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Pitt football (Spring Practice No. 2)

Pitt football coach Dave Wannstedt huddled his players together on the practice field of the indoor football facility and voiced his displeasure with their play tonight after the second session of spring drills.

Wannstedt made it clear last season his disapproval of turnovers, so he was nearly beside himself after watching a series of botched snaps, fumbles, dropped passes and otherwise sloppy play by the Panthers.

“It’s early and we’ve got a few new things going on. There’s going to be a little bit of a learning curve, so there was going to be some missed assignments. I expect that and I can deal with that this early in the spring,” he said. “But I cannot and will never tolerate a guy putting the ball on the ground. I will not tolerate it if the ball hits a guy’s hands – even if he’s running the wrong route, he needs to catch it. We had some opportunities to make some plays that we made yesterday, and we didn’t.

“It’s important that these kids know that we only have 15 days and we don’t get today back again. We’ve got to make sure that we keep a sense of urgency every day to get the most we can out of practice.”

The Panthers will wear full pads for the first time this spring Saturday morning, and Wannstedt’s talk was as much about setting the tone for the first day of full-contact drills as anything else. He wants to see physical play, ball protection and fundamental tackling tomorrow, and hopes that players start to separate themselves from one another with individual plays.

One new twist to the second session was that the defensive linemen applied pressure to the passers. They didn’t hit the quarterbacks, just simply made their presence known and rushed decisions and throws. Wannstedt’s rationale for doing this is interesting:

“I believe that if I’m an offensive lineman and I know that the guy that I’m blocking can’t get to the quarterback, it changes the mindset compared to having that sense of urgency in knowing that if I don’t block my guy, the quarterback is going to get hit in the mouth,” Wannstedt said.

“On the other side of the coin, our defensive linemen, I don’t know how you go a whole spring, a whole two-a-days and the first time you really get that extra spurt to get to the quarterback it’s for real. I don’t like that. When we go live on the quarterbacks, it’s not for the quarterbacks. It’s really for the offensive and defensive linemen.”

= My feature story for Saturday’s paper is on Greg Cross, the former junior-college transfer who came to Pitt as a dual-threat quarterback but is switching to receiver this spring.

Cross is, in his own words, taking “baby steps” in learning his new position but already has a newfound respect for the receivers after two days of running drills with them.

“The thing that kind of got me was how much these guys run non-stop,” Cross said. “As a quarterback, you’re making your reads and getting the ball there, not understanding that this guy just ran a ‘go’ route and has to run another deep one. Running these routes can be difficult at times, but you’ve got to get that mentality to just go hard every play.”

That Cross didn’t leave Pitt after getting only four carries last season after his first went for a 17-yard touchdown speaks to his character. He was dangerous as a runner but unpolished as a passer and, as a result, the Panthers coaches were too hesitant to put him in the game under center.

Cross has his reasons – valid ones – for wanting to stay.

“There was a lot of talk if I was going to leave, and I had a talk with (Wannstedt) and told him I love Pittsburgh,” Cross said. “I love the fans, I love the school. I look at it from the standpoint of being a student first. Graduating from Pitt means a lot to me and to my family.”

• A few quick highlights from an otherwise relatively uneventful practice in which I spent more time having an enlightening conversation with assistant coach of physical preparation James Smith about football training methods than actually taking notes on the drills:

• Redshirt freshman receiver Mike Shanahan shook cornerback Jovani Chappel out of his shoe with a move after a catch.

• Sophomore receiver Aundre Wright caught a pass and bounced between three defenders, making each one miss before they finally surrounded him.

• Fifth-year senior receiver Oderick Turner making a nice catch in stride – and in traffic – over the middle in team drills.

• Freshman tailback Dion Lewis drawing howls from his teammates after bouncing through half the defense on one run up the middle.

• Fifth-year senior quarterback Bill Stull throwing a deep pass from his own 15 to Jonathan Baldwin on a post pattern that dropped over Baldwin’s left shoulder around the opposite 35 over corner Ricky Gary for a TD.

• Stull sprinting untouched through the middle of the defense on a draw, then outracing weak-side linebacker Max Gruder in the open field.

• Converted fullback Kevin Collier taking a screen pass and weaving through the defense, following the downfield blocking of receiver Aaron Smith before finally being chased down 40 yards later by corners Gary and Antwuan Reed.

• Pitt practices at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, possibly at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex outdoor practice fields, weather permitting.

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