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Inside the Ropes with Pitt football – Day 8/first scrimmage

The excitement surrounding Pitt’s first scrimmage of training camp must have gotten to Robb Houser, as the center botched the first exchange with quarterback Pat Bostick and then mistimed two snaps that led to penalties.

Considering the center-exchange problems Pitt had with John Bachman last year in spring drills and training camp and the alarming regularity of illegal procedure penalties early last season, it’s a wonder Wannstedt didn’t lose his cool after four of the first 12 plays went haywire.

“It’s unfortunate,” Wannstedt said. “We’ve had no problems the whole training camp. In fact, I commented that this has been the least quarterback-center exchange problems we’ve had since I’ve been here. We haven’t had them. That kind of took the wind out of everybody’s sails, including me.”

The good news is that snapping hadn’t been an issue with Houser, who looks to have a good grip on the starting job. He hasn’t spent much time snapping to Bostick, who filled in for Bill Stull with the first-team offense. And after the early jitters, Houser didn’t have any more problems.

And it doesn’t hurt to have LeSean McCoy on your side.

McCoy quickly made everyone forget about those issues by slipping and dipping his way to 68 yards on 11 carries in a limited capacity. On one series, McCoy ducked a high tackle attempt by safety Dom DeCicco near the line of scrimmage en route to a 13-yard gain on a third-and-2, then slipped middle linebacker Scott McKillop’s grasp in the backfield for a 2-yard run.

On the next play, however, McCoy fumbled when linebacker Shane Murray put his helmet on a hit and popped the ball loose. Adam Gunn recovered it on a bounce at the Blue 45 and returned it for a touchdown. (Gunn, by the way, also recovered Bostick’s fumble on the initial snap).

“I was very pleased with him, except for the one turnover,” Wannstedt said. “I’d like to stand here and say it was an outstanding day but you turn the football over. You can’t do that.”

Wannstedt wasn’t satisfied with the first scrimmage in general.

“I thought that, overall, it was OK,” he said. “It was solid work. I didn’t think that there were enough big plays, enough game-changing plays on both sides of the ball. I was hoping for a little bit more. …

“We have a lot of work to do. Thank God we don’t play this week.”

* Even though all of the quarterbacks wore red jerseys to indicate they were off-limits to contact, Stull was withheld from the scrimmage, as was backup tailback LaRod Stephens-Howling.

“I thought that, from a veteran standpoint, we decided to hold LaRod and decided to hold Billy Stull,” Wannstedt said. “They both could have gone, and if we were playing a game today, they would have played.”

Wannstedt has yet to say so, but it looks more and more every day as if Stull will be the starter for the opener against Bowling Green Aug. 30. The Panthers are trying to ensure that Stull is available after that date, too.

* Wannstedt said Monday that Stull and Bostick had created separation from the rest of the quarterbacks, but Kevan Smith shined brightest in the scrimmage by completing 9 of 13 passes for 72 yards with a touchdown. He showed more mobility and confidence in the pocket than he has in practice.

Smith led the second-team offense to a pair of scoring drives. On his first drive, Smith converted a third-and-7 pass to Aaron Smith for a first down and ran for a first down on third-and-5. But he threw the ball away on third-and-goal, settling for a 20-yard field goal by Conor Lee (who was 2-for-2, both from the same distance).

The next scoring drive saw Smith run downfield to throw a nasty block on safety Eric Thatcher on a run by McCoy. On third-and-1, Smith used a hard count to draw the defense off-sides. A fluke play set up the touchdown: defensive tackle Tommie Duhart deflected Smith’s pass at the line of scrimmage, but right guard John Malecki caught it and rumbled 10 yards to the 4-yard line. Shariff Harris scored on the next play.

Smith also threw a touchdown pass in a short-yardage drill from the 3, pulling a play-action fake that saw Harris run right and Smith roll left before firing to a wide-open Dorin Dickerson in the end zone.

“I thought Kevan played solid. He didn’t make any mental mistakes,” Wannstedt said. “With Billy being down, it gave him more opportunities and I think he took them.”

* One of the stars of the scrimmage was freshman tailback Chris Burns, who showed some sizzle by running for 47 yards and two touchdowns on only five carries. On one run, he went right and used a head fake to feign inside before bouncing outside and using a stiff-arm to score. Burns also had two receptions for 22 yards, including a long of 13.

* It’s becoming old hat to say this, but freshman receiver Jonathan Baldwin continues to make ridiculous catches. Twice he leaped high over defenders to haul in balls thrown to the sideline, but both were waved off for landing out of bounds. He also caught a touchdown pass from Greg Cross, who was 4 for 4 for 40 yards.

“From a receiver standpoint, Jonathan Baldwin made three great plays,” Wannstedt said. “The touchdown, he took it off the ground. And then he made two great plays on the sideline. Unfortunately, both of them were out of bounds. I think it’s pretty evident that we need to find a way to get him ready to go and I think he has a chance to help us.”

* Other scrimmage highlights included:

* Slot receiver Aundre Wright catching a pass in the right flat, sidestepping safety Irv Brown and gaining 18 yards for a first-and-goal at the 7-yard line.

* Dickerson, who led all receivers with five catches for 37 yards with a touchdown, caught a pass from Bostick and carried a pile a few yards before being pulled down by the belt by linebacker Greg Williams. Dickerson then caught an 11-yard pass over the middle.

* Tight end Mike Cruz caught a 14-yard pass from Cross, taking a shot from cornerback Ronald Hobby and rumbling for extra yards.

* Defensive tackle Derrell Jones, a former scholarship player who left the team last fall but has returned as a walk-on, intercepted a screen pass by Tino Sunseri intended for Burns.

* Here’s a look at the statistical leaders:

Rushing: McCoy 11-68; Burns 5-47; Harris 9-20; Sunseri 2-19; Smith 1-5; Conredge Collins 2-3; Cross 1-(-3) and Bostick 2-(-10).

Passing: Smith 9-13-0-72; Bostick 7-12-0-49; Cross 4-4-0-40; Sunseri 3-5-1-23.

Receiving: Dickerson 5-37; Burns 2-22; Wright 2-20; Aaron Smith 1-18; Cruz 1-14; Turner 1-14; Baldwin 1-10; Shanahan 2-10; Malecki 1-9; Nate Byham 1-7; Cedric McGee 1-7; Chris Bova 1-7; Derek Kinder 1-3; Kevin Collier 1-3; Harris 1-3.

Tackles: Elijah Fields 4, Dom DeCicco 4, Andrew Taglianetti 4, Shayne Hale 4, Adam Gunn 3, Aaron Berry 3, Ricky Gary 3, Greg Williams 3, Rashaad Duncan 3, Craig Bokor 3, Jovani Chappel 2, Shane Murray 2, Irv Brown 2, Ronald Hobby 2, Eric Thatcher 2, Greg Romeus 2, Jabaal Sheard 2, Antwuan Reed 1, Tristan Roberts 1, Mike Toerper 1, Manny Williams 1, Scott McKillop 1, Max Gruder 1, Scott Corson 1, Gus Mustakas 1, Myles Caragein 1, Mick Williams 1, Justin Hargrove 1, Chas Alecxih 1, Derrell Jones 1.

Tackles for loss-yards: Fields 1-0; Murray 2-6; DeCicco 1-3; McKillop 1-3; A. Taglianetti 1-1; Hale 1-3; Corson 1-5; Caragein 1-1; Alecxih 1-5.

Sacks: Fields 1-5; Hale 1-3; Corson 1-5; Alecxih 1-5.

* Wannstedt mentioned the other day that a handful of freshmen could see playing time this year, and one of them appears to be a player once expected to receive a greyshirt.

“The guy who keeps showing up, a young kid from a defensive perspective, is Andrew Taglianetti,” Wannstedt said of the former Central Catholic star. “We’re going to start working him on some special teams with the first unit. He could be a guy that could help us in that area.”

* Speaking of special teams, freshman Cameron Saddler injured his knee while trying to field a punt and watched practice from the training table. He is expected to have tests done Wednesday.

“Saddler got hurt during special teams period,” Wannstedt said. “The ball went through his legs, and he said he was bending over to pick up the ball and twisted his knee.”

* Redshirt freshman Brandon Lindsey had muscle spasms after the morning session and spent the scrimmage walking laps around the football fields. Lindsey had been working with the second-team defense at strong-side linebacker, but Greg Williams replaced him there after missing the morning practice.

* Senior defensive tackle Rashaad Duncan was down after learning of Doug Fulmer’s season-ending knee injury, especially considering the long road back to recovery Fulmer endured after a fractured ankle ended his 2006 season and a torn ACL in his other knee caused him to miss last season.

“Doug was one of the captains. It’s really hard for us, after seeing him struggle through that whole last year of trying to come back and be on our defense. To have him out there, I was so amped up to see him come back that I don’t even know how to explain it right now,” Duncan said. “We’re still touchy on that subject right now. We’re a family. We all came in together. That news is really tough on us, hitting us kind of hard right now.

“We always said the backups could have easily started. He was only going to make us stronger. Without having him there, it’s going to be tough but I still feel like we have somebody to come in and pick up the slack.”

* A walk-on has a chance to be that somebody.

My story for Wednesday’s paper is on Chas Alecxih, the redshirt freshman who has been surprisingly productive despite bouncing from defensive tackle to defensive end.

Alecxih is battling with redshirt sophomore Ty Tkach and classmates Justin Hargrove and Tony Tucker to make the two-deep, with the best of the bunch backing up Romeus and Sheard as the third end.

“It’s something else. You just come and do your best and pray to God that you can play,” Alecxih said. “I love Doug. He’s one of my good friends. I’m sorry to hear about it, but it’s got to be filled. I’m going to do my best.”

Alecxih played end at Penn Manor High School, but was moved inside five days after arriving last summer. He embraced the move and made an immediate impact as a pass-rushing force.

“At first, I didn’t think so but now that I’m getting used to it, it definitely is more comfortable to be on the edge,” Alecxih said. “I have more freedom to rush.”

At 6-foot-5, 275 pounds, Alecxih has the quickness to play end and the power to play inside. He added the weight by eating, drinking protein shakes before bed and spending a year in Buddy Morris’ strength and conditioning program. Alecxih claims a 340-pound bench press and 430-pound squat, and wants to improve both numbers.

Which makes you wonder why he wasn’t more heavily recruited.

“I think it was because I was just too light,” Alecxih explained. “I played at 210 in high school. I don’t know if they thought, ‘He’s not going to grow into his body.’”

Connecticut offered, but Alecxih picked Pitt instead.

“It was a combination of things,” Alecxih said. “Coach Wannstedt is just an amazing person. He was great during recruiting, and Jordan Gibbs, my high school teammate, was coming here. When I found out I wasn’t going to get an offer from here, I kind of looked at the situation and said, ‘It’s not going to make me any less of a player if I’m not on scholarship so I might as well come here and try it.’”

* Defensive line coach Greg Gattuso said Alecxih’s desire is what separates him, sometimes to a fault.

“He’s so eager, he’s almost too eager to learn,” Gattuso said. “I talk to him all the time and try to settle him down. He’s into practice and meetings. When I’m in meetings, the kids are slumping and heavy-eyed and Chas is eager, sitting up in his chair and looking to learn everything I do.”

* Gattuso doesn’t have time to dwell on Fulmer’s injury, but lamented losing his leadership in the meeting room.

“He works so hard and, two years ago, he was our best player when he got hurt,” Gattuso said. “It was interesting. They did a little poll on the team of who was the best leader, and Doug was one of the four – and he didn’t even play last year. It just says what type of kid he is. I worry about losing the leadership and the toughness that he brought. We have to adjust and go forward. It’s opportunities for these young guys.”

Tkach has the advantage of game experience, having played in all 12 games last season, when he recorded 10 tackles, including 2.5 for losses, a sack and a fumble recovery. Tucker is a bit undersized but is a talented speed rusher, which is an important element of the position.

“Obviously, looking for a pass rusher in the group is one of the most important things, getting a third pass rusher,” Gattuso said. “I’m very comfortable with the three of those guys. They’re hard workers. They’re learning. They care. They have all the things you’re looking for. It’s a matter of who’s going to separate themselves because the third end is a critical spot. We’ve got to have someone there who can go in the game and relieve Greg or Jabaal. With Doug there, you kind of felt like you had an ace in the hole.”

* Pitt practices from 2-5 p.m. on Wednesday.

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