Of all Pitt’s training camp position battles, the one that remains the most intriguing is yet to come.
Dave Wannstedt wasted no time Sunday serving notice that the starting right tackle job hasn’t been determined, and gave freshman Lucas Nix a ringing endorsement as a possibility to unset junior Joe Thomas.
A U.S. Army All-American from Thomas Jefferson, Nix has taken all of the second-team repetitions as right tackle since Jason Pinkston moved to left tackle when the Panthers went to full pads a week ago Saturday. Although Nix arrived at camp smaller and softer than expected – at least in his upper body – he has shown good athleticism and great footwork.
“Lucas Nix is going to be a great player for us,” Wannstedt said. “He’s going to be everything that we thought when we recruited him. He needs to get stronger, if you can believe that, in upper-body strength. He’s got outstanding feet.”
Wannstedt added a warning that the biggest hurdle for Nix – as well as a pair of fellow freshmen, tailback Chris Burns and receiver Jonathan Baldwin – is learning the offense and understanding how to handle blitzes and adjustments.
“That’s the thing we’re going through with Lucas,” Wannstedt said. “Physically, he’s getting better every day. I’m very pleased with how he’s progressing.”
While Thomas has handled all of the first-team reps at right tackle, he has had difficulty handling the pass rush. Sophomore end Jabaal Sheard beat Thomas for two sacks in the second scrimmage Saturday.
Wannstedt noted that Nix is no longer a redshirt candidate.
“I think he’s going to have to play,” Wannstedt said. “Not that I’m dissatisfied with the play of the right tackle, but we’ve got to get more consistent there. Lucas has the ability to do it. I think the competition between him and Joe Thomas is good.”
• Two other interesting offensive line battles are developing.
One is at center, where walk-on Alex Karabin is trying to fend off redshirt freshman Wayne Jones as the backup to Robb Houser. This is an area of serious concern for the Panthers (although fifth-year senior Dom Williams also could be used in a pinch), and Wannstedt said Karabin “actually played better than (Jones) did in the scrimmage.”
The other is at left tackle, where redshirt freshman Greg Gaskins has been taking snaps ahead of classmate Jordan Gibbs. It’s a surprising development, only if because Gibbs started camp as the starting left tackle and now has fallen to the point where he is taking third-team reps.
“It’s a definite battle,” Wannstedt said. “Greg Gaskins has made progress, and Jordan has been too inconsistent. He knows that and he’s working hard. Right now, we’re giving Gaskins the opportunity.”
• Wannstedt cleared up some things about the return game by saying that if the Panthers were to play tonight, junior Aaron Berry would handle punt returns. Berry averaged 8.6 yards per last season, with a long of 53 yards to the Syracuse 13 that set up LeSean McCoy’s 1-yard go-ahead touchdown run for a 17-10 lead.
“He’s got the most experience, the best hands and that’s too important of a position,” Wannstedt said, adding that Aaron Smith and Aundre Wright are likely backups now that Cam Saddler is out for the season.
As for kick returns, LaRod Stephens-Howling appears to be a fixture once again, with T.J. Porter, Wright and Andrew Taglianetti as possible mates in lining up deep. Porter returned 11 kickoffs for a 22.2-yard average in 2006 but had only five last year for 18.8 yards per.
• One position where the backup job hasn’t been cleared up is at quarterback. Not only has Wannstedt not yet named redshirt junior Bill Stull the starter, and he didn’t give any indication of who was winning the battle between redshirt sophomore Kevan Smith and sophomore Pat Bostick. Smith took more reps in the scrimmage, but Bostick ran the second-team offense this afternoon.
“We may not make that decision until game time, really,” Wannstedt said. “All three of those guys are getting a lot of work and it’s working out fairly well at this point.”
• Wannstedt called the tight ends a position of “strength” and said that the Panthers have the luxury of using Nate Byham, Dorin Dickerson and John Pelusi on the field at one time because of their diverse talents.
Dickerson gives the Panthers a lot of flexibility because of his combination of size, speed, strength and toughness. He has played running back, receiver and outside linebacker, but has finally found a home – and it’s one where he can utilize all of the things he learned at those positions.
“Dorin brings a little more to the table because of his athletic ability,” Wannstedt said. “We can move him around. If the fullback’s not in the game, we can do the same plays we do with Conredge (Collins) in there with Dorin, throwing and blocking. It’s a nice to combination to have. His versatility is valuable to us.”
As for the one question mark that remains about Dickerson? “(His blocking) is coming along,” Wannstedt said. “Dorin’s a tough guy and he’s got good strength. He just needs to work on it. It’s just that blocking linemen is a little different than blocking a 180-pound corner.”
• Wannstedt reiterated that he was impressed with the play of the offense in the second scrimmage, especially that it didn’t have any turnovers.
“We went 91 plays, with kicking included, and any time you come out of a scrimmage like that with no turnovers, you’re going to feel pretty good about your offense,” Wannstedt said. “We had one offensive penalty, zero turnovers and the quarterbacks made good decisions for the most part. That was much improved from the first scrimmage.”
Defensively, however, he wasn’t satisfied.
“I felt, for the most part, we tackled good, that the offense made a few plays on a couple scrambles,” Wannstedt said. “There were a couple mental mistakes. We’re not as sharp mentally right now on defense as what we need to be. We need to clean up a few things, which we will.”
“The play by all the quarterbacks was the thing that, as I sat back and thought about it after watching the tape was pretty impressive.”
• Sunday’s practice was of the shorts-and-shells variety and lasted only about 90 minutes, which means there weren’t many highlights to share.
But here’s one:
Stull threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to Derek Kinder, who made a diving catch between corner Jovani Chappel and safety Eric Thatcher in the left back corner of the end zone.
For a guy who’s not supposed to be able to throw a deep ball, it was about as picture-perfect of a pass – and catch – as you could imagine.
• The Panthers practice twice Monday, from 8-10:30 a.m. and 3-5:30 p.m.