It took all of four days of training camp — not one in full pads, mind you — for Pitt coaches to make a switch Saturday afternoon on the offensive line that appeared inevitable from the start.
When the first-team offense lined up for the inside-run drill, Jason Pinkston trotted out to left tackle, Joe Thomas to right tackle. And the so-called competition between them was likely over.
Now, this was only the first day of full-contact drills, so a lot can change between today and Aug. 30. But the Panthers’ most veteran offensive linemen not named C.J. Davis appear to be settling in as bookends.
No surprise that redshirt freshman Jordan Gibbs was demoted to second-team left tackle — he just couldn’t block defensive end Greg Romeus (who can?) — but there was another interesting twist. Freshman Lucas Nix, the U.S. Army All-American from Thomas Jefferson, moved from left guard to right tackle.
“Coming out of spring, I wanted to give Jordan Gibbs a few days,” Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. “I wasn’t happy with the way that was moving along fast enough. Joe Thomas has been OK. The best competition we can give both of those guys is Nix behind one and Pinkston, who was a starter last year, to the left tackle and put Gibbs behind him.”
The first team, from left to right, was Pinkston, C.J. Davis, Robb Houser, John Malecki and Thomas. The second team was Gibbs, Dom Williams, Alex Karabin, Chris Jacobson and Nix.
“We’re trying to work through some scenarios,” Wannstedt said, “to continue to evaluating who are our best five and who are our best seven.”
That isn’t to say that Nix is the second-team right tackle just yet. Gibbs could easily move to right tackle and compete with Thomas. That’s a likely scenario, considering Wannstedt didn’t exactly give Thomas a ringing endorsement.
“We can flip-flop them,” Wannstedt said. “And (fifth-year senior) Chase Clowser has lost a lot of weight and worked extremely hard. He didn’t get as much work today but he’s a guy who’s been around here five years and has experience. I told him, ‘Don’t get discouraged. We know you can go in and help us and play but we need to get a look at a couple of these young guys.”
Wannstedt also mentioned that Jacobson has a chance to move into the position of being a “swing guard” — meaning he could back up left or right in a pinch — and that Wayne Jones will compete with Karabin for the backup center job.
All of which means that notice has been served on a pair of upperclassmen with a few starts under their belt. Dom Williams and John Bachman are in danger of getting bypassed on the depth chart by Jacobson. And the remaining redshirt freshmen, Greg Gaskins, John Fieger and Dan Matha, aren’t yet on the two-deep.
It’s still early, but the offensive line competition is under way.
* The Panthers’ first practice in pads was relatively uneventful compared to last summer, when Dom DeCicco announced his arrival by decking Oderick Turner and Derek Kinder suffered a season-ending torn ACL.
But Jonathan Baldwin made one of the most impressive catches we’ve seen at a Pitt practice in some time, and it left everyone looking at each other in disbelief.
The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Baldwin showed off his incredible leaping ability by “climbing the ladder” over cornerback Jarred Holley and safety Elijah Fields and hauling in a one-handed catch on an overthrown pass from Pat Bostick.
“Jonathan Baldwin made a catch today that, I think, let everybody know that he plans on competing,” Wannstedt said.
• Kinder (knee) returned to practice after missing three days — “It was good to have him back, get him involved a little bit,” Wannstedt said — but defensive end Doug Fulmer, defensive tackle Mick Williams, cornerback Aaron Berry and receiver T.J. Porter did not participate and defensive tackle Gus Mustakas and linebacker Brandon Lindsey both left with “minor” injuries.
The injuries hardly affected practice.
“We can continue to practice and compete at a high level,” Wannstedt said. “That first year or two, if one of your good guys got hurt the drop-off in talent was a lot more drastic. When you don’t have as good of players out there, things don’t happen as fast, as efficient and you’re not going to have as good of practices.
“Today, we had four or five guys out, which we’ll have every day for reasons, and we had a good practice. I was pleased with the first day in pads.”
• Wannstedt has been impressed with the play of tight ends Nate Byham, Dorin Dickerson and John Pelusi to the point that any of the three is capable of lining up with the first-team offense.
“I think we’ve got three starters,” Wannstedt said. “I think any one of those guys can line up and start and we can win with any one of the three.”
Dickerson might play a hybrid role, as he’s capable of lining up at fullback or in the slot as a receiver in a three-tight set.
• Wannstedt also praised backup defensive tackles Craig Bokor and Myles Caragein, who have had their way with the second- and third-team offensive lines, as well as defensive end Jabaal Sheard, who has moved into the starting lineup.
“From a defensive standpoint, you don’t want to say things too soon but the last three days Myles Caragein and Craig Bokor both have been very, very pleasing,” Wannstedt said. “You expect Mick Williams and Duhart and those guys (to dominate).
“Of the young guys, I’d say Jabaal Sheard — he’s playing like he’s been a starter for two years. I’m real pleased with him, but Caragein and Bokor really raised up the level of their game.”
Wannstedt also noted that freshman Jarred Holley “continues to make plays,” which could make for an interesting battle with Ricky Gary for the backup field corner job behind Aaron Berry. It looks like Jovani Chappel has the edge over Buddy Jackson at the boundary corner right now, but it’s still early.
• LaRod Stephens-Howling has been overshadowed by practicing in the afternoon with limited carries, but Wannstedt likes the look of his one-two punch at tailback.
“Shady’s off to a great start,” Wannstedt said of LeSean McCoy, “and for every run he makes, LaRod Stephens-Howling comes out and makes one the next down.”
• Although the starting safety jobs are being held down by Eric Thatcher at free and Dom DeCicco at strong, Wannstedt didn’t rule out the possibility that we’ll see DeCicco and Fields together at times.
“Elijah is such a good coverage guy, we’re talking about using him in some nickel and dime situations to get both of those guys on the field,” Wannstedt said. “Most definitely.”
• The inside-run drill saw Belle Glades products Tommie Duhart and Rashaad Duncan lined up next to each other inside, and they wasted no time blowing up a play to drop McCoy for a loss.
Pitt has such depth at defensive tackle that you might see the Panthers go big (Duhart and Duncan), small (Mustakas and Mick Williams) or a combination (Duncan and Williams or Duhart and Mustakas). And that’s not even counting Caragein and Bokor.
• Nate Nix made a big hit to break up a pass intended for fullback Henry Hynoski, and Nix is an intriguing position. He could stay at weak-side linebacker, where he is contending with redshirt freshmen Tristan Roberts to back up Shane Murray, but it wouldn’t come as a shock to see him move to defensive end to add depth now that Fulmer is hobbled.
• Quarterback Bill Stull rolled right and found Oderick Turner, who beat Gary on a deep route for a touchdown. Gary later made a nice ankle tackle on McCoy after the tailback went left, stopped and reversed field with only one man to beat.
• Defensive end Ty Tkach came around the left side to drop Stephens-Howling from behind for a loss. After spending the spring at tight end for depth reasons (Byham and Pelusi were injured and Dickerson was new to the position), Tkach is another end taking advantage of his increased reps with Fulmer out.
• Karabin had a nice shot on Bokor, who flushed Stull out of the pocket but didn’t see the center setting up a crack-back block.
• One twist to the second-team defense was that the linebacker corps consisted entirely of redshirt freshmen, with Max Gruder in the middle flanked by Lindsey at strong-side and Roberts at weak-side. That might have just been for Pitt coaches to get a look at them behind a veteran line.
The other combinations we’ve seen include Steve Dell at middle, with Nix at weak-side and Greg Williams at strong-side. It will be interesting to see how the competition plays out, especially with Gateway All-American Shayne Hale in the mix in the middle.
• The Panthers had several visitors, including Steel Valley defensive lineman Tyrone Ezell, who made a verbal commitment to become Pitt’s ninth recruit from the Class of 2009.
Allderdice senior defensive end Will Clark, Seneca Valley receiver Matt Plautz and another ’09 commit, Bethlehem Liberty receiver Devin Street, also watched practice from the sidelines.
Sto-Rox junior quarterback Paul Jones, considered by some the state’s top prospect in the Class of 2010, had an audience with Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson (who spent 15 years as a recruiting coordinator at Nebraska, Tennessee and Ohio State).
Perhaps most interesting was the presence of lineman Josh Marks, who recently left the Penn State football team. Marks was heavily recruited by Pitt out of Southern Columbia, where he played with Hynoski. The two spent time talking after practice, and it’s possible Marks could transfer to Pitt and walk-on to the team.
• Pitt practices twice on Sunday, from 8:30-10:30 a.m. and 3-5:30 p.m., but only the second session is open to the media so there will be just one blog report tomorrow.
If you’re looking for more Pitt football-related news, check out my Sunday feature on new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett.