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Panthers open spring drills

Dave Wannstedt likened football practice in pads to “watching paint dry,” so the Pitt football coach had little use for the Panthers’ opening day of spring drills even if it was slightly more exciting but less revealing.

“The enthusiasm is good,” Wannstedt said. “You know how I am about practicing without pads on. It’s good from an enthusiasm standpoint, but there’s always some players that you might walk off the field and be a little uncertain of.”

Jonathan Baldwin isn’t one of them. The 6-foot-5 sophomore receiver had the play of the day when he jumped over cornerback Aaron Berry to haul in a wounded duck from quarterback Bill Stull. (Berry later exacted revenge by breaking up a pass intended for Baldwin, causing an interception by linebacker Adam Gunn). Baldwin also beat corner Ricky Gary to catch a wobbly deep pass from Stull for a score.

“We made plays in the passing game today — with all of the quarterbacks,” Wannstedt said. “Jonathan Baldwin looked like he never missed a beat. He had a great start today.”

As ballyhooed as Baldwin was last season, the former U.S. All-American from Aliquippa ranked only seventh on the team with 18 receptions. What stood out was his 22.4 yards-per-catch average and three touchdowns, including a long of 60 yards against Navy and a 52-yarder at South Florida.

Yet, just as Baldwin’s role increased, he seemed to plateau. After catching 14 passes for 355 yards in a five-game stretch between the USF and Louisville games but had only three for 44 yards in the final four. He had trouble fighting through press coverage, ran imprecise or wrong routes and, when he was getting open he wasn’t coming down with the ball.

That wasn’t an issue today, even against the first-team defense. Baldwin was dominant in catching nearly everything thrown his way, along the sidelines or over the middle, and served notice that the battle for the starting job vacated by Derek Kinder will be opposite him.

“I’ve been working with the quarterbacks to get the timing right,” Baldwin said. “We’ve got big expectations for the season. We’ve got a new offensive coordinator, adding a spark to the offense, and it feels real good.

“I’m ready to be a starter.”

Just in time, because the Panthers are ready for him to be a star.

• All of the quarterbacks had their moments, but both Wannstedt and new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. were careful to mention all of them by name and make it clear that the position is far from settled.

Stull took the majority of snaps, and was sharp in completing his first three attempts during seven-on-seven drills — two to Baldwin and one to Cedric McGee — before throwing at the feet of Greg Cross.

Bostick, who has trimmed down even more since last season, threw a dart over the middle to Aaron Smith with such velocity that it required a double-take. He had a couple of passes broken up by cornerback Antwuan Reed and safety Andrew Taglianetti — who both made nice plays — but later fluttered a scoring pass to Smith on a post pattern between the duo.

Sunseri fumbled the snap, then rolled the wrong way on his first play and later had a pass intercepted by Danny Cafaro. But Sunseri threw the nicest pass of the day — a frozen rope on an out pattern to the right sideline — for a completion that showed why he is the dark horse in the race.

= It was the first time the newly hired Cignetti was able to translate his classroom teachings to the playing field, and he took time to remind his quarterbacks to concentrate on their footwork and follow-through on deep passes. Each passer appeared to be releasing the ball higher than he desired, which was causing the deep throws to float.

“It starts in the classroom, learning offensive identification and defensive identification and the pass-game reads,” Cignetti said. “If we’re going to ask the quarterback to run the offense, we’ve got to train them in the classroom. Out here on the field, finally we get to teach the fundamentals of the position. To me, it starts with the feet. We started with some upper-body mechanics, but it was about training the feet to be in timing and rhythm with the passing game.”

Cignetti is animated on the practice field, quite the opposite from predecessor Matt Cavanaugh, who typically called the quarterbacks to his side and discussed things privately with them. What is important to Wannstedt is that they share a similar philosophy, and that Cignetti’s transition has been relatively seamless so far since his arrival.

“Frank is going to be excellent,” Wannstedt said. “The communication with the other coaches is good. His energy level, I love that, and he’s experienced. The biggest concern here is, do you come out the first day and take a step backward? That was not the case. He was able to come in, add some things and move forward.”

• Greg Cross took no snaps with the quarterbacks, working out instead strictly with the receivers. He drew cheers from teammates after his first catch, a diving grab on a comeback route along the right sideline. Cross caught the ball with his body but held onto it and held it high afterward.

“After watching Greg Cross at receiver for the first day, he did not look out of place,” Wannstedt said. “He’s really not sure what he’s doing yet. I think he’s got a chance. I was encouraged by him.”

• Wannstedt also singled out redshirt freshman tight end Mike Cruz, who showed nice ability to get open in the passing game at 6-foot-5, 270 pounds. Cruz should get plenty of reps this spring, with seniors Nate Byham and John Pelusi sitting out after off-season surgery.

Wannstedt also noticed the play of freshman tailback Dion Lewis, a mid-year enrollee from Blairstown (N.J.) Blair Academy who showed the ability to bounce outside and make defenders miss. Lewis is taking reps with the third-team offense behind walk-on fullback Joe Capp.

“Dion Lewis, I’m glad he’s here early,” Wannstedt said. “This spring will really benefit him. He’s going to have a chance to help us as a freshman.”

• Joining Byham and Pelusi in sitting out practice were starting left tackle Jason Pinkston (shoulder), defensive tackle Gus Mustakas (knee), end Greg Romeus (back) and linebacker Shane Murray (knee), as well as reserve receiver Aundre Wright, who watched while pedaling a stationary bike.

= The first-team offense saw Jordan Gibbs line up at left tackle, Chris Jacobson at left guard, Robb Houser at center, John Malecki at right guard and Joe Thomas at right tackle, with Stull at quarterback, Henry Hynoski at fullback, Shariff Harris at tailback, Dorin Dickerson at tight end and Baldwin and McGee at receiver.

The first-team defense had Jabaal Sheard and Tony Tucker at end, with Mick Williams and Myles Caragein at tackle, Gunn at middle linebacker flanked by Greg Williams on the strong side and Max Gruder at weak, Dom DeCicco and Elijah Fields at safety, Berry at the field corner and Jovani Chappel and Gary splitting reps at the boundary corner.

The second-team offense looked like this: LT Lucas Nix, LG John Fieger, C Alex Karabin, RG Jared Martin, RT Greg Gaskins, TE Cruz, QB Bostick, FB Kevin Collier, TB Chris Burns and WR Aaron Smith and Mike Shanahan, with the second-team defense of DE Justin Hargrove and Shayne Hale, DT Tommie Duhart and Chas Alexcih, LB Steve Dell, Nate Nix and Tristan Roberts, S Andrew Taglianetti and Ronald Hobby and CBs Buddy Jackson, Antwuan Reed and Jarred Holley.

• Three Panthers changed numbers: Sunseri has switched from No. 16 to No. 12, which formerly belonged to Kevan Smith; Holley from No. 39 to 18 (punter Dave Brytus); and kicker Kevin Harper from No. 47 to 39.

• Pitt’s second spring practice is at 4:15 p.m. Friday.

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