In a flash, the tailback competition took an interesting twist.
As quickly as he darted through several defenders before bouncing outside toward the left side for a 70-yard touchdown run, Dion Lewis announced his arrival as a contender to replace LeSean McCoy.
A mid-semester enrollee, Lewis is a 5-foot-7, 190-pound freshman from Albany, N.Y., via Blairstown (N.J.) Blair Academy. In only his fourth practice with the Panthers, he showed some dazzling moves.
Pitt running backs coach David Walker faces the unenviable task of replacing All-Big East selection McCoy and backfield mates Conredge Collins and LaRod Stephens-Howling. They combined for all but 138 of the Panthers’ 1,808 team rushing yards last season.
Not that Walker is using it as an excuse.
“The standard has not been dropped since guys left the program,” Walker said. “There’s a very high standard, and we’re going to get to that point and we’re going to be effective in our offense.”
While Lewis’ scoring run came against the third-team defense – albeit, behind the third-team offensive line – almost as impressive was his 15-yard run against the first-teamers. He took the handoff, broke left and shook Ricky Gary so quickly that the cornerback crumbled, before safety Elijah Fields and outside linebacker Max Gruder made the tackle.
“I’m getting used to the offense,” Lewis said. “I’m still learning. I’m having a lot of stuff thrown at me at once. The game is getting a little slower every day. The tempo the first day was real, real fast. It slowed down (Sunday). It’s a big opportunity with an open spot, so you have to come out here and fight every day. I’m just having fun and working hard.”
Until Sunday, Lewis had taken the majority of third-team reps behind redshirt sophomore Shariff Harris and redshirt freshman Chris Burns. Lewis received some snaps with the first team, and likely earned more.
“We don’t have any starters right now in the backfield,” Walker said. “There’s not a starting tailback, there’s not a starting fullback and they’re all competing. We’re trying like heck to find one. Or two or three.”
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt warned that if one back doesn’t emerge from the group that he’s willing to use a tailback-by-committee. But Wannstedt prefers to have a workhorse, and Lewis only helped his cause today.
• Although Wannstedt complimented “all three quarterbacks” for throwing the ball well, Pat Bostick struggled despite getting some first-team reps. He drew the ire of new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti after fumbling a snap, and his crack at the two-minute drill stalled at the 26.
Bostick completed passes of 7 and 14 yards to Mike Shanahan before his sideline throw to walk-on Caleb Wilson was ruled incomplete because Wilson couldn’t stay in bounds. After a short pass to Burns, Bostick’s third-down attempt was deflected and his fourth-down pass fell incomplete.
• Stull overcame a pair of poor throws early – overthrowing tight end Dorin Dickerson over the middle and having a sidearm pass intended for Dickerson picked off by Fields – but handled the pocket pressure much better than Bostick and fared well in live drills.
Stull threw a touchdown pass to Aaron Smith and twice connected for scoring plays with Jonathan Baldwin, who was wide open in the left seam and ran untouched for a 60-yard on one and caught a 60-yard bomb on a post pattern for another.
Stull also led a scoring drive in the two-minute drill, completing a pair of 8-yarders to Harris and a 20-yarder to Baldwin. Then, with 10 seconds left, Stull threw a 17-yarder to Baldwin, who climbed the ladder and jumped over safety Dom DeCicco to reel in a touchdown pass.
• Still, Tino Sunseri is showing that he has the best arm of the trio. Sunseri threw a deep pass from the left hash to the right sideline that was intended for Shanahan, who jumped but could not down with the ball. Sometimes, the most impressive passes in practice aren’t completions.
• Lucas Nix and Greg Gaskins, who have been working primarily with the second-team offense, took some snaps with the first team as bookend tackles. Both jumped off-sides once, at the same time.
Nix, however, drew notice from Wannstedt, along with redshirt sophomore guard Chris Jacobson. Although they are playing different positions – Nix either left tackle or right guard, and Jacobson left guard – they are well aware that Pitt lost only one starter in C.J. Davis and they could be competing for the same starting job.
“Both of those guys have gotten better – and when you start seeing guys get better after two or three days, that’s real exciting,” Wannstedt said. “And for us to be good up front, those two guys have got to play. They’ve got to come through for us.
“I think that they realize that there’s one spot open. They both want to play. I think they both are starting to get the grasp that they have the ability to play. They’re starting to get that confidence, and that’s very encouraging.”
• Defensive end Tony Tucker missed his second consecutive practice, but Wannstedt said Tucker has an excused absence and is expected to return to campus Sunday. In his absence, redshirt sophomore Justin Hargrove has taken the majority of first-team reps at right end while also taking some third-team reps.
• Aundre Wright did not practice and Greg Cross left with a hip flexor, which had the Panthers short-handed at receiver. There has been no set starting lineup, just a rotation of receivers with the three groups. Wannstedt mentioned both Baldwin and Oderick Turner as receivers “off to a fast start” and called their play this spring “very encouraging.”
• Practice highlights included:
• Burns scoring on a 20-yard run during the inside-run drill.
• Dickerson catching a pass near the right sideline and lowering his shoulder with such force that he knocked middle linebacker Brandon Lindsey into a cartwheel.
• Fullback Henry Hynoski catching a swing pass in the right flat, turning upfield and running over Lindsey.
• Defensive tackle Mick Williams blowing up a play to drop Burns for a 5-yard loss during team drills.
• After four consecutive practices, the Panthers have off Monday and will practice at 2:45 p.m. Tuesday.
“This is our fourth practice in a row, so the guys are a little beat up and a little sore – but that’s good,” Wannstedt said. “That’s expected. This time of year, anything that you can put the players through that they have to deal with a little bit of adversity, soreness, being tired and come out and be productive and handle it the right way, that’s all a part of developing that team chemistry and that character inside each individual, too.”