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Inside the Ropes with Pitt football – Spring practice No. 6

Entering Pitt’s spring drills, the positions of primary focus for finding a replacement were tailback and middle linebacker, with LeSean McCoy leaving for the NFL Draft and Scott McKillop’s eligibility expiring.

Yet Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt knows that he has a talented trio of tailbacks in Shariff Harris, Chris Burns and Dion Lewis – not to mention a handful of incoming freshmen – and several veteran linebackers who can move inside in Adam Gunn, Shane Murray and Steve Dell.

Wannstedt isn’t as comfortable with the special-teams units, where the Panthers have to replace Mark Estermyer, Dave Brytus and Conor Lee.

“Our whole special-teams units, from snapper to punter to field-goal kicker, the mechanics of everything that goes into punting or kicking the ball concerns me as much as anywhere on the football team,” Wannstedt said. “Not because we have guys that can’t do it, but because we have guys that have not done it.”

It was easy to take for granted how consistently well Pitt’s specialists performed last season, considering Lee led Big East kickers in scoring at 7.5 points per game, field goals (1.54) and PATs (38 of 38) and Brytus averaged a respectable 40.7 yards per punt and Estermyer never had a poor snap. The Panthers even have to find replacements for Frank Kochin and Nate Byham, who served as the “wings” – or blockers outside the tackles.

That’s why Wannstedt is putting pressure on the candidates to replace them, trying to find out who can handle it before the Panthers open their season against Youngstown State Sept. 5. Every practice, the kickers attempt to convert field-goals with Aaron Berry, Andrew Taglianetti and Elijah Fields flying around the end or shooting through the gaps.

“We’re doing everything we can to create full-speed, pressure situations for them,” Wannstedt said. “We’re doing field goals live every day. We’re bringing pressure on the punt the best we can.”

The battles are between Dan Hutchins and Kevin Harper for placekicker, Hutchins and walk-ons Pat Costello and Aaron Hassett for punter and John Fieger and Mike Cruz for long snapper.

“We still have decisions to make,” Wannstedt said. “We don’t know who our punter is going to be right now. We don’t know who our field-goal kicker is going to be right now. I don’t know who our long snapper and short snapper is going to be right now. I guess it’s all a matter of how you’re looking at it, but last year at this time it was a real comfort zone with our snapper, punter and kicker. There’s going to be a changing of the guard. Someone else is going to step up and get the job done.”

At the moment, Hutchins, a redshirt junior walk-on from Williamsport, appears to be the leading candidate at both kicker and punter. Although it’s conceivable that he could handle both duties – especially considering his leg won’t be worn out by kicking off, with Lucas Briggs returning and battling Harper for that job – it wouldn’t necessarily be the ideal scenario.

“I’d like to see one guy separate,” Wannstedt said, “but it wouldn’t bother me. If we had to do it, we could.”

= I spent some time watching the offensive and defensive linemen do one-on-one drills during Thursday’s practice, and although there weren’t any epic battles it was interesting to see three who fared well.

Redshirt sophomore Justin Hargrove has been one of the pleasant surprises at defensive end, where he is splitting first-team reps with Tony Tucker. Jordan Gibbs held Hargrove off, but Greg Gaskins couldn’t contain him from sacking the tackling dummy.

Ty Tkach has moved inside to defensive tackle again, although he has taken reps at end every now and then. Where Tkach struggled inside last spring, he spun off guard Jared Martin and beat Chris Jacobson.

Craig Bokor is a fifth-year senior and, after a year at Valley Forge Military Academy, is entering his sixth post-high school season. As usual, he has performed well in the spring (only to see limited reps during the season), but was impressive in overpowering stout center Alex Karabin and driving him backwards into the tackling dummy.

= Quarterbacks are off-limits to contact during team drills, except when they leave the pocket. Somebody forgot to tell that to Tucker, who beat Gibbs and blindsided Stull for a sack-and-strip that forced a fumble.

Although Stull has risen to the challenge of competition in spring drills, Thursday wasn’t one of his better days. Two areas of concern last season were his protecting the ball on sacks – he fumbled several times that way – and throwing off his back foot when under pressure.

Despite being off-limits to contact, Stull twice threw off his back foot while under pressure during the final drill of practice. He was sacked by tackle Myles Caragein on first-and-10 at the 22, threw off his back foot for an incomplete pass intended for Jonathan Baldwin that was almost intercepted by Aaron Berry in the end zone on second-and-7 at the 18, rolled right and threw out of bounds – off his back foot again – on third-and-6 at the 16. On fourth-and-8 at the 14, however, Stull found Oderick Turner, who fought past Berry for a touchdown.

Practice highlights:

• On a swing pass to fullback Kevin Collier during team drills, safety Elijah Fields wrapped Collier around the legs and set him up for middle linebacker Steve Dell to hit him high near the sideline.

• After a play-action fake reverse to Cedric McGee during a goal-line drill, Stull completed a pass to Dorin Dickerson, who turned into a big hit by safety Dom DeCicco. Dickerson absorbed the blow without falling down, but lost a couple of yards on the play.

• On third-and-goal from the 3, Lewis picked up a tough 2 yards by plowing into linebacker Max Gruder. The next play, however, there was a mix-up that caused Stull and Harris to collide while Stull was dropping back and Harris was moving forward to pick up a blocker.

• Tino Sunseri’s crack at the goal-line drill saw him throw incomplete passes on his first three attempts but find Mike Shanahan for a touchdown on fourth-and-goal at the 8.

• Pat Bostick handed off to Chris Burns, who ran 8 yards for a touchdown on first-and-goal. Bostick’s next play, a pass intended for fullback Joe Capp, was nearly intercepted by safety Danny Cafaro.

• Pitt practices again at 4:15 p.m. Friday.

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