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Inside the Ropes with Pitt football – Spring practice No. 9

Dave Wannstedt had high hopes for the first practice of the second half of spring drills, believing that a spirited scrimmage had set the tone for a productive week of practice.

“I expect that Tuesday, Thursday, Friday we’ll have three good, solid practices, good fundamentals,” the Pitt coach said before Tuesday’s session. “I expect the guys to improve this week after watching tape of the scrimmage.”

Instead, the Panthers had one of the worst efforts I’ve witnessed.

And I’ve been covering Pitt practices since 2000.

With that in mind, we’ll keep the recap to a minimum today:

I saw Dan Hutchins convert three field goals from 37 yards, and Kevin Harper miss at least two from the same distance.

I saw Elijah Fields intercept a Tino Sunseri pass, Ronald Hobby pick off a Pat Bostick pass and Jarred Holley steal a Bill Stull pass.

I also saw Stull drop a pass into the hands of Turner between the tight double coverage of Andrew Taglianetti and Jovani Chappel and, later, Turner stretched out to catch a Stull pass with Dom DeCicco draped on him.

I saw Wayne Jones, picking up on a zero blitz heading his way, snap the ball over the head of Bostick and then get pancaked on the play.

I saw Adam Gunn break up a Sunseri pass intended for Cedric McGee, then drop to the ground and start doing push-ups because he should have had an interception.

Safe to say, there were more lowlights than highlights, and Wannstedt had some choice words for his players after practice. (He does interviews with the media before practice Tuesdays and Thursdays).

I’m betting that the next practice will be much livelier.

· The coaching staff tinkered with the lineups today, which made for some interesting combinations. Don’t read too much into them, though, because it could be a case of coaches seeing how certain players perform with the first-teamers and how others handle the demotion for a day.

Most prominently, the first-team offense featured walk-on Alex Karabin at center and Lucas Nix at right tackle in place of Robb Houser and Greg Gaskins, who filled in last week for Joe Thomas (ankle). The interesting twist is that Thomas returned to practice after missing four last week, but ran with the second-teamers at right tackle.

Also, Dion Lewis took first-team reps at tailback, ahead of Shariff Harris and Chris Burns. Despite only enrolling in January, don’t discount Lewis as a serious contender for the starting job.

“Dion Lewis has done a remarkable job of showing up here as a true freshman, learning the offense, jumping in with both feet from a work standpoint and really going out there and competing for a job,” Wannstedt said. “I think Shariff Harris and Chris Burns are doing fine, but Dion is in the mix. We’ve got some real healthy competition there.

“(Lewis is) farther ahead. I didn’t think he’d be in the mix as deep as he is. I am very encouraged by how he handles himself, his demeanor, how he learns in the classroom. Those are the things that are going to give him the ability to compete. He’ll be in the mix, no question. I would see a kid like him really improving this spring because everything is new to him and the more comfortable he gets, the more opportunities he gets, he’s going to make plays.”

Defensively, Andrew Taglianetti took the majority of reps ahead of Elijah Fields at safety and Antwuan Reed ahead of Aaron Berry at corner. Also, Danny Cafaro took second-team reps ahead of Hobby. Justin Hargrove lined up at the right end spot with the ones, ahead of Tony Tucker. Chas Alexcih filled in with the first-teamers for Mick Williams at tackle, ahead of Tommie Duhart, who split reps with the third-teamers.

· Now, to deal with that disclaimer, I highly doubt that Berry is in jeopardy of losing his job. Instead, it’s probably more a case of seeing how Reed handled playing with the first-teamers and whether he could challenge Chappel, who has had difficulty covering tall receivers like Jonathan Baldwin and Oderick Turner.

Taglianetti will see the field this season, and not just as a special-teams demon. He’s already in the mix as a potential part of the nickel and dime packages, and could give a push to Fields, who allowed Jonathan Baldwin to get behind him for a 57-yard touchdown pass in the scrimmage.

Houser’s demotion is the eye-opener. He suffered a fractured right ankle and surprised coaches by returning in time for spring drills, but it’s obvious that he isn’t fully recovered. Not only that, but he’s having difficulty handling Mick Williams and Myles Caragein on a daily basis. At 6-foot-1, 290-pounds, Karabin is undersized but reliable.

As I wrote Saturday, the offensive line is a real concern.

“We’re still trying to figure out who are the five best, and that’s the challenge,” Wannstedt said. “It’s a little bit difficult without (left tackle Jason) Pinkston and Joe Thomas out here. Joe needs to get back into the mix. That will give us a feel. We’re going to be OK there. It’s just a matter of really coming to a final decision. You’d like to make that decision as fast as you could. Unfortunately, it takes a little bit of time.”

As I previously suggested, it’s altogether possible that we could see some combination of Pinkston, Thomas, Nix, John Malecki and Chris Jacobson in the starting front five this fall. Nix, Pinkston and Thomas are capable of playing guard or tackle, and Malecki is both smart and tough enough to handle the transition to center, if necessary.

· Wannstedt said Bostick would share some first-team reps with Stull and Sunseri would get some second-team reps at quarterback. That is either a nod to Bostick’s performance in the scrimmage or the first sign that the competition is going to heat up now that offensive coordinator/QB coach Frank Cignetti has had two weeks of observation.

“The quarterbacks — the topic everybody wants to talk about — I think they all did some good things and they know that they all have a lot of room to improve,” Wannstedt said. “Frank’s done a nice job of keeping the repetitions in practice somewhat even, somewhat fair. We’re not really getting hung up as much on who’s working with what group but more of trying to get everyone equal opportunity and equal reps.”

As for Stull throwing touchdowns on his only two completions in the scrimmage, Wannstedt admitted that it might have something to do with the fifth-year senior trying to make big plays to hold onto his job.

“Whenever guys are pressing like that – you’ve got a new quarterback coach, a new offensive coordinator, a few new wrinkles from a passing game standpoint – I think it creates a sense of urgency,” Wannstedt said. “I don’t want the sense of urgency to be, go out there and try to make the most big plays. The thing we’re looking for from that quarterback position is consistency, someone who can go out there and put us in the right plays and make the right checks and, when guys are open, get the ball to the right person.”

· Which is what separates Stull and Bostick from Sunseri, the talented redshirt freshman who is the dark horse in the race. Although Sunseri has impressed onlookers, you have to take into consideration that Wannstedt and Cignetti are judging the quarterbacks by different criteria.

As Wannstedt has mentioned in the past, he wants his signal-callers to be decision-makers. He puts a premium on making the right reads and minimizing mistakes. Where Sunseri is better on the move than either Stull or Bostick, he’s also slower on the draw — at the moment. His progressions take longer and he tends to either tuck it or throw it away instead of making the hot read and dumping a short pass to an open receiver underneath.

I asked Wannstedt to assess Sunseri’s strengths and weaknesses:

Positives: “He’s got the arm strength to make all the throws. He’s very intelligent. He understands what we’re doing. He’s got leadership qualities. He’s a better athlete than what you might give him credit for.”

Negatives: “The biggest thing with Tino – I think he was 5 for 13 – is he should have been 13 of 15 if he would have just checked the ball down to the tight ends and the backs. Right now, he’s still trying to make, I don’t want to say the big play, but he’s forcing things a little bit. He just needs to get a little more patient and think completions before big plays.”

That’s to be expected of a first-year quarterback seeing his first real action in practice. Remember, Sunseri was limited to fourth-team duties last August, then spent the season running opponents’ plays on the scout team.

“He wants to make plays. He wants to score,” Wannstedt said. “My point has always been, dump the ball off to Chris Burns or dump the ball off to Dorin Dickerson and you’re going to surprise yourself with the yards that we make.

“He’s out here and all that’s on his mind is, how many touchdowns can I score? How many times can I get my team in the end zone? There’s a lot of different ways to do that. The most important thing is getting the ball to the guy that’s going to catch the ball and make something happen.”

Wannstedt is quick to remind that Sunseri is still a freshman; one who spent last fall running opponents’ plays for the scout team.

“So, he’s got a lot of room to grow, a lot of room to improve and he will,” Wannstedt said. “He’s got the right attitude.”

· Speaking of having the right attitude, my feature for Wednesday’s paper is on redshirt sophomore Max Gruder, who has taken advantage of his first-team reps at weak-side linebacker this spring.

“I think Max Gruder is establishing himself as a starter,” Wannstedt said. “We would hope that he would have stepped up, but he was very productive.”

As an aside, I asked Gruder about switching positions so many times. He came to Pitt as a middle linebacker, moved to the strong side last season and is now on the weak side. It didn’t seem to faze a kid who was born in Connecticut, lived in New Orleans and was raised in Charlotte. (His family has since moved to Tampa).

Gruder also revealed a little-known-fact about himself.

“I was in the movie ‘Shallow Hal.’ It was filmed right across the street and I went up and asked if I could be in the movie,” Gruder said. “I was in middle school, and I was an extra in the final scene. I was waving good-bye to them. It was a pretty good deal.”

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