Undersized and unbelievable.
That’s one way to describe Pitt’s starting backfield in the second scrimmage of spring drills. Neither Dion Lewis nor Joe Capp is as tall as their listed heights, but both played bigger than their billing.
The 5-foot-8, 190-pound Lewis (who’s closer to 5-6) is doing his best to seize the starting tailback job by outperforming redshirt sophomore Shariff Harris and redshirt freshman Chris Burns. Not bad for a kid who enrolled in January after an extra semester at Blairstown (N.J.) Blair Academy.
Lewis had a team-best 56 rushing yards on 14 carries — including a 19-yard touchdown run in which he dragged cornerback Jovani Chappel and safety Dom DeCicco across the goal line — and four catches for 15 yards.
“If we’re playing tomorrow,” Wannstedt said, “he’s in the mix for about 30 carries, in my mind.”
That’s no knock on Harris or Burns but rather a nod to how impressive Lewis has been. His best run might have been a 2-yarder, where he slipped the grasp of nose tackle Myles Caragein at the line of scrimmage and squirted free for a first down.
By comparison, Burns rushed for 14 yards on 18 carries, a total that includes 12 negative yards, and had two catches for 11 yards. Burns has yet to show the elusiveness he displayed last fall, when he was the offensive scout team player of the year. He was tackled once in the open field by walk-on safety Danny Cafaro, dropped for a 4-yard loss by defensive tackle Craig Bokor and a 1-yard loss by linebacker Tristan Roberts.
Harris had 8 yards on six carries and one reception for 16 yards. To his credit, the 6-1, 215-pound Harris has shown a willingness to split his repetitions between tailback and fullback. With Henry Hynoski (turf toe) sidelined, Capp and Kevin Collier are the only alternatives.
“It is out of necessity, because we’re a little low on fullbacks,” offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti said, “but what we talked about earlier this spring is seeing if he can be a multiple back in terms of playing fullback and tailback.”
Which brings us to Capp.
The 5-foot-10, 220-pound walk-on (who’s closer to 5-8) has been the surprise of spring drills, both due to his unexpected arrival and his capacity to perform at a high level for the Panthers.
Capp transferred to Pitt from Texas Tech, where he also was a walk-on after playing for the first graduating class at Frisco Centennial High in Dallas in 2006. Problem was, the Red Raiders run a spread offense and have little use for a fullback, let alone a walk-on fullback.
As much as Capp like Texas Tech, he wanted to play. So he wrote letters to the Division I-A programs with offenses involving a fullback to gauge their interest, and was set to go to Texas A&M until Pitt responded.
“I walked-on at Texas Tech and played fullback there. As a passing school, it fit me as a great school, but it didn’t fit me football-wise,” said Capp, whose high school coach, Lute Croy, played at Southern Methodist University under Pitt defensive coordinator Phil Bennett. “I put in my transfer papers and contacted all the schools that play with a fullback. Pitt said they needed a fullback to come up and play, so … “
Turns out, Capp has deep ties to Pittsburgh. His father, Daniel, is from Munhall; his mother, Darlene, from Greenfield, where his maternal grandmother still lives. Capp lived in Greenfield as a child, attending Minadeo Elementary until fifth grade, when Daniel, a Marine, was transferred to Texas.
“I come to visit because my grandmother still lives in Greenfield,” Capp said. “Now, I’m here again. I remember nothing was here at all. It’s a great feeling. It’s like dÃ©jÃ vu, being back here.”
Capp, a redshirt junior, is eligible immediately under NCAA rules because he wasn’t recruited to either school and didn’t receive any scholarship money. Capp had a 14-yard catch in which he bounced off safety Elijah Fields for a first down and later scored on a 1-yard run. Capp has fit in so nicely with the Panthers that Wannstedt said he plans to use him on special teams.
“He’s been a surprise. And he is out here practicing hurt today; that’s a testimony to what type of toughness this kid has,” Wannstedt said. “It’s a long way from Lubbock, Texas, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as we know. You make that decision and there’s no turning back. They burn the ship when they broke that port. So he’s here and he’s making the most of it.
“I love him. He’s just not a tough guy. He’s got some ability and some maturity to him. But he is a tough guy on top of it.”
And now, once again, a Pittsburgher on top of that.
• For those ready to anoint Tino Sunseri the savior to Pitt’s quarterback position, before the redshirt freshman can unseat fifth-year senior Bill Stull as the starter he has to surpass junior Pat Bostick on the depth chart.
Bostick’s consistent play through the first two weeks of spring drills earned him the opportunity to split first-team reps with Stull this week. Bostick has looked more and more comfortable this spring, and completed 9 of 17 passes for 72 yards with a touchdown and an interception in the scrimmage.
Where Bostick has shown the most improvement is in the velocity on his passes, a credit to Cignetti. Bostick isn’t showing signs of the windup or hitch in his delivery, and threw some nice deep balls in his first series. The Panthers ran a flea-flicker to Oderick Turner that was broken up by DeCicco and then a deep sideline route that Dorin Dickerson dropped. Bostick also went deep to Jonathan Baldwin, who let the pass slip through his hands, and showed some savvy by flicking a shovel pass to Lewis to avoid a sack when Caragein was draped on his back that gained a first down.
Bostick threw the only interception of the day, but that wasn’t entirely his fault. Tight end Mike Cruz made a one-handed catch between his helmet and shoulder pads, but linebacker Nate Nix stripped him for a pick. Later, Bostick showed nice mobility when he escaped pressure in the pocket, rolled right and threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to Cruz in the corner.
“Pat has done a great job running the offense,” Cignetti said. “He’s done a great job completing the football. He’s done a great job protecting the football. So what we wanted to do this week was give him an opportunity to run with the ones and throw the ball to see how he would respond.
“We’ve got a great competition going on out here. As many situations as we can get the three quarterbacks in to make the best decision down the road, we’re going to do.”
• Stull, who was 9 of 14 for 58 yards, did a nice job of managing the offense. He connected with Dickerson for gains of 18 and 3 yards on his first two passes. On his second series, Stull threw a 7-yarder to Turner on third-and-8 and found Capp for the 14-yarder. Stull looked for Dickerson again on third-and-4 at the 11, but Chappel made a diving play to break up the pass at the goal line.
Stull led a field-goal drive from his own 35, a 28-yarder by Dan Hutchins, and a pair of touchdown drives from the defense’s 30. One saw Lewis score on the draw, the other saw Capp score after Lewis spun for a 4-yard run on fourth-and-2 at the 5.
• Sunseri, as expected, had some difficulty under the pressure of live scrimmage situations while taking snaps with the second-team offense. On his first play, he had the ball knocked loose, recovered it and fumbled again as the play was whistled dead.
His second series saw improvement. He stepped up in the pocket and found Mike Shanahan for an 17-yard gain to the 33. Four plays later, Kevin Harper kicked a 46-yard field goal.
Sunseri also was sacked several times. Shayne Hale closed in fast for a sack that caused a fumble. Brandon Lindsey had a pair of sacks, the second to end the drive.
Sunseri finished 9 of 12 for 99 yards, the best completion percentage and yardage of any quarterback. He connected with tight end Justin Virbitsky for a 23-yard gain to the 2, then threw a touchdown pass to Cruz off a bootleg.
“This is why I love to scrimmage with quarterbacks being live,” Wannstedt said. “Turning them loose and getting the ball away form the quarterbacks, that’s what happens on opening day if you don’t practice it. Our quarterbacks got banged around today, they tucked the ball, they scrambled, they got hit. I thought that was good for their development, as well.”
Wannstedt doesn’t blame the QBs for every incompletion.
“I think a little bit has to do with pressure, too,” Wannstedt said. “They’re not going to be standing back there long. We’re going to be pretty good on defense. You’re not going to have a long time standing around, deciding what you’re going to do with the ball. We had some guys open. We had an opportunity to connect on a couple and just didn’t.”
• After the first scrimmage, I expected to see some shuffling of the offensive line. It didn’t take long. Wannstedt announced that Lucas Nix is making a real case to be our starting right tackle. He’s really coming on.
Senior Joe Thomas has played right tackle on the second team since returning from an ankle injury, but Thomas started at right guard his first two seasons and could play either position.
The final week of practice should be interesting, with the focus on the competition at center. Walk-on Alex Karabin handled all of the first-team reps, with Robb Houser on the second team. Their development could dictate whether Wannstedt and line coach Tony Wise decided to make further changes.
“I’m looking for the five best offensive linemen,” Wannstedt said. “I don’t know how it’s going to shake out yet. Without Lucas and (redshirt sophomore guard Chris) Jacobson getting better, there is no competition. This will make us a better team.”
• One of the pre-scrimmage highlights was watching sophomore cornerback Antwuan Reed block three of Harper’s field-goal attempts. Reed later blocked an extra-point kick, as well. Why was he untouched on all four? Pitt was toying with a new protection scheme.
• Speaking of kickers, Hutchins went 6-for-6 by making two kicks from 38, two from 39, one from 27 and one from 34 yards. Harper was 3-for-6, converting from 38, 40 and 46 yards. The difference is in the accuracy, as Hutchins has watched and learned from Conor Lee that you don’t have to kill the ball every time. Harper is still figuring that out.
The only guy who wasn’t happy with the kickers was Cignetti.
“I’d like to see more touchdowns,” Cignetti said. “I don’t want to see the kicker come out. We don’t want to kick field goals. When that kicker comes out, we want it to be an extra point.”
• Receiver Cedric McGee had the longest play from scrimmage, a 25-yard run on an end-around reverse, and finished as the second-leading rusher behind Lewis. Receiver Aundre Wright had two carries for 11 yards and Aaron Smith had a 7-yard reverse.
• Receiving statistics: Lewis 4-15, Wright 3-34, Dickerson 3-22, Greg Cross 3-20, Turner 2-20, Cruz 2-16, Collier 2-13, Burns 2-11, McGee 2-8, Virbitsky 1-23, Shanahan 1-17, Harris 1-16, Capp 1-14.
Wannstedt was pleased with the play of Cruz and Dickerson.
“I have to give Mike credit. Mike has made a lot of progress from Day One until today. The last scrimmage, he was the one guy that came out and made some plays,” Wannstedt said. “Dorin Dickerson, I’ve got a good feeling about him next year. We’ve all been waiting a while for Dorin to make those plays that help us win big games. I’ve got a good feeling the way he’s working and the way his attitude is right now, he’s going to finish strong here.”
• Fields led all players with seven tackles (one solo), while middle linebacker Steve Dell and defensive tackle Craig Bokor each had six stops and walk-on cornerback Jeremiah Davis, cornerback Jarred Holley and end Hale each had five tackles.
With a terrific spring, Bokor is moving up the depth chart.
“Right now, if you ask me who our third tackle is, it would be Craig Bokor,” Wannstedt said. “He really is making some strides. You’ve got Mick (Williams) and Myles — and I’m not counting Gus (Mustakas) because he’s not out here — but Craig Bokor is probably playing the best of all the other defensive tackles.”
* For someone playing defensive end for only the third time, Lindsey had a strong scrimmage. He was only credited with one tackle, a 5-yard sack, but the converted middle linebacker actually had two.
“There’s been a battle between the coaches for Brandon,” Wannstedt said. “Coach Gattuso has thought all along that, with his explosiveness and strength, that he could be a real good pass rusher. When you look at our middle linebacker depth when Adam Gunn is in there and Shane Murray is back, Brandon is just trying to get on the field. This is the time when you do some experimenting. He’s actually playing both positions, which is a credit to him.”
As for my suggestion that Lindsey’s future might be at fullback, consider it a moot point. He was asked to switch there before spring drills and stressed that his preference was to play defense — even if it means taking a chance that he won’t crack the depth chart.
• The Panthers practice at 2:45 p.m. on Tuesday.