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Pitt football – Spring practice No. 10

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Dave Wannstedt didn’t mention anyone by name. The Pitt coach didn’t have to, as it wasn’t a question of who, but rather: why?

It’s no coincidence that cornerback Aaron Berry and safety Elijah Fields were demoted to the second-team defense on the same day. They arrived at Pitt in the same recruiting class, bonding on their official visit and becoming fast friends. Sometimes, their association has negative connotations.

“To me, to be a consistent football player at the level that is expected of you in our program, winning is not a sometimes thing. We’ve all heard that clichĂ©,” Wannstedt said before Thursday’s practice. “I personally believe that that carries over into the weight room, into the off-season program, into the classroom. Sometimes, a player might be doing well on the football field but in my opinion he’s not doing everything he’s supposed to do or to the best of his ability in some other areas.

“We’ve got a few guys I’m really not concerned with where they’re at football-wise (but) I am concerned about them doing everything that’s expected of them in all areas that affect this program.”

The fastest way to get their attention is by threatening to reduce their playing time. As a result, two talented sophomores – cornerback Antwuan Reed and safety Andrew Taglianetti – are taking advantage of their opportunity to practice with the first-team defense.

“It’s really not experimenting as much as just making sure everyone in this program understands that they’re accountable every day,” Wannstedt said. “You’ve got to be accountable every day.”

Sometimes, talent and depth are a team’s top disciplinarians.

• Discipline has nothing to do with Pitt’s shuffling at center. Accountability does, though. Offensive line coach Tony Wise told me today that walk-on Alex Karabin is being rewarded for his performance by taking first-team reps ahead of incumbent starter Robb Houser.

Houser probably isn’t 100 percent healthy since returning from a fractured right ankle against Rutgers that ended his 2008 season. He has struggled against the likes of tackles Myles Caragein and Mick Williams in practice, and is being instructed to work on his getting lower in his stance and being more physical in his blocking.

Interestingly, John Malecki has started taking snaps with the quarterbacks at the start of practice and is being prepared to become the Panthers’ emergency center, the way C.J. Davis did last fall.

“Coach Wise wants me to learn center, just in case something like last year with C.J. comes up,” Malecki said. “He wants to feel comfortable putting somebody in there. He said we have to find the next backup center. He wants me learning that position so I’m able to help out as much as possible come fall.”

Read more about that development in my story in Friday’s Trib.

• Malecki is showing signs of becoming the undisputed leader of the line. He has taken sophomore Lucas Nix under his wing by forcing him to watch more film, and it’s no accident that Nix is thriving.

Never mind that Malecki is only a year into playing offense.

“It’s a bit of a challenge,” Malecki said. “I’m taking it in stride. I’m trying to help Lucas. I’m trying to help him understand the way C.J. helped me. He was a great leader and a great player here.”

Nix is taking first-team reps at right tackle and is being thrown into the fire, facing end Jabaal Sheard on every play. It’s a tough transition. When Sheard rushes on the outside, Nix is able to use his long arms and quick feet to keep him away from the quarterback. When Sheard makes an inside move, however, he is overpowering Nix with his strength.

Yet Wise is impressed with Nix’s improvement.

“Lucas has had a very, very good spring,” Wise said. “He’s figured a couple of things out. He’s gotten better from Tuesday to Thursday, from Friday to Saturday. That is the most important thing. That is a big component of that.

Wise warned not to read any more into it that Nix is starting in place of Joe Thomas, who missed last week’s workouts with a sprained ankle.

“We’re not really into trying to send any messages,” Wise said. “That’s purely on what he’s done. Lucas has played well.”

* The tailback competition is taking daily twists and turns. Wannstedt praised redshirt freshman Chris Burns for his play: “I thought Chris Burns the last couple days has taken a few steps forward.”

The other candidates turned in a pair of eye-opening plays. Redshirt sophomore Shariff Harris broke through the grasp of middle linebacker Brandon Lindsey and turned a draw into a 45-yard touchdown run. Freshman Dion Lewis beat weak-side linebacker Tristan Roberts on a wheel route (reminiscent of West Virginia’s Steve Slaton burning Tommie Campbell on the same play in 2006) and caught a Tino Sunseri pass in stride on the right sideline for another scoring play.

Wannstedt indicated that all three backs will likely play this fall, even if some have more prominent roles than others.

“They’re all a little bit different, as most players are,” Wannstedt said. “I think the challenge is going to be, as a staff and as players, to say, ‘One guy may not get 35 carries, but what can I contribute to the team? What’s my role on this team?’ As coaches, we need to put them in position where they can maximize their abilities.

“At the running back position, I think things could be that way. It could change, but I think there could really be some good competition all the way through camp and throughout the season. When you run the ball like we do, you need all the backs you can get. We’ve proven that, and they’re all going to be a major part of the success we have.”

Wannstedt also is in no hurry to name a starting tailback.

“Somebody has to start, and I wouldn’t see me declaring a starter until a week before the opener,” Wannstedt said. “We can practice all of them and all of them know that somebody has to start but they’re all going to be a part of it.”

• I’m not a fan of early enrollees (see: Dell, Steve; Hobby, Ronald), but Lewis is making a case for why it can be beneficial to a newcomer. And, without addressing that issue directly, Wannstedt gave an indication of why players opt to skip the spring semester of high school for spring drills.

“This spring is when you really get a chance to evaluate your freshmen,” Wannstedt said. “Most kids come in and you really just almost say, ‘OK, we’ve got three deep here and, Chris Burns, you’re going to be redshirted (because) we’ve got LaRod (Stephens-Howling), we’ve got Conredge (Collins), we’ve got Shady (LeSean McCoy). You’re not going to play, foreseeing an injury.’ They’re on the scout team and they’re really not going to play, in terms of development, until the spring. This is the time of the year when you really look at your freshman class and say, ‘This guy has a chance to help us and this guy will fit in here.’”

The one misconception about freshmen taking a redshirt is that they use it as a year to learn the system. More likely, they spend that season running the opponents’ plays on the scout team. Other than giving redshirts a year to allow them to adapt to college life and physically mature, it’s a waste.

Spring drills are a time to perform – and impress.

“It’s an exciting time for the underclassmen, more so than the older guys,” Wannstedt said, “because there’s still that unknown of what they’re capable of doing, other than what we see on their high school tape.”

• Highlights from Thursday’s practice:

• Weak-side linebacker Max Gruder continues to make plays, and he drew praise from position coach Joe Tumpkin when he read a pass in the right flat and met tight end Dorin Dickerson head-on. Gruder’s backup, Tristran Roberts, made a similar play (and also got Tumpkin’s attention) by blowing up a dump pass to Harris in the left flat.

• With defensive end Tony Tucker breathing down his neck, Tino Sunseri sidestepped the pass rush and found Greg Cross open in the left seam. The pass was thrown behind Cross, who adjusted to make the catch. Later, Cross caught a pass over the middle and used a stutter-step to freeze safety Hobby and then sprinted down the right sideline.

Cross is displaying nice ability in the open field. Now, he just needs to learn to catch every pass with his hands, not against his body.

* With Gruder and strong-side linebacker Greg Williams showing blitz, Bill Stull showed his experience by delaying his cadence and drawing them off-sides. Later, Fields stunted on a blitz and drew an illegal procedure penalty, as Wise made his linemen back up 5 yards.

• Stull had another miscommunication with Jonathan Baldwin that resulted in an interception. Baldwin was running across the middle and came to a sudden halt, as Stull’s pass was picked off by Berry. I’m not sure who was at fault, but if Stull wants to retain the starting quarterback job and Baldwin is going to develop into the star receiver he has the talent to become, these two must get on the same page.

• Stull was inconsistent for the second consecutive practice, and showed signs of frustration after throwing a swing pass at the feet of Lewis. As Wannstedt indicated Tuesday, Stull is pressing too much. And it’s only going to get harder. He is starting to take reps with the second- and third-team offenses, behind Bostick and Sunseri.

And it doesn’t help when Stull, facing pressure in the pocket, throws a perfectly catchable pass and Dickerson drops it after getting popped by Taglianetti.

• Mick Williams drew praise from Wannstedt when he swooped in from the backside to chase down Lewis on a toss sweep to the left side. Defensive tackle Tommie Duhart also got Wannstedt’s approval after weaving through traffic to stop Burns.

• Bostick hadn’t thrown an interception through the first eight practices, including the scrimmage, but has thrown two in as many days since starting to take first-team reps. He rolled right and threw one that tipped off Baldwin’s hands and into those of safety Dom DeCicco.

• As wondrous as his talent and bright as his future is, sometimes Baldwin has mental lapses. He runs the wrong route or fails to finish a route. He doesn’t come back on an underthrown pass or isn’t looking when a pass is thrown his way. As much as Baldwin can turn a routine play into the spectacular, he also has a tendency to make his QBs look bad.

So let’s hold those Larry Fitzgerald comparisons for a moment. While Baldwin has NFL ability, his knowledge of the game – as well as his position – is still in the formative stages.

Fitzgerald was more polished in high school.

• As first reported in the Pittsburgh Trib’s H.S. Sports Insiders blog Wednesday night, Sto-Rox quarterback Paul Jones, who gave a verbal commitment to Penn State, is re-opening his recruitment. Jones and receiver Andrew Carswell are expected to take an unofficial visit to Pitt on Friday, sit in on team and position meetings and attend the 4:15 p.m. practice.

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