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Inside the Ropes with Pitt football (Spring practice No. 8)

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While much of the focus of Pitt’s spring drills has been on the quarterback play, it wasn’t until the first scrimmage Saturday that the Panthers put full-contact pressure on their passers.

What it exposed – even more than how Bill Stull, Pat Bostick and Tino Sunseri responded to getting hurried, hit and sacked — is that the offensive line is a long way from being ready for the season opener.

By my count, Pitt’s quarterbacks were hurried six times and sacked four times against a defense missing starting ends Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard, as well as former starting linebackers Adam Gunn and Shane Murray. In all fairness, the white jerseys were missing starting tackles Jason Pinkston (shoulder) and Joe Thomas (ankle).

But that’s the point.

Where Pitt is deep and talented on the defensive line, it is still trying to find five players capable of starting on offense. The front five consisted of Jordan Gibbs at left tackle, Chris Jacobson at left guard, Robb Houser at center, John Malecki at right guard and Greg Gaskins at right tackle.

Of that group, Malecki is the most experienced — and he converted from defensive tackle only a year ago. Houser isn’t quite 100 percent, and it’s showing. The 6-foot-7, 290-pound Gibbs might be best suited to play on the right side. What helps is that Gaskins, a 6-4, 295-pound redshirt freshman, is versatile enough to play any and every position.

Then there’s the wild card.

Lucas Nix came to Pitt from Thomas Jefferson with U.S. Army All-American credentials, a 6-6, 300-pounder who has the quickness to play guard and the physique to play tackle. He needs to improve his understanding of the offense, as well as his upper-body strength, but is probably the most talented player in his position group.

It has yet to translate into playing time, however, as Nix has been relegated to second-team duties at left tackle and occasionally filling in at right guard on the third team. Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said prior to spring drills that Nix would start at left tackle in place of Pinkston, but explained that his versatility is the only thing holding him back at this point.

“Only for the fact that we’re working him at guard and tackle,” Wannstedt said. “For us to be the type of offensive line that we need to be, Lucas Nix and Chris Jacobson both need to be in the lineup. Where? I don’t know. But they both need to play, and they’re both doing good.”

As it stands now, more than halfway through spring drills, is that the likely starting lineup will have an offensive line consisting of Pinkston, Malecki and Thomas. Houser is the frontrunner to play center, but his health is a concern, along with average play. Wannstedt makes it sound as if the other starting spot will be between Nix and Jacobson, but only Jacobson has seen action with the first-team offense. And though Wannstedt likes to say that “the first five off the bus will play,” last season seasoned veterans like Chase Clowser and John Bachman played ahead of Nix and Jacobson.

If Nix develops at left tackle, he could allow Pitt to put Pinkston in the more natural position of left guard and have flexibility with moving Malecki to center and Jacobson to right guard next to Thomas.

Then again, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the status quo.

Spring drills would seem like the ideal time to tinker with the offensive line, which also is missing tight ends Nate Byham and John Pelusi after both had off-season shoulder surgery. It will be interesting to see if the Panthers make any moves after watching film of the first scrimmage.

· I kept my own statistics at the scrimmage, so these numbers are unofficial, but here is how the Panthers fared offensively:

Rushing: Dion Lewis 12-62, Shariff Harris 12-56, Chris Burns 14-36, Henry Hynoski 2-12, Kevin Collier 3-(-3).

Passing: Bill Stull 2-7-2-73, Tino Sunseri 6-14-0-60, Pat Bostick 4-5-0-30.

Receiving: Jonathan Baldwin 3-85, Collier 2-22, Aaron Smith 2-18, Hynoski 2-13, Mike Shanahan 1-21, Greg Cross 1-15, Burns 1-15.

· Stull ran exclusively with the first team and threw a 57-yard touchdown pass to Baldwin, who split cornerback Jovani Chappel and safety Elijah Fields on a post pattern. Stull later threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to Baldwin, who leapt high in the back of the end zone over safety Dom DeCicco.

Those two were Stull’s only completions — although his prettiest pass was dropped in the back of the end zone by tight end Dorin Dickerson — and he had just as many interceptions. DeCicco picked off both passes, the first a mix-up where Stull threw toward the right sideline and Baldwin cut inside; the second by jumping a ball thrown quickly to avoid a blitz.

· Sunseri was up and down. He was sacked three times, fumbling once on a blindside hit by defensive tackle Craig Bokor for a 15-yard loss, but also avoided several blitzes by rolling right and throwing out of bounds.

Sunseri completed four passes of 10 yards or more to four different players but most were of the short variety. On his final drive, he completed 15-yarders to Cross and Collier, the latter for a touchdown.

· Bostick actually had the best day of the three QBs. He avoided being sacked, had a 6-yard run and led two 30-yard scoring drives. And he had the best completion of the day, rolling right to avoid pressure and throwing on the run to Shanahan along the right sideline for a 21-yard gain to set up a 5-yard touchdown run by Lewis on the ensuing play. The other touchdown was a 1-yard pass to Hynoski in the middle of the end zone.

The only drawback was that Pitt was called for false starts twice while Bostick was in. They might not have been his fault, but that’s been a recurring problem in his previous two seasons with the Panthers.

“Pat Bostick is probably the guy that gets talked about the least, but he’s dependable,” Wannstedt said. “I think we know what he can do and what he needs to improve on. There’s not a kid on our football team that everybody trusts to be totally prepared and do exactly what’s asked of him (more than Bostick). He’s working as hard as anybody.”

· Where Harris got the tough yards, including a 14-yard gain behind the third-team offensive line, Lewis continued to open eyes with his combination of flash and power.

Lewis had the best run of the day, making a nice cut toward the left sideline before shaking cornerback Buddy Jackson for a 23-yarder to the 1 that set up the Bostick-to-Hynoski touchdown pass on the next play.

Wannstedt was impressed with Harris, but Lewis has emerged as the frontrunner in the tailback race. Burns has had his moments, but hasn’t shown the power to break tackles and gain extra yards like his competitors but does possess nice hands out of the backfield.

· Despite the absence of Romeus and Sheard, the defensive line has been dominant at times. The starting front saw Tony Tucker and Justin Hargrove at the ends, with Mick Williams and Myles Caragein inside. The second unit had Shayne Hale at one end with Ty Tkach and Chas Alexcih rotating from end to tackle and Tommie Duhart and Craig Bokor inside.

Alexcih and Bokor were particularly disruptive. That they might end up as third-teamers speaks well of the talent along the front four.

· Shanahan and Smith have taken advantage of their increased repetitions at receiver in the absence of T.J. Porter, who is suspended indefinitely, and injured Aundre Wright (hamstring) and Cam Saddler (knee), and are making a strong push for playing time.

“Mike Shanahan has really gotten better as the week has gone on,” Wannstedt said. “Him and Aaron Smith really have made some plays. I think both of those guys are competing to be that fourth or fifth guy.”

· It’s possible that, based on experience alone, Gunn, Murray and Greg Williams could be the starting linebackers this fall. Not if Max Gruder has anything to say about it. The redshirt sophomore weak-side linebacker from Charlotte is having a nice spring, as evidenced by his play in the scrimmage. He had a sack (on a zero blitz) and two tackles for loss.

· Kevin Harper might have the strongest leg of the kickers – though Dan Hutchins could take offense to that statement — but accuracy has been the issue for the redshirt freshman from Mentor, Ohio. Harper attempted a 44-yarder that hooked left and got caught in the wind and fell short.

· When healthy, Saddler is considered a candidate to return punts. One problem plaguing the 5-7 Gateway product is catching the ball on the fly. It’s not easy to judge the ball in mid-air, even without coverage, and Saddler muffed a punt by Hutchins in his only action of the scrimmage.

· Although Lewis shook Jackson on one run, it was payback for a nice hit earlier. After missing last season with an injury, the 6-foot, 175-pound redshirt sophomore cornerback has had two good practices and could see increased playing time after Ricky Gary was injured Friday.

“Ricky twisted his knee,” Wannstedt said. “It’s a sprain. We’re just going to take it day by day.”

For now, Jackson is behind starters Aaron Berry and Jovani Chappel and backup Antwuan Reed on the depth chart. If Gary is out for an extended time, it will be interesting to see the battle for the second-team corner spots between Jackson, Jarred Holley and Reed.

The Panthers practice again at 2:45 p.m. Tuesday.

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