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Wither the Wildcat?

It’s a question often asked of Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh: When will the Panthers unveil their Wildcat offense and, more specifically, introduce the junior-college transfer recruited to run it?

“At some point,” Cavanaugh promised, “we will.”

That the talented trio of Cross, receiver Jonathan Baldwin and safety Elijah Fields has seen little to no playing time has been a constant source of frustration for Pitt fans on the message boards. Turns out, if Cavanaugh could do it over again, Greg Cross would have made his debut in the season, along with Baldwin and Fields, in the opener against Bowling Green.

“I’ll be honest with you, now that the first two games are done, we didn’t think we’d need him for the first two games. In hindsight, we probably could have used him as a little changeup,” Cavanaugh said Thursday in an interview during Pitt’s bye week. “He’s been getting some reps. He’ll get a few more next week (against Iowa). We do have a little package we’ll introduce. If need be or not, it’ll just show up this week.”

Cavanaugh shared some insight on Pitt’s reasons for not using a player who has been one of the Panthers’ most dynamic runners in the limited opportunities he’s had to run the offense. It’s not as simple as just putting Cross in the game, considering he isn’t one of the team’s top three quarterbacks and is primarily used for specific packages.

“You’ve got to make a decision when you’ve got that type of situation, are you putting him on the field just to get him on the field or do you really need him?” Cavanaugh said. “Either one can be correct. If we’re struggling and we need a change of pace, maybe he’s a guy we can go to. If things are going well and you still want a change of pace, he’s a guy you go to.

“We weren’t at the second part yet. We weren’t at the point where we were so comfortable with everything that we’re doing that, ‘Well, let’s just throw him in as a changeup.’ In hindsight, again, if you look back at the first game when we weren’t doing things very well, maybe he would have been a good changeup.”

Of course, we’ll never know what Cross could have done, just that changing the pace by running direct snaps to its receivers certainly helped Bowling Green. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have backfired on Pitt.

Which is precisely what the Panthers were afraid of.

“Obviously, I wouldn’t put him in backed up on the 5-yard line for his first rep,” Cavanaugh said, “and not necessarily if we moved the ball downfield and showed up in the red zone and we’re about ready to score and we put in a new quarterback.”

So when?

“Somewhere in the middle of the field, I wouldn’t hesitate if the package for him is bring him in on an earned first down at midfield and do something special with him, then we can do it,” Cavanaugh said. “Or if he’s a third-down specialist and we direct-snap a ball to him, we’ve got some ways to do that, but I don’t think the situation presented itself last week and I was too stubborn the first week to make any changes and try something different.”

I, for one, understand Pitt’s hesitation (now bordering on trepidation) in using Cross. He’s new to Division I-A football. He hasn’t taken a snap in a major-college game. If the Panthers use him in the wrong situation and he fumbles or throws an interception – like Pat Bostick did on his first two snaps against Grambling last year – it could prove disastrous.

And I appreciate Cavanaugh’s honesty in the matter. He goes to great length to explain the decision-making process and the situations that would be beneficial for Cross to make his debut. Of all Pitt’s coaches outside Dave Wannstedt, Cavanaugh continually draws the most criticism, yet rarely if ever steers clear of meeting with the media and answering for it.

As far as I’m concerned, Pitt could run the Wildcat with LeSean McCoy, LaRod Stephens-Howling and Dorin Dickerson – who regularly took direct snaps at West Allegheny – and introduce the package before bringing Cross in. The Panthers also could send Cross in for a play as a receiver, just to allow him to get the jitters out before he has to handle a snap. Or to take a handoff and run a reverse, throw a receiver-option pass. Or act as a decoy. Ultimately, he’s too talented to leave on the sidelines, unless Pitt is considering giving Cross a redshirt, which I’ve been told it is not.

The one thing I wouldn’t do is play Cross just to appease the fans.

Which is where me and Wannstedt seem to agree.

“That’s something that we’ve always talked about and just haven’t got to it,” Wannstedt said. “Right now, we’re zeroing in on the basic things that we have to do and not really looking for any gimmicks or anything unusual, just trying to block and tackle better.”

* Which brings us to Fields.

Wannstedt wouldn’t go so far as defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, who let slip today that Fields “will start (at strong safety) next week, as of right now” but they agreed that both Fields and Dom DeCicco will play.

“I think we’ve got three or four positions where we have multiple starters. I feel like we’ve got three starters at safety,” Wannstedt said, referring to DeCicco, Fields and Eric Thatcher. “Those guys have been alternating in practice, no different than they’ve been doing all along.”

Which is good news for everyone clamoring to see Fields, based on his highly touted high school career and a dazzling interception return for a touchdown in the 2007 Blue-Gold Game. At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, with sub-4.5-second speed in the 40-yard dash and off-the-charts athleticism, Fields has been projected as the second coming of Sean Taylor.

“Elijah Fields is a player,” said Scott McKillop, Pitt’s fifth-year senior All-America middle linebacker. “He’s probably one of the most athletic persons on this team. He makes plays. He’s a freak. Having him out there yesterday with the ones, it’s a good week to have a bye week. He’s getting a groove with the first team and getting back into things with us.”

Yet Fields has been something of an enigma. He couldn’t learn the plays as a freshman, was suspended for violation of team policy as a sophomore and took a redshirt, then couldn’t beat out DeCicco in training camp. He was on the field for more plays (38) than DeCicco (32), yet didn’t make a tackle. (In fact, I’ve yet to see Fields make a tackle in a game at Pitt).

That, Bennett explained, was by design.

Pitt didn’t play Fields in the opener because it was facing a Bowling Green team that ran multiple sets, had a solid passing game and the Panthers needed assurance that the safeties could handle the coverage schemes to help converted receiver Austin Ransom at weak-side linebacker.

“My concern going into that game at that position was having two very inexperienced guys. We opened with teams that had senior quarterbacks that could throw, and it was a major concern,” Bennett said. “The other concern we had in that game was the outside linebackers. It was one of them first game and the other’s second game. I would say, to this point, we’ve been rather conservative in what we’ve tried to do.”

Buffalo had a veteran tailback in junior James Starks, and Pitt put the run-stop responsibility on fifth-year senior Thatcher to allow Fields to roam deep. Except on the play where Brett Hamlin scored on a 39-yard pass, where the Panthers were in a Cover-3 and Fields was up and Thatcher deep in coverage.

Can’t say I blame Wannstedt for failing to ordain Fields the starter, even if it appears he might start against Iowa next Saturday at Heinz Field. DeCicco and Fields will likely continue to split playing time, and Wannstedt said he will recognize them as co-starters – even if DeCicco took almost every first-team rep during training camp and through the first game.

At least, until Fields lives up to his considerable hype – if he can.

“He’s been around for awhile, and he’s finally getting the feel for what he has to do for a safety as far as run and pass,” McKillop said. “You can definitely tell he has a little more of a swagger.”

Count me among those looking forward to seeing it on the field.

* As for Baldwin?

Cavanaugh also promised that Baldwin “will, eventually” become a bigger part of the offensive game plan. He certainly was in for more plays against Buffalo than he was for Bowling Green and, even if he still doesn’t have a reception the Panthers have passed his way a handful of times.

Hate to say I told you so, but I did warn that Baldwin wouldn’t be ready for superstardom right out of the gates. He had a steep learning curve as far as understanding both the position and the playbook, but his immeasurable talent will ultimately force Pitt to use him on a consistent basis.

Cavanaugh is using the bye week to get Baldwin more involved.

“If you noticed in the second game, we rotated our receivers more, specifically to keep them fresher. Jon is going to be a part of that,” Cavanaugh said. “He didn’t get as many plays … when he was due to come in early in the first half, it ended up being a two-minute situation so we opted not to put him in there.

“We will rotate him in more. With each week, he’s learning the offense. He’s certainly becoming more capable of running more things that just a ‘go’ route or putting him in in the red zone and throwing him a jump ball. He’s getting more comfortable and we’re more comfortable with him.

But with experienced receivers such as Derek Kinder, Oderick Turner, Cedric McGee and, yes, T.J. Porter ahead of Baldwin on the depth chart, it’s not going to be easy, especially if games are close as the first two.

“We also got T.J. Porter back last week; we wanted him on the field and he responded,” Cavanaugh said, “so (Baldwin) won’t be the focus, but he’s certainly put himself in the position to get on the field more and get in the rotation and, hopefully, have some opportunities.

“We need to get him some balls.”

* Shane Murray looks closer each day to returning to playing for the Iowa game. The redshirt junior weak-side linebacker, who started all 12 games last season but has missed the first two with a knee injury, has practiced the past three days and is showing no signs of swelling.

“He practiced yesterday, came in today and did not feel like he regressed or took a step backwards, so that’s all positive,” Wannstedt said.

Murray still has to prove over the next week that his knee can handle the constant pounding and that he’s physically ready to play in a game.

“I think we all agree that (Shane) is about 70 percent, and he’s got to make up some before he’s going to see the field,” Bennett said. “I will tell you, I don’t have many gray hairs being 53, but the last few weeks I’ve gotten more. We need to get Shane Murray back. It gives us the flexibility that, in the first two games, we just haven’t had.

“Austin has, what I think for a guy who maybe three weeks ago was a wide receiver, done an admirable job, better than admirable. He got better.”

* Pitt has a walk-through Friday morning, followed by conditioning and then the players will have time off until Sunday. Seven Pitt assistant coaches – everyone except coordinators Cavanaugh and Bennett – will head out on the recruiting trail this weekend to see prospects in surrounding states.

One of the games Pitt coaches will attend is tonight’s Aliquippa-Beaver Falls game, which features a Panthers recruit in Quips’ offensive lineman Juantez Hollins and a top target in Beaver Falls receiver-safety Todd Thomas. The Panthers had coaches visit both schools earlier in the day.

The Beaver Falls-Aliquippa game will be televised live at 7 p.m. on FSN Pittsburgh, and I’ll be in studio for the halftime and post-game shows (filling in for former Pitt fullback Chris Schneider). Hopefully, I can add some more insight on Pitt football and a few recruiting tidbits, as well.

See you then.

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