Pitt’s training camp ended today, with both good news and bad news.
The good news, not that it’s a surprise, is Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt finally named redshirt junior Bill Stull the starting quarterback for the season opener against Bowling Green on Aug. 30 at Heinz Field.
“We feel good about him being our starting quarterback,” said Wannstedt, who called it Stull’s “job to lose” just before the start of camp.
The bad news, which could be worse, is that starting weak-side linebacker Shane Murray is “day-to-day” with a strained right knee. Murray was injured Tuesday afternoon, missed today’s morning practice and was walking around on crutches before the scrimmage.
If it wasn’t for Murray’s late injury, the Panthers could have escaped training camp relatively unscathed. Their only losses, though both were to season-ending knee injuries, were to backup defensive end Doug Fulmer and freshman receiver/return specialist Cameron Saddler.
Murray’s is a little more disheartening, not only because he was a second-year starter who was having a solid camp but more so because the Panthers don’t have a clear-cut backup behind him.
Redshirt freshman Tristan Roberts took Murray’s place with the first-team defense in the scrimmage, but ended up sharing reps with fifth-year senior Austin Ransom, the subject of tomorrow’s story in the Trib.
Nate Nix, meantime, was taking third-team reps at strong-side linebacker, so it’s likely that the Panthers were giving their four redshirt freshmen linebackers one final audition before determining the depth chart.
“It was a good day. We got a lot of work done. The young kids got a lot of work,” Wannstedt said. “When we watch the tape, I think we’ll be able to make evaluations as we set the depth chart and start preparing for our opener after (FanFest) tomorrow night.”
• Before we recap the scrimmage, there’s a couple of items worth addressing. One is that Wannstedt hesitated to name junior Joe Thomas the starter at right tackle, leaving the door open for freshman Lucas Nix. Thomas likely will get the nod, but it’s far from over.
“We’ve got some real healthy competition going on in that offensive line,” Wannstedt said. “Pretty soon here, in the next couple days, by the first of the week, we’re going to have to name a starting group. But Lucas is going to play. Whether he’s a starter or not will be determined. But he’s going to play.”
Another is that Wannstedt has yet to name a backup quarterback. The top candidates are sophomores Pat Bostick and Kevan Smith, who shared second-team reps today, while junior Greg Cross ran the third team.
If the battle for the backup job goes anything like it did for the starting spot, there’s a good chance Wannstedt won’t name one until he has to. That scenario made sense for Stull, who never took a second-team snap.
“I understand why coach did that,” Stull said. “He wants competition at every position. If the head coach says it’s open, it is open. … That was always in the back of my head that I’ve got to progress every single day.
“And I think I’ve done that.”
We’ll see how Bostick and Smith progress, but it will be telling who gets the majority of repetitions once the Panthers go into a game week because the starter gets the bulk of the work while the backups get little.
“That’s going to be the challenge,” Wannstedt said. “In a couple days, when we start our Bowling Green preparation, you can’t work five quarterbacks. We know that and we’ve got a plan for that. The scrimmage today will have some bearing on how we stack the quarterbacks behind Billy and the decisions that are made.”
As for redshirts?
“We’ll definitely redshirt one, possibly two,” Wannstedt said.
You can draw your own conclusions there, but the “definite one” appears to be freshman Tino Sunseri. Bostick and Cross are the only others eligible for a redshirt. Then again, Bostick appeared headed for a redshirt at this time last year and ended up starting the fifth game, at Virginia.
• Speaking of redshirts, Wannstedt credited Stull for using his wisely to win the starting job this season. Even though he has the least game experience of the three contenders, Stull spent considerable time in both the meeting room and weight room so that he was ready for his second chance.
“I would like to think he’s smarter, just from being in meetings and watching 12 games a year ago, from being coached through the off-season,” Wannstedt said. “I know he’s stronger. Bill was never redshirted. He never had the luxury of redshirting because of playing behind Tyler (Palko), and I think the year off last year working in the weight room last year with Buddy Morris will benefit him from an arm strength standpoint.”
• Now, finally, about the scrimmage:
It was a situational scrimmage with controlled tackling for the first-team units, so there was plenty of manipulation in play. The starting offense ended its two drives with a pair of 32-yard Dan Hutchins field goals. The second-team offense had two drives end in touchdowns, one on a Brandon Lindsey interception and another on an acrobatic catch by Jonathan Baldwin.
For the most part, the defense kept the ball in front of it.
“I thought today was the most consistent our defense has played maybe all training camp,” Wannstedt said. “I don’t think we gave up the big play. By big play, there’s a difference. When Jonathan Baldwin goes up over you and catches the ball, that’s a big play, but … those things are going to happen at times. I’m talking about mental mistakes, where guys are out of position. I thought the defense was clean. I thought the effort was good and the results were what we wanted.”
• Scrimmage highlights included:
• Cornerback Aaron Berry breaking up a Stull pass intended for receiver Derek Kinder, and then middle linebacker Scott McKillop doing the same a play later.
• Roberts making a nice open-field stop of Oderick Turner in the right flat on third-and-5, which forced the field goal.
• Lindsey jumping to intercept a Bostick screen pass near the line of scrimmage, then running to daylight.
• Walk-on defensive end Chas Alecxih sacking Bostick, and redshirt sophomore end Scott Corson sacking Cross on the next series.
• Stull threading a pass to Kinder for a catch, despite double coverage by McKillop and Ransom.
• Tight end Dorin Dickerson beating safety Irv Brown over the middle, but dropping a pass in the end zone to settle for the second field goal.
• Cornerback Ronald Hobby making a nice play by breaking up a deep pass from Kevan Smith to Mike Shanahan, but landing hard on his shoulder. Hobby got up and walked off on his own, which drew a round of applause.
• Smith running a keeper up the middle so strong that cornerback Buddy Jackson bounced off him when attempting a tackle. Jackson quickly redeemed himself by knocking tailback Shariff Harris out of bounds with a big hit. After missing much of camp with a nagging injury, Jackson got back into the mix in the competition for the fourth cornerback spot.
“I thought Buddy stepped up,” defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said. “Buddy did some good things. He’s been hampered by a hamstring. I liked some of the things he did. …
“He helped himself today. His thing is, he’s got to maintain focus. We might play a straight zone and he’s press-man. He’s got to be focused. I’ve never, ever questioned Buddy’s desire to want to play. It’s just he’s got to be focused. You’ve got assignments and he’s got to execute them.”
But Jackson found out how difficult it is to cover Baldwin, who out-jumped him on a Smith pass in the end zone for a touchdown.
Baldwin’s ability to do this with regularity had one Pitt fan suggest to me that we start calling him “Jonny Red Zone.” We’ll see if that sticks.
“When they throw it to him, hell, it’s exciting,” Bennett said. “Defensive coordinators like that, as long as he’s on your side.”
• Wannstedt, by the way, was asked if Baldwin’s balletic catches have helped his cause in training camp. The coach’s answer — that Baldwin hasn’t done enough to beat out starting split end Oderick Turner — was a good indication of how the Panthers have progressed the past four years.
“It got him playing,” Wannstedt said. “Now, I’ll tell you what. I’ve been here with Oderick Turner for (four) years. This is the best camp that he’s had. I think competition does that. Oderick has had his best training camp. I don’t think he’s feeling any pressure from Baldwin, but he knows he has to go out there and he has to produce. The more talent we bring in, it makes everybody accountable and makes everybody a little better.”
• Freshman linebacker Manny Williams made several big plays, including back-to-back big hits on tailback Chris Burns on a screen right and on receiver Aundre Wright on a reverse to the opposite side. After injuring his knee in the WPIAL playoffs last fall, Williams is probably headed for a redshirt, but he has shown nice quickness and playmaking ability.
• Pitt’s FanFest is from 6-9:30 p.m. Thursday at Heinz Field, with a team autograph session in the Great Hall and main concourse followed by an open practice that is scheduled to start around 8 o’clock. Admission is free.