As Pitt’s training camp comes to a conclusion — and tomorrow’s two-a-day session is officially the end of camp — the depth chart is starting to shape up and it’s obvious that a few players are positioning for jobs.
“I think they know who they are,” Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. “We’ve got some competitive battles at a lot of spots, not necessarily the starting jobs but backup roles and special-teams players and contributors.”
The move to put freshman Lucas Nix ahead of junior Joe Thomas at right tackle was apparently a sign of Wannstedt sending a message to Thomas, who took all of the first-team repetitions today. That’s not to say Nix couldn’t eventually earn some playing time this season.
There was a not-so-subtle move today that raised eyebrows, and it’s one that could turn out to be the surprise of camp. When Shane Murray twisted his knee in an 11-on-11 drill, he was replaced at weak-side linebacker not by backups Tristan Roberts or Nate Nix but rather fifth-year senior Austin Ransom.
The 5-foot-11, 215-pound Ransom, the special teams captain last season, was moved to defense this week from receiver. Wannstedt’s explanation for that move was that Ransom could be used as a nickel linebacker, much like converted safety Jemeel Brady was last season. Even though it appears to be Ransom’s first time playing linebacker (coaches had to show him where to line up), Ransom was suddenly thrown in with the first-team defense.
That move might have come for two reasons: one is that it’s possible the Panthers aren’t happy with the way their trio of redshirt freshmen outside linebackers is performing. Roberts is smart, but not aggressive enough, while Brandon Lindsey and Greg Williams have missed some practice time with minor injuries. Another is that Nix, who Wannstedt has said is having a strong camp, is now apparently being groomed at strong-side linebacker.
The Panthers also haven’t found a satisfactory backup to Scott McKillop at middle linebacker, where the candidates are redshirt junior Steve Dell, redshirt freshman Max Gruder and freshman Shayne Hale. If something were to happen to McKillop, there’s a chance Pitt coaches would move Adam Gunn to the middle and could plug Nix in on the strong side. That’s just a guess, but it would probably be the safest solution.
• Wannstedt said he likes the attitude of this team, noting that only one player missed practice today.
That it was junior receiver T.J. Porter didn’t seem to bother Wannstedt, even though he acknowledged that Porter could be slipping out of his spot as one of the top four receivers. The emergence of Jonathan Baldwin at split end has allowed the Panthers to return Cedric McGee to flanker, so the likely starters would be Derek Kinder at flanker and Oderick Turner at split end with McGee and Baldwin as their backups.
“Right now, you’ve got Kinder, Oderick Turner and Cedric McGee as the three veteran guys that we know are going to play on opening day,” Wannstedt said. “Then you’ve got Jonathan Baldwin and Aaron Smith and Aundre Wright and Mike Shanahan — the younger kids battling in there.”
Where does that leave Porter?
“T.J., he needs to get out there and compete or all of a sudden he falls into that fourth guy and now he’s competing with Baldwin or somebody,” Wannstedt said. “The train doesn’t stop. You’ve got to get on it as fast as you can. And he’s doing everything he can. He’s hurt. It’s not like he’s not.”
That last line is an indication that Wannstedt doesn’t think Porter is dogging it — which was always a concern for him in past camps — so it’s possible that he could become the top slot receiver. That would move Porter ahead of redshirt freshmen Aundre Wright and Aaron Smith, with his greatest edge being his experience.
• Wannstedt was pleased with the quarterback play, but challenged his defense after today’s afternoon session because the secondary was beaten on a handful of deep throws for touchdowns.
“I thought we gave up too many plays on defense,” Wannstedt said. “The offense is adding a few things and it’s a lot of it is with our second group, but every time we go on the field defensively, we expect to show up and not be streaky. Right now, we’ve been streaky. We’ve been up and down, and there’s no excuses for that. If you know what they’re doing and you’re giving great effort, you should show up every time you go on the practice field.”
There has been a lot of such talk from Wannstedt and Bennett, who have gone to great lengths to explain the difference between “good” and “great” defenses. It’s obvious the Panthers want to hang their hat on the blue jerseys.
* For those ready to throw Thomas under the bus, you have to take into consideration who he is going up against on a daily basis. Sophomore end Jabaal Sheard just might be a future star, at least in the pass-rush phase.
When Nix replaced Thomas in the starting lineup yesterday, Sheard executed a swim move past him so fast that Nix was left stunned and looking around to see where Sheard had gone.
When Pitt was doing one-on-one blocking drills this afternoon, Thomas held his own against Sheard for a few seconds. Then Sheard just stopped and pushed Thomas backwards into the dummy.
• Moon graduate John Bachman has been buried on the third team, but the right guard drew some cheers from his line mates when he slammed Hopewell grad Craig Bokor in a blocking drill between a pair of former Parkway Conference foes.
• Dorin Dickerson continues to impress at tight end, and drew applause with a leaping grab of a Kevan Smith pass over safety Andrew Taglianetti.
* When Smith overthrew Baldwin on a deep route – take a moment to understand how strong Smith’s arm is to have overthrown a 6-foot-5 receiver with 4.4-second speed in the 40-yard dash – a defensive player chastised freshman cornerback Jarred Holley for picking up the ball.
“Holley, put that ball down!” the player shouted, and on cue, Holley immediately dropped it, forcing Baldwin to run back and retrieve it.
• For all of the attention Baldwin has received in camp for his spectacular catches, this was not his finest day. He ran a route across the middle and absorbed a shot upside the head on a pass from Smith when he wasn’t looking.
If you’re wondering why Baldwin hasn’t already been inserted in the starting lineup, it’s because plays like this happen on an almost every-day basis, too. But when Baldwin figures out what he’s doing, look out.
• For the computer savvy, McKillop will be available for an on-line chat on espn.com at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday. For those who prefer to watch TV, LeSean McCoy will appear on ESPN2′s “First Take” at 11:40 a.m.
• Pitt’s FanFest will be from 6:30-9 p.m. Thursday at Heinz Field, with a team autograph session in the Great Hall and plaza concourse followed by a practice at 8 p.m. Admission is free.
• The Panthers will have a practice from 8-10:30 a.m., then a scrimmage from 3-5 p.m. on Wednesday.