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Inside the Ropes with Pitt football (Spring practice No. 5)

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Pitt quarterbacks were off-limits for interviews until Tuesday, allowing Bill Stull, Pat Bostick and Tino Sunseri four practices into spring drills before answering any questions about their so-called position battle.

So-called because Stull has taken almost all of the first-team reps.

And Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt called it “Billy’s job to lose.”

That said, the QBs were in a great mood after an impressive showing in practice. Most notably, they combined to go 9 for 10 during a red-zone drill, including seven consecutive touchdown passes. Sunseri was 4 for 4, all touchdowns, including two to Mike Shanahan running the same play.

“When you’re in the red zone — we were one of the better red-zone scoring teams in the country last year — you need to do what you have to do to try to score touchdowns,” Wannstedt said. “Today, that’s what we did. For the first time, with the installation with some new wrinkles, I thought the kids handled it well. We were very organized. Offensively, I was very pleased for the first day.”

True, Pitt was tied for eighth in the NCAA in red-zone efficiency last season, at 91 percent (41 of 45). Of the Panthers’ 27 touchdowns inside the 20, only three were by way of pass: a 4-yarder from Stull to Derek Kinder in the second quarter against Bowling Green; a 2-yarder from Stull to Dorin Dickerson in the second quarter at Syracuse; and a 10-yarder from Bostick to Jonathan Baldwin in the fourth quarter at Notre Dame.

The impetus is on Pitt to make drastic improvements to its passing game in the red zone, especially with LeSean McCoy declaring early for the NFL Draft and LaRod Stephens-Howling graduating. McCoy scored 16 of the red-zone rushing TDs, and Stephens-Howling had five. (Stull, Greg Cross and Aundre Wright had the others).

“I would look at it and say, if we can increase our passing game in the red zone and become more efficient, combined with our running game, now you’re more balanced,” Wannstedt said. “That’s the answer.”

· Back to the so-called quarterback battle.

“Billy Stull, Pat Bostick and Tino Sunseri have done a great job preparing to perform,” Cignetti said. “They’ve done a great job in the classroom. In my estimation, they’re coming out and running the offense. They’re completing a lot of balls. They’re making good decisions. I’m very pleased with where we are and excited about where we’re going to go.

“It is the healthiest competition I’ve ever been around, and that’s a tribute to the character of these three young men. We’re having a lot of fun in the classroom, a lot of fun in the field and I think we’re having a lot of fun, too, because they’re having success. I think all three kids are feeling good about themselves.

Even so, a third of the way through spring drills, Stull has taken the lion’s share of reps with the first-team offense. Cignetti said Stull is the clear-cut leader in the competition at this point, but Wannstedt expects to learn more when the quarterbacks go live in Saturday’s scrimmage.

“Billy’s obviously the starter and has earned the right to be with the ‘ones,’” Cignetti said. “Tino and Pat are playing excellent, and Tino has earned the right to be with some ‘twos.’”

· Some thoughts on the trio:

— After playing the worst game of his life in the Sun Bowl, where he completed 7 of 24 pass attempts for 52 yards with an interception, Stull is showing that he is regaining his confidence. He’s not only trying to put that game behind him, but erase it from his memory bank.

“I don’t know what that is,” Stull said when asked about the bowl.

Stull still isn’t showing great arm strength on deep passes, and that might have something to do with his mechanics. He is completing more passes, however, in part because he’s recognizing defenses and stepping up in the pocket to escape pressure and getting rid of the ball quicker.

“I’m more decisive than I have been in the past at getting the ball out of my hands,” Stull said. “That came with experience, realizing that if I don’t I might get my head taken off.”

Wannstedt might not pick a starting quarterback until the week before the opener, just like the past two seasons, but with his preference for experienced players and Stull’s 9-4 record in 13 career starts, it will be hard for either Bostick or Sunseri to unseat the incumbent.

Especially with the Panthers contenders for the Big East title.

— Bostick is the most cerebral of the group, and the improvement since his freshman year is evident. His release is better and there appears to be more velocity on his passes than in the past, when they floated. Yet, even after losing weight in the off-season, he’s still a step slower than Stull and Sunseri and has trouble escaping the pocket.

What separates Bostick is his attitude. Even though his time at Pitt has had its ups and downs, he’s quick with a smile and has a fresh perspective.

“It’s really about us. It’s not one person,” Bostick said. “It’s really in terms of ‘we.’ Are we getting better? Bottom line is, you learn from what other people do right and you learn from what other people do wrong so when the guy is in front of you, you want to keep an eye on that guy so you can see what he’s doing right and what he’s doing wrong and if you can do better.”

That would appear to make him an ideal backup, a role in which he did well last season. But, after playing quarterback at West Virginia and at Notre Dame – the two Pitt’s biggest wins of the Wannstedt era – it’s unfair to sell Bostick short in this race.

— I’ve called Sunseri the dark horse candidate in this before, and that’s mostly because he spent training camp taking mostly reps with the fourth-team offense and the season running the scout-team offense. He has the strongest arm of the group, appears to be a gamer and a quick learner.

“The thing I have to work on the most is my footwork,” Sunseri said. “Getting the system down was real easy with coach Cignetti because he’s such a good teacher. He gets us up on the board and we walk through everything. The mental aspect is really coming along fast and the experience, too, because the reps are so even. I just think that the more I work on my feet, the arm will catch up to it.”

Sunseri has a lot of work to do and a lot of ground to make up, but it’s obvious he has a bright future at Pitt. It’s just a matter of how soon he makes an impact with the Panthers.

· Practice highlights:

— The running backs rotated with the first, second and third teams throughout. After a standout practice Sunday, freshman Dion Lewis took first-team reps during 11-on-11 drills. On his first carry, he was stuffed at the line of scrimmage by nose tackle Myles Caragein.

— Once high school rivals at Central and Norwin, Sunseri and Mike Shanahan are becoming quite the pair at Pitt. Sunseri found Shanahan for touchdowns twice in seven-on-sevens, both times in the upper left-hand corner of the end zone.

Later, Sunseri threw a high pass over the middle that Shanahan hauled in over cornerback Jarred Holley, who later exacted revenge.

— Stull dumped a screen pass to tailback Shariff Harris, who turned and headed downfield only to run right into safety Elijah Fields, who hit Harris low, wrapped him and dumped him backwards. Fields said he has been working on his tackling form, and this was a textbook example.

— Sunseri threw a pass behind receiver Aaron Smith, who spun in mid-air and caught the ball. Both Smith and Shanahan, as well as defensive tackle Craig Bokor, drew praise from Wannstedt for their performances.

— The red-zone drill saw each offense get four plays:

Stull worked with the first-team offense. On first-and-10 at the 22, he threw late and missed Cedric McGee on a pass near the goal line. On first-and-10 from the 18, he was whistled for a sack (QBs are off-limits to contact). On first-and-10 from the 16, Harris was dropped for a 3-yard loss by Caragein. On first-and-10 from the 14, Stull avoided a blitz by linebacker Greg Williams, stepped up in the pocket and threw a touchdown pass to McGee.

Sunseri took snaps with the second-team offense. At the 22, he was sacked by defensive end Tony Tucker. At the 18, he completed a short pass to fullback Kevin Collier. At the 16, Chris Burns ran for a 5-yard gain. At the 14, Sunseri threw a pass to Shanahan for another 5 yards.

Bostick took third-team snaps, which were limited to two plays. From the 22, the offense could have drawn an illegal procedure penalty and his pass intended for Shanahan at the goal line was disrupted by Holley, whose breakup had offensive players howling for a pass-interference penalty. Burns then ran for a few yards before being stopped by tackle Tommi Duhart.

As per a competition created by Cignetti, the quarterbacks vie for an additional four snaps every practice. For the second consecutive day, Stull won that honor. From the 22, he threw a quick pass to Lewis, who made linebacker Max Gruder miss. From the 18, Lewis ran and bounced off tackle Mick Williams but spun into Greg Williams for a 7-yard loss. From the 16, Stull was whistled down by sack. From the 14, fullback Henry Hynoski bulled his way for an impressive 9-yard gain.

— Joe Thomas did not practice, and was replaced at first-team right tackle by Greg Gaskins. Jordan Gibbs worked with the first team at left tackle, with Lucas Nix on the second team on the left side.

= After a season as the secondary coach at St. Vincent College, former Pitt quarterback Rod Rutherford has joined the Panthers’ staff as a graduate assistant on defense. The Trib’s Paul Schofield tells me that replacing Rutherford at St. Vincent is another former Panther: Eric Thatcher.

· Pitt’s next practice is at 2:45 p.m. Thursday.

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