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FanFest follow-up

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The grind is over.

Pitt football training camp is 16 consecutive days of practice, with nine two-a-days. That’s a lot of long days, and it’s an important time for Panthers players to prove themselves so the coaches can determine who will play.

FanFest is another story.

It’s a meet-and-greet session, an opportunity for Pitt fans to interact with the players and coaches and get autographs. The atmosphere at Heinz Field Thursday night provided a relaxed setting, which was good for team spirits but not necessarily conducive to a productive practice.

That was on Dave Wannstedt’s mind last night, as he was more worried about getting his newcomers acclimated to the particulars of a game-day atmosphere, such as having his special-teams units ready.

“Any time you’re coming down here with a new group of freshmen, the logistics of where guys are at is unbelievable,” Wannstedt said. “I know it’s not ideal conditions to practice. Our guys are signing autographs, and the mindset is not what it should be …”

If there was one noticeable thing about Heinz Field, it was that this was perhaps the only time of the year the turf is in pristine condition. The lawn looked manicured, at least until the players started practicing on it.

“We tried to move it around a little bit – not tear it up much, but it was good,” Wannstedt said. “I wish we could practice the next three days down here. There’s something to the lights and the people and the fans and the scoreboard that, all of a sudden, that’s what players have to respond to and you can’t simulate that on a practice field.”

Wannstedt was most pleased that the Panthers had a pain-free practice – especially after losing starting weak-side linebacker Shane Murray to a knee injury Tuesday – and that the offense scored three touchdowns in the two-minute drill, much to the delight of those in attendance.

* We’ll start at the end, giving you the highlights:

* Bill Stull drew the first round of applause when he threaded the needle between cornerback Jovani Chappel and safety Dom DeCicco to find Oderick Turner in the middle of the end zone for a touchdown.

* Tight end Nate Byham leaped to make a one-hand snag of a Pat Bostick floater in the back of the end zone.

* A blown coverage, either by corner Buddy Jackson or linebacker Greg Williams, led to Kevan Smith’s scoring pass to a wide-open Aundre Wright.

* Perhaps the most interesting development of camp, at least in my mind, was how quickly Austin Ransom rose from special-teams star to starting weak-side linebacker ahead of redshirt freshman Tristan Roberts.

The fifth-year senior, a former walk-on who earned a scholarship before last season, was buried on the depth chart at receiver and was moved to defense to add experience and depth to a young linebacker corps. When Murray went down – Wannstedt said he is still “day-to-day” after an MRI Wednesday night – Ransom was quickly elevated to the first-team defense.

“We’re trying to force-feed him a little bit and see where he’s at mentally,” Wannstedt said. “With Shane being out today, it will be (Ransom) and Tristan working (at weak-side linebacker).”

* Another fifth-year senior who made a surprising move up the depth chart is Chase Clowser, who Wannstedt said is the second-team left tackle, behind redshirt sophomore Jason Pinkston.

That’s only because Clowser worked almost exclusively with the third-team offense at right tackle during camp. The second-team right tackle spot was split between redshirt freshmen Greg Gaskins and Jordan Gibbs, and neither made much of an impression.

Wannstedt has praised the 6-foot-7, 330-pound Clowser for having a strong off-season, and warned to read too much into Clowser being behind freshman Lucas Nix on the depth chart. Pitt coaches know what Clowser can do, as he has appeared in all 12 games each of the past two seasons and is a solid, if unspectacular plugger. Clowser, for example, filled in admirably at South Florida two years ago when Jeff Otah left the game in the second half.

* That logic also applies to the backup linebacker openings, as Wannstedt praised both redshirt sophomore Nate Nix and redshirt junior Steve Dell, who took most of their recent snaps with the third-team defense.

I get the impression that the Pitt coaches were aware of what they had in Nix and Dell and gave the four redshirt freshmen – Max Gruder, Brandon Lindsey, Roberts and Greg Williams – as many reps as possible to prove themselves.

“It wasn’t the clear separation with those guys that you thought there would be,” Wannstedt said, which explains why the upperclassmen might get the nod as the backups.

My take is that Lindsey had the best camp of the four redshirt freshmen, but it’s possible that the backup linebackers will be Dell in the middle, Ransom at weak-side and Nix at strong-side.

* Wannstedt said he was surprised to hear Conor Lee say how excited he was to be kicking at Heinz Field after booming 50-yarders in warmpus, only to then watch the dependable kicker miss on three of his first four field goals from 34 yards.

Fear not, as Lee is 13-of-15 from 30-39 yards the past two seasons. He was 7 of 9 from that range last fall, and 18 of 22 overall.

“Hopefully, this paid off for him,” Wannstedt said, “that he got the excitement out and get a chance to calm down a bit.”

Trust me on this, nobody will take it harder than Lee.

Wannstedt has nothing to worry about.

* Speaking of Lee, he is the frontrunner to handle kickoffs.

Wannstedt said Lee has been the most consistent, followed by Lucas Briggs, Dave Brytus and Dan Hutchins. That likely spells a redshirt for scholarship freshman Kevin Harper, the heir apparent at kicker.

“We chart and we time them,” Wannstedt said. “We’ve got four guys that can do it. We’re going to come down on Wednesday and kick again, then I’ll make the decision who will kick off.”

* Now healthy, Wannstedt has no plans to watch from the press box this season. He said the lineup will return to status quo, with defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, offensive line coach Tony Wise, defensive line coach Greg Gattuso, running backs coach David Walker and receivers coach Bryan Bossard on the field.

Offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh, tight ends coach Brian Angelichio, linebackers coach Joe Tumpkin and secondary coach Jeff Hafley, along with graduate assistants Scott Turner (offensive line) and Greg Williams (secondary) will watch from the booth.

* Pitt starts game-planning tonight for its opener against Bowling Green, so the practice will be closed to the media. Once the season starts, we are limited to watching the first 30 minutes of practice, which involves mostly stretching, special teams work and individual drills, so the reports won’t be as detailed on the practices but focus more on analyzing the games.

Training camp is the time when we find out who is ready to play and try to get an idea of how Pitt will perform this season. I’m optimistic that this will be a breakthrough year, going so far as to predict a 9-3 record, but my feeling is it will be ultimately determined by two things:

One is the quarterback play. The return of Bill Stull should provide a major upgrade, in terms of leadership and also expanding the playbook. He’s spent four years in the system (compared to one for Kevan Smith and only a few weeks for Pat Bostick last season), learned under a workaholic in Tyler Palko and has the confidence of the players and coaches alike.

The other, and perhaps more important, is how the Panthers deal with inevitable injuries. Football is a physical game, and players are going to get hurt. This is the best-conditioned Pitt football team I’ve seen in some time, yet the players lost in training camp were to non-contact injuries.

Pitt’s depth is going to be exposed at some point, which could be a good thing at some positions (defensive line) and a scary thing at others (linebackers, safeties). How the Panthers, specifically the backups at those positions, respond when injuries occur will show whether they are ready to contend for the Big East Conference championship.

* Finally, I want to say “thank you” to all of those who have extended their praise of the blog during training camp, whether in person (my wife even heard from a Morgantown resident and faithful reader at FanFest) or via e-mail or message boards.

The players and coaches aren’t the only ones putting in long hours at training camp. My typical work day went from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m., with some longer and a few shorter. Even on the days I didn’t cover practice (thank you, too, John Grupp), I was at the Duratz Athletic Complex, working ahead on other stories for our Sunday section and football section.

As always, it’s well worth it.

Feel free to drop me an e-mail at kgorman@tribweb.com with suggestions anytime, as I’m always looking for feedback and ideas.

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