With the first scrimmage of spring drills looming Saturday, Pitt took the field wearing only shoulder pads and shorts, which gave the Panthers the impression that Friday’s practice could be a light workout.
They couldn’t have been more wrong.
Dave Wannstedt had other ideas. He put his players in a series of situational drills that made it one of the most competitive practices yet, especially at the quarterback position.
“When you have a new offensive coordinator, there’s an adjustment period,” Wannstedt said. “Sometimes, we need to spend a little more time on it, and this is the time to do it.”
Fifth-year senior quarterback Bill Stull has found a willing challenger in redshirt freshman Tino Sunseri, who had his best practice of the spring. Stull ran the first-team offense against the first-team defense, while Sunseri directed the second-team offense against the second-team defense.
Stull started strong, hitting Oderick Turner in stride over the middle for a touchdown with safety Dom DeCicco in coverage on first-and-10 at the 22. Stull’s next pass, intended for Cedric McGee, fell incomplete. On third-and-goal from the 8, Stull then threw a corner fade to Jonathan Baldwin, but 5-foot-7 cornerback Jovani Chappel made a fantastic play to break up a would-be touchdown. On third-and-goal from the 3, Stull rolled right and threw the ball away with defensive tackle Mick Williams and linebacker Adam Gunn in pursuit.
Sunseri was tabbed by Chas Alexcih for a sack on his first play, but completed the play by throwing a scoring pass to Aaron Smith. On second-and-6 from the 16, Sunseri stepped up in the pocket but his pass intended for Mike Shanahan fell incomplete. On third-and-goal at the 6, Sunseri found tight end Mike Cruz in the back of the end zone for a touchdown. On third-and-goal at the 3, Sunseri rolled right and hit Aaron Smith for another score.
It was on.
Later, during a red-zone drill, Stull made a nice check-down and found tailback Dion Lewis on a screen pass on first-and-10 at the 16. On first-and-goal at the 8, Lewis ran for a couple of yards. On first-and-goal at the 2, Stull ran a play-action bootleg to his right and flipped a touchdown pass to fullback Kevin Collier.
Sunseri answered with two scoring plays. After throwing incomplete on first-and-10 at the 22, Sunseri lofted a pass deep in the back of the end zone to Aaron Smith, who caught it between safeties Andrew Taglianetti (Jon’s twin) and Ronald Hobby. Two plays later, on first-and-goal at the 2, Sunseri ran a play-action. He faked a handoff to Shanahan on a reverse, rolled right and found Cruz for another touchdown.
Stull later followed a 15-yard completion to McGee by throwing a 35-yard touchdown pass to Baldwin in double coverage by DeCicco and cornerback Aaron Berry.
That was just a brief glimpse of what to expect in today’s scrimmage, where Wannstedt expects the first- and second-teamers to run about 30 to 35 plays and the third-teamers to run 20 plays. Sunseri is starting to take the majority of second-team snaps, ahead of Pat Bostick.
“Tino worked with the second team today, and he’s getting better,” Wannstedt said after practice. “I think he’s starting to gain some confidence. The scrimmage will be live on quarterbacks. Live to whistle – and they better hope I have a quick whistle.”
• Cruz was on the receiving end of several touchdowns, but his best play of the day came on the final series. Cruz made a one-handed catch on a pass from Bostick near the left sideline, drawing hoots from his teammates.
“Mike Cruz had an outstanding day,” Wannstedt said. “I’m almost afraid to say too much about it. I don’t want to jinx him. He’s gotten an opportunity because of (injured seniors John) Pelusi and (Nate) Byham not being out there. He’s getting all the second-team work, and he’s taken advantage of it.’
• When asked if he believed the scrimmage could help shape the depth chart, Wannstedt didn’t hesitate to answer in the affirmative. And he has a couple of positions, in particular, in mind.
“I hope so,” he said. “As a coach, the most difficult thing is when you come out of spring practice, as we did a couple of years ago, and the quarterback position is wide open or the starting tailback position is undecided. The easy thing for me is if somebody steps up and separates themselves from the pack. Whether that will happen or not, I don’t know. I believe the only way that happens is when you’re live.”
• Lewis continues to impress and, as a result, is splitting reps with redshirt freshmen Chris Burns and redshirt sophomore Shariff Harris. Some of it is coming at Bostick’s expense, as Lewis is taking plays away by turning designed short runs into long touchdowns. He had a 36-yarder in which he juked out Andrew Taglianetti and cornerback Antwuan Reed.
Lewis also turned a dump pass from Sunseri on a third-and-4 at the 29 into a touchdown, slipping by weak-side linebacker Tristan Roberts and turning on the afterburners.
As of now, Lewis is the frontrunner to start at tailback.
“I’m real excited to see what our backs do out here tomorrow,” Wannstedt said. “If you were to ask me one position I would be tuned into and focused on, it’s going to be our tailback position.”
• The bad news is that Doug Fulmer’s expected return to the team has suffered a setback and he has yet to practice this spring. The fifth-year senior defensive end has missed the past two seasons due to torn ACLs.
“Doug wants to go. His mind is telling him to go,” Wannstedt said. “Whether physically he’s going to be able to do it, there’s still some question. We’re not holding him out for spring. We’d like for him to be out there, but he came (to off-season conditioning workouts) a couple days and had a little swelling, and he’s still not right.”
The depth and talent at defensive end is starting to show, however, what with Greg Romeus (back) sitting out this spring and Jabaal Sheard returning home to Hollywood Hills, Fla., this weekend with an excused absence. Tony Tucker and Justin Hargrove have moved into the starting lineup, with redshirt freshman Shayne Hale getting some reps as well.
Right now, Pitt has five defensive ends. And that doesn’t count two players who moved inside to tackle: Alexcih and Ty Tkach.
• Right tackle Joe Thomas (sprained ankle) hasn’t practiced all week, and Wannstedt said Thomas won’t scrimmage. Greg Gaskins has taken first-team reps in Thomas’ absence.
“If we were playing tomorrow, he would play,” Wannstedt said. “It’s nothing serious, but we’re trying to get him healthy.”
• Other practice highlights:
• Cornerback Buddy Jackson made a couple of nice plays, cutting off receiver Aundre Wright and forcing him out of bounds on one pass play and stopping tailback Chris Burns short of the goal line and driving him backwards on another.
• Shanahan is developing on a daily basis, leaping high to catch a pass over safety Danny Cafaro during team drills and catching a 16-yard pass from Bostick in situational drills.
• Pitt hosts a Blue-Chip Day Saturday morning, followed by its first spring scrimmage at 1:15 p.m. at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex on the South Side.