Pitt coaches like to describe Elijah Fields as a hybrid defender who has linebacker size, safety speed and cornerback coverage skills.
After playing strong safety and outside linebacker in Pitt’s nickel and bandit packages, Fields be at cornerback when the No. 17 Panthers (5-1, 2-0) play host to Rutgers (2-5, 1-2) Saturday at Heinz Field.
“I think, athletically, he could play corner, I really do,” Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. “He’s very gifted, very talented. We use him in the nickel package, and half the time he’s on the slot back and covering a receiver no different than a corner would. He’d be capable of playing both, but he’s such a good tackler and with our lack of depth at safety that, right now, he’s a safety but yet he does some corner work.”
The 6-foot-2, 225-pound Fields did not play at all against Navy last week, but Pitt defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said that had as much to do with the play of starting strong safety Dom DeCicco as it did the assignment-oriented defense against the triple-option offense.
“I got afraid,” Bennett said, “to make a substitution.”
Wannstedt said he expects Fields to play a “major role” against Rutgers, and Pitt cornerback Aaron Berry believes Fields can play the position.
“You can throw him in there and he can lock up just as good as me, Ricky (Gary) or Jovani (Chappel),” Berry said of Fields, also known by his nickname, Scoot. “With him out there, we can leave Dom and Eric (Thatcher) over the top and have ‘Scoot’ man-up on their tight ends.”
* I’m going to try something new by linking this week’s Pitt football stories and giving some additional insight with notes and quotes that didn’t make the cut for the newspaper or on-line versions.
Let me know if you like it, and I’ll make it a weekly feature.
* For Tuesday, I wrote about the impact senior left guard C.J. Davis has had on Pitt’s running game by leading power runs with his pull-blocking.
“It impacts a lot. When we’re running some of our plays – off-tackle plays, power plays – a lot of our running backs key in which way to cut based on the blocks of the guards,” Wannstedt said. “The guard can make some things happen and they have a lot to do with the success.”
Tailback LeSean McCoy said Davis brings more to the table.
“I would say he’s the leader of our offensive line,” McCoy said. “(Center) Robb Houser makes all the calls, but C.J. knows everything just as much as Robb does. I would say C.J. is like the captain of our offensive line.”
When LeSean McCoy didn’t top the 100-yard mark in Pitt’s first three games, Davis took it personally.
“I felt like that was mostly on the o-line,” Davis said. “We were sloppy on our assignments. We’re executing a lot better.”
Davis credited Pitt’s ability to brush up on fundamentals during the bye weeks before the Iowa and Navy games, as well as the efforts of new offensive line coach Tony Wise to teach his young pupils. Aside from Davis, every lineman is either a new starter or playing at a new position. Left tackle Jason Pinkston played on the right side. Houser is a junior-college transfer. Right guard John Malecki played nose guard. Right tackle Joe Thomas played right guard. Only Davis hasn’t moved.
“I really don’t feel that there’s a different attitude,” Davis said. “We’re more comfortable with the coaches, with Coach Cav (offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh) and the way he does things. I feel like the cohesiveness of the line is the best it’s ever been this year. We all hang out together. As an offensive unit, we’re a lot closer than we’ve been in the past.”
Quarterback Bill Stull agreed.
“The guys up front have been playing unbelievable football,” Stull said. “I think they’ve been playing the best they’ve ever been. It’s just been awesome to see everyone coming together on the same page.”
Davis also takes pride in knowing that Pitt leads the nation in fewest penalties and penalty yards, that the offensive line hasn’t cost the Panthers on any scoring drives like it did so often last season.
“I think you’ve seen us grow up a bit,” Davis said. “In ’05, I was a freshman and Mike McGlynn was a redshirt sophomore. Now, there’s no one on the line that’s a freshman. Everyone has been (in college) for at least three years. We’ve taken it upon ourselves to be responsible for the penalties. Coach Wannstedt does a great job stressing it each week, comparing the turnovers and penalties to every other team in the nation.”
Davis credited strength and conditioning coach Buddy Morris and his staff for pushing the Panthers in the off-season with a program that not only has reshaped their physiques but tested their mental toughness.
“It’s people growing up, recognizing the opportunity that’s ahead,” Davis said. “Buddy Morris has done a great job making us mentally strong. We face challenges and we step up to the plate.”
Davis was sure to deflect much of the praise and point it toward his teammates, even the ones who aren’t in the starting lineup. Against Navy, Pitt replaced Pinkston (nose) with Chase Clowser for the second half and Thomas with freshman Lucas Nix in the fourth quarter.
“You’ve got to give big ups to Chase Clowser,” Davis said. “He’s a redshirt senior, and he stepped in there and did a great job when Jason Pinkston went down. Joe Thomas went out and we got the young guy, Lucas Nix. He’s doing a great job, learning his plays. We’re definitely not missing a beat when anybody steps out.
“That’s good for the future of the offensive line.”
The only bad thing is that Davis won’t be around to be part of it.
* Nothing creates a furor like a quarterback controversy, and Pitt’s decision to play backup Pat Bostick late in the fourth quarter – for three handoffs and to take a knee – had Panthers fans in an uproar.
This was Wannstedt’s explanation: “I’m concerned, and Pat’s concerned – and I’m speaking for Pat – about winning as many games as we can this year. To say, ‘OK, you’re the second-team quarterback or you’re the second-team linebacker and you get all the second-team work at linebacker but somebody gets hurt, you’re not going into the game. We’re going to play somebody else.’ I don’t know if that’s fair to the team and I don’t think that’s fair to the kid.’
“These redshirt things work out in different ways. Thank God Derek Kinder had his redshirt year, or his career would have been over in August out there with a major knee surgery and he would have had no more opportunities. Thank God Gus Mustakas had a redshirt year, or he’d be a senior right now working his way back and finally getting in a groove with that knee. The same with Billy Stull; Billy would be a senior right now.
“I think you’ve got to look at it in two ways: One, what’s best for the team, and Pat’s a team player. And No. 2, what’s going to happen and what’s best for the kid.”
Bostick handled the move like a pro – not a true sophomore – and stressed the importance of getting into a game for the first time since the 13-9 victory at West Virginia in the 100th Backyard Brawl last Dec. 1.
“Practice is one thing, but being on the field and whatever the circumstances are – especially in an away game in a position where you haven’t played a little bit – you don’t have coaches in your ear,” Bostick said. “You’re kind of the field general. That aspect is gone because you don’t have the coaches running the show.”
“When you’re on the field, especially playing quarterback – I can’t emphasize that enough – in a game situation, it’s totally different because there’s 11 guys on the field and you’re the ringleader. That’s kind of how it has to be portrayed. That’s why it’s important to get game experience and game reps. That kind of hiatus of not being out there since last year, it’s a different mindset.”
As much as people view the move as one that not only cost Bostick a season of eligibility but also as a sign that he’s no longer considered Pitt’s quarterback of the future, this isn’t the first time Wannstedt has done this with a quarterback. He did the same thing with Stull.
“Everyone wants to play, everyone wants to be a part of the team some way, some how,” Stull said. “When I was the backup to Tyler (Palko), I wanted to play, no matter what. Even if it was getting a couple snaps at the end of the game, taking a knee to end the game in our victory (formation).”
For what it’s worth, Bostick seemed genuinely more excited to know that he’s the backup to Stull than he was disappointed to lose a redshirt.
“It’s hard to think about that when you’re going into a game and you’re one play away,” Bostick said. “You go out on the field and you’re preparing as if you’re going to play in the game. As the game is going on, play by play, there’s always that possibility. You’re ready to play. You’re not worried about redshirting. That takes the focus off on what you want you want to be focused on – my focus is on helping this team win football games and win a championship.”
* Wannstedt likes to use his personal and Pitt connections to bring in special guest speakers to talk to the Panthers every week about their football and life experiences.
“I meet with the team every Thursday night at 9 o’clock, and I’ll bring in former players to talk to them,” Wannstedt said. “Not pep talks, but guys who played here and got their degrees, whether they went on to play professional football or went on to the business world, each story is a little bit different but you like to bring those ex-players back and have our current players make a connection.”
Pitt had a special visitor Wednesday afternoon when Mike Ditka visited Da Panthers.
“That was awful nice of him,” Wannstedt said. “We all know when you have a schedule like Mike’s, how valuable time is. For him to take time to come by and say something to the team, it reinforces how he feels about this university, how he feels about Pitt football.”
Actually, Ditka was in Pittsburgh for the grand opening of his Ditka’s Restaurant in Robinson, at the former site of Atria’s. It’s his third restaurant.
“I’ve come full-circle in my life,” Ditka said. “We opened a restaurant a year ago about two miles from where I lived when I started with the Bears. Pat McDonald is my partner. He owns Atria’s, and we converted an Atria’s to Ditka’s. We’re very excited about the opportunity we have.”
Ditka said he follows Pitt football “pretty closely, as much as I can,” and takes advantage of spending Saturdays at ESPN studios, where almost every college football game is on. Ditka isn’t very familiar with any Panthers players in particular, he seemed annoyed with the new-school mentality.
“You’ve got a generation of people that see what the pros are doing, so everything is calling attention to themselves, that I want everybody to see my whether it’s by my hair, my demonstration after I make a tackle or a touchdown,” Ditka said. “It’s kind of silly because you are playing the most comprehensive team sport of all of them, football.”
Ditka, an Aliquippa native, reminded Pitt players that the game still comes down to the basic fundamentals. In that regard, it’s probably not much different than what Wannstedt preaches. But to hear it from a familiar name and face – a college and pro Hall of Famer who is now an NFL television analyst – might have made more of an impact.
“I just told them a little bit about where I grew up and what it means to me,” Ditka said. “I just enjoyed playing. The game was the most important. I wasn’t good; I just played hard. If you play hard enough, you play harder than the other guy, you can win a lot of games. If you hit him harder than he hits you, you’re going to win a lot of the times.
“I don’t care what anybody tells you. You can be fancy as you want to, you can disguise it, but there’s no disguise for blocking and tackling and execution. If you can do those things, you can be good. You see all these new offenses they’re running, yeah, they’ll all work for a while. But somebody still has to do the dirty work up front and make the plays.”
Ditka had plenty to say about the NFL, but didn’t take the bait about college football. Not even when asked if he thought Pitt and Penn State should resume their rivalry.
“That was always a big thing,” Ditka said. “Pitt was an independent and Penn State was an independent when I played. Penn State’s in the Big Ten now. Ironically, the guy who’s coaching them recruited me to go to Penn State when I was in high school. It’s kind of ironic. He’s such a great man and has done such good things, not only for young people but for that university and that program and college football.
“That would be nice to see it happen (again). I’m sure a lot of Pitt guys would like that to happen, too, because it’s a lot of their buddies on the other side. That’s what it was when we played them. A lot of guys I knew well went to Penn State and a lot of us went to Pitt, so it was good competition.”
Ditka also denied picking Pitt over Penn State because (old joke) Joe Paterno wanted him to play linebacker instead of tight end.
“Actually, I was going to be a brain surgeon – I was that smart – but I decided to stick with football,” Ditka said. “I would have been a linebacker with anybody who would have drafted me except the Bears. I only caught, what, 12 passes my senior year. I didn’t set the world on fire. But (George) Halas had a better plan, and thank God he had it.”
* Wannstedt touched on some issues related to the game plan.
Even though Pitt coaches are adamant that losing Ray Rice hasn’t kept Rutgers from running the ball, the Scarlet Knights are averaging almost 100 more passing yards (207.0) than rushing yards (107.9) per game.
“If we let them, they’ll hand it off to (Kordell) Young 40 times a game,” Wannstedt said. “It still comes down to stopping the run. I know Greg Schiano’s mentality is he’s going to try to play defense, try to eliminate turnovers and run the football. That’s how he’s been successful.
“I’m sure they’re going to come out and try to establish the run against us Saturday. We have to make sure that, regardless of how they’re running the ball … that stopping the run is still a priority.”
The key, however, is going to be how the Panthers handle the challenge presented by Rutgers receivers Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood.
After spending the past two weeks preparing for Navy’s triple option, Pitt is just happy to be facing a conventional attack again.
“We’re back to a normal offense, an Iowa, a Buffalo, a Syracuse, South Florida. We’re back to that type of offense,” Wannstedt said. “No triple-option this week. As different as it was getting ready for the triple-option for Navy, when you work on that for a week-and-a-half, almost two weeks because we had so much time, the first time we practiced conventional offense and defense, it was a little bit strange for the guys to get back into the routine.”
* Pitt’s streak of scoring in the red zone ended at 19 trips, when Stull threw an interception against Navy. Wannstedt, however, didn’t blame Stull for throwing the pass, which was returned 91 yards to the Pitt 8.
“That was the first mistake he made down there,” Wannstedt said of Stull. “He’s been good. When you look at that play, it wasn’t a bad decision in the red zone. It was a bad throw. Initially, when it happened last Saturday, I thought it was a bad decision and throw. Really, it wasn’t. He had a guy open. The physical part was bad. It wasn’t the mental.”
It dropped Pitt to sixth nationally in red-zone scoring at 95.5 percent (21 of 22). Wannstedt was asked the secret of Pitt’s success inside the 20.
“You’d like to think how you practice is going to be a reflection, or at least give you a chance to play that way,” Wannstedt said. “We work twice a week on our red-zone offense and defense. One day we go against ourselves, Pitt against Pitt, ones against ones, and the other day we go against the opponent’s plays. I’d like to think we’re putting in the time to work on it.
“Usually, when you get down in the red zone, you have a tendency to want to force things. That’s the worst mistake you can make, on either side of the ball. You want to get down there and throw that touchdown pass in the end zone, and you end up forcing a ball that gets picked. Or you get down there and want to knock them out of the red zone on defense and you blitz too much and give up the touchdown. A little bit has to do with philosophy and a lot has to do with practicing.”
* Finally, Wannstedt addressed the high chance of rain and whether the Panthers can be “mudders,” winning a game on a muddy field.
“We’ll find out,” Wannstedt said. “We’ve prepared all week with our kickers, our punters, our snappers, our quarterbacks, using wet balls in practice and trying to prepare ourselves for the possibility of rain.
“If you’re going to play in sloppy weather, I do like a football team that’s got some confidence in running the ball compared to not, so we’ll see what happens.”