannstedt’s initial post-practice comments Wednesday, as the Pitt coach made it a point to praise the performance of redshirt freshman right guard Chris Jacobson, who arrived from Keystone Oaks as a U.S. Army All-American but sat out last season with a serious knee injury.

Wannstedt was pleased with Jacobson’s play, noting that if it keeps up he will be in the mix for playing time on the offensive line. Whether that was meant as a message for first-team guards C.J. Davis and John Malecki or backups like fifth-year senior Dom Williams and redshirt junior John Bachman is unclear.

“I don’t think we’re really looking at who’s lined up where and who’s pushing who,” Wannstedt said. “We’re trying to see at the end of camp or close to it, who are the best five or seven linemen that give us the best chance to win. I think that Chris Jacobson is competing to be one of those guys. Where, what spot is way too early. We haven’t even put pads on yet. I’m just pleased that he’s out here moving, looks quick, is moving well. Those things, coming off the surgery last year, are very encouraging.”

We’ll find out when the Panthers put on the pads, which, according to Wannstedt, is just what they need.

“That will be a nice shot in the arm for us,” he said. “We’ve had enough of practicing out here in T-shirts and helmets. It won’t be tackling, but it will be closer to real football. That’ll be good. We need that. We’re ready.”

• Wannstedt also praised another redshirt freshman offensive lineman, Wayne Jones, mostly because the converted defensive tackle didn’t botch any snaps at center. That was a disturbing theme at training camp last year, especially by Bachman.

“I don’t know how many guys he’s blocked or how many assignments he’s executed correctly but we have not put the ball on the ground with those young guys,” Wannstedt said. “A year ago at this time, I think we were averaging like four fumbles on the ground a day because of young kids and inexperience. That has not happened, and that has been very encouraging.”

• On a “disappointing” note, to use Wannstedt’s word, Pitt’s quarterbacks threw several interceptions in the afternoon session, including three to walk-on defensive backs. Danny Cafaro (Upper St. Clair) had two, and Justin Edwards (Penn-Trafford) one. Pat Bostick and Kevan Smith threw picks on successive plays.

“I don’t think any of the quarterbacks this afternoon really came out here and made any plays,” Wannstedt said. “The disappointing thing is, most of the plays are the same ones we ran in the morning. You’d like to think that from hearing the corrections in the morning, we’d be sharper when we come out in the afternoon. That didn’t happen today, for whatever reason.”

• Then again, one of the interceptions was of the spectacular variety and by a player Pitt is counting on to have a breakthrough season. Safety Elijah Fields made a one-hand catch for a pick of a Bostick pass intended for tight end Dorin Dickerson.

Fields was all over the field today, and seemed to rise to the challenge of covering 6-5 freshman receiver Jonathan Baldwin.

“Elijah Fields showed up this afternoon and made a couple plays,” Wannstedt said. “That’s encouraging. He’s been working real hard.”

• Wannstedt also made it a point to praise sophomore defensive end Jabaal Sheard, who ran with the first-team defense this morning in lieu of Doug Fulmer, who rested his knee.

“So far, he’s been outstanding,” Wannstedt said. “Even with Doug Fulmer coming back, Jabaal Sheard has probably been one of the most impressive guys from January until August from an off-season program: lifting, running, quickness. He’s off to a fast start. I’m really excited about him.

“I’ve always thought that you don’t have any chance to play great defense unless you have guys up front that can make plays.”

Sheard is a prime example of Wannstedt’s success in recruiting defensive linemen, and especially of his ability to pull in big-time prospects late in the recruiting process. Greg Romeus was one of Pitt’s last recruits in 2006, Sheard the last to sign in ’07.

Wannstedt also has shown an ability to identify prospects and project their future positions. Consider the defensive line.

“It’s kind of strange, when you look at the defensive linemen we have, where they came from, what kind of positions they played in the past,” Wannstedt said. “Very few of them were ‘defensive linemen.’ Mick was a fullback and a linebacker. Jabaal was a linebacker and tight end. Romeus was a basketball player. Fulmer was a strong safety. I don’t know what Gus (Mustakas) played (he was a tight end and outside linebacker). (Rashaad) Duncan might have been the only true defensive lineman. Myles Caragein was a fullback and tight end at Keystone Oaks.

“That philosophy, at the end of the day, gives us the results and quickness and athleticism that, in my mind, in this scheme that we need to be effective.”

• Back to practice: Conor Lee was 3-for-3 on field goals, making every attempt from 37 yards. A bad snap and hold led to a botched attempt from 48 yards. Walk-on Lucas Briggs made a pair of 47-yarders, the second despite a bad snap.

• Shayne Hale, the U.S. Army All-American from Gateway, is playing middle linebacker but is projected by some to eventually move to defensive end. Wherever he plays, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Hale is a physical specimen and promises to be a beast.

• Offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh left the quarterbacks for a moment to explain to the young receivers the necessity of running precise routes after several early incomplete passes on timing patterns. Cavanaugh showed them how much of a difference a yard makes, noting that if the receivers are where they’re supposed to be he’ll blame it on the QBs if they can’t get the ball there.

• Baldwin is more and more impressive every day and made another incredible catch, running to the right sideline and hauling in an Andrew Janocko pass behind his right shoulder.

• Just an observation after years of covering both Pitt practices and college football recruiting: The Panthers are so deep and strong at almost every position that even talented walk-ons like Cafaro and defensive lineman Chas Alexcih – who might have had a legitimate shot at playing time in past years – are going to have a hard time seeing the field other than special-teams situations.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that players who were highly recruited but didn’t play as true freshman for one reason or another are buried on the depth chart. If nose tackle Craig Bokor had been academically eligible out of Hopewell, he might have a chance to be a three-year starter (like Duncan) but instead is battling for third-string reps. A head injury forced Baldwin’s Justin Hargrove to take a greyshirt, and he’s now behind Romeus, Sheard and Tony Tucker at defensive end.

That should send a message to the starters that no job is safe.

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