Before the final practice of spring drills, Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt was asked if any Panthers players who weren’t starters last season had played their way onto the first team with their performance.
Without much hesitation, Wannstedt named three defensive players: Nose tackle Myles Caragein, weak-side linebacker Max Gruder and free safety Elijah Fields. Which is about what we expected this spring.
If there is a surprise among those five, it’s Gruder. He came to Pitt as a middle linebacker, switched to strong side last season and only learned of his move to weak side days before spring drills started.
Here’s what Wannstedt is looking for in making such decisions:
“What’s been big in my mind is how the players have picked things up mentally,” Wannstedt said. “As you go through spring, you want to see which players are not just athletic enough to help you but which ones have a chance to learn in the classroom and apply it on the field and not make the same mistakes over and over again.”
It’s important to note that all three have taken advantage of a combination of graduation and injuries at their positions. At nose tackle, starter Rashaad Duncan graduated and his heir apparent, Gus Mustakas, missed the spring after undergoing knee surgery. At weak-side linebacker, Shane Murray was lost to a knee injury and his replacement, Austin Ransom, graduated. At free safety, starter Eric Thatcher graduated and reserve Irv Brown missed the spring with an injured Achilles.
It’s about taking advantage when opportunities are presented.
• Tailback and cornerback are two key position battles that yet to be determined, although frontrunners have emerged. Freshman Dion Lewis is taking the majority of reps with the first-team at tailback, ahead of redshirt freshman Chris Burns and redshirt sophomore Shariff Harris.
Lewis has shown the ability to hit holes quickly and a combination of power and elusiveness. Burns has been inconsistent this spring, too often looking to make defenders miss, and lacks the power to move a pile. Harris hasn’t shown enough speed, but has spent the past week playing fullback and could end up being the lone back when Pitt uses three-receiver sets.
Corner is in a state of flux because of starter Aaron Berry’s suspension and Ricky Gary’s knee injury. Senior Jovani Chappel started eight games last season and has taken advantage of his increased reps this spring after Gary was injured. Sophomore Antwuan Reed has replaced Berry with the first-team defense and is making a case to remain in the mix.
If Berry regains his good standing and Gary can return in good health, the two-deep might be set. If not, the competition for the fourth spot will be between redshirt sophomore Buddy Jackson and redshirt freshman Jarred Holley. At this point, Jackson might have a slight edge.
“Those guys are all right there, ready to make a major contribution,” Wannstedt said.
• While Wannstedt also said that while nothing is final, redshirt sophomore guard Chris Jacobson and sophomore tackle Lucas Nix are pushing for starting jobs on the offensive line.
“Can they take another step forward?” Wannstedt said.
Wannstedt and offensive line coach Tony Wise have repeatedly said they are looking for the best five to start on the offensive front. If returning starters John Malecki and Jason Pinkston are penciled in, as it appears, that leaves three spots open. Competing for those are Jacobson, Nix, Greg Gaskins, Jordan Gibbs, Robb Houser, Alex Karabin and Joe Thomas.
All seven have taken reps with the first-team offense this spring. Gibbs and Gaskins have split time at left tackle. Jacobson has spent the entire spring as the starting left guard. Houser and Karabin have shared reps at center. Nix and Thomas have taken turns at right tackle.
The question mark is at center, where neither Houser nor Karabin have shown they are the answer. As we’ve suggested, moving Malecki might be a solution. However, that opens a spot at right guard. Thomas, who started 14 games there as a freshman and sophomore, is a potential replacement.
That would leave the following starting lineup:
LT Pinkston, LG Jacobson, C Malecki, RG Thomas, RT Nix.
Such a combination would allow Pitt to play its top five linemen. The backups, with the exception of Houser, will have little to no game experience. Which makes the offensive line one of the most crucial areas for the Panthers to develop this summer.
• Wannstedt also hinted that sophomore split end Jonathan Baldwin is on the cusp of earning a starting job, unless Baldwin has already been ordained a starter and we didn’t know it. He started three games last season, but Oderick Turner started eight and Cedric McGee five.
“Our receiver group is pretty intact,” Wannstedt said. “We’ve got Jonathan Baldwin and between Cedric McGee and Oderick Turner, I think we’ve got two starters there. Both of those guys are more than qualified.”
• Perhaps the biggest misconception revolving around spring drills is the importance of the Blue-Gold Game. In reality, it’s little more than a glorified scrimmage in the eyes of Pitt coaches. And they evaluate it as such.
“We’ll put it in the same category as our last (two) Saturday scrimmages,” Wannstedt said. “We’ll look at the execution and how the players respond that way. It will be an important day for our players, no question about that, but I wouldn’t say it’s really any more important than the last two scrimmages.”
Added offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti: “You won’t see much. It will be real vanilla. We’ll just go out there and run a base offense and, obviously, just try to come out of it healthy.”
There is something to be said for the Panthers putting on their uniforms and performing in game-type situations before fans at Heinz Field.
“Just by being in the stadium and having people in the stands and knowing it’s on TV, that has a tendency to affect some players differently than if we were just up here on a Saturday morning, having a scrimmage in the bubble,” Wannstedt said. “That’s good. That type of exposure has a tendency to bring out the best and, sometimes, the worst in players.
“We need to find that out now.”
• Wannstedt said “all three quarterbacks have improved” this spring, and added that he likes “where we’re at right now with the quarterback position. It’s probably about where I would have hoped it would have been when we started.”
He assessed the play of Bill Stull, Pat Bostick and Tino Sunseri.
On Stull: “Billy, the last couple practices, has gotten closer to where he was before he got hurt last year. You can see the improvement, the confidence.”
On Bostick: “Pat is getting the ball out faster. If you look just at the numbers – completion percentage, interceptions – Pat is probably the most consistent.”
On Sunseri: “Tino is a freshman that might have as much or more ability than any of them.”
• Defensive end Jabaal Sheard missed his second consecutive practice, and Ty Tkach ran with the first team in his absence with Tony Tucker on the opposite side. Tkach started the spring on the interior but has moved ahead of redshirt sophomore Justin Hargrove in the past week at end.
• Not that I’ve been paying close attention, but I noticed today that Dan Hutchins was practicing the rugby punt and it’s possible that Pitt will have the former soccer player handle duties out of the unorthodox formation.
• Watched some of practice with Keystone Oaks coach Nick Kamberis, who noted that Caragein was a better offensive player as a high school tight end. Interestingly, Caragein made one of the better defensive plays when he drove former KO teammate Jacobson backwards and into Stull for a sack.
• Pitt worked on red-zone and two-minute drills in practice, and the defense got the better of its offensive counterparts in both.
Sunseri ran a red-zone drill with the first-team offense, but his only pass fell incomplete. Lewis ran over middle linebacker Steve Dell on one carry and slipped Gruder in the open field on another. McGee, however, got nowhere when Tucker was waiting for him on a reverse.
Stull ran with the second team and threw a pretty pass that tipped off the hands of redshirt freshman receiver Mike Shanahan, who drew sharp words from Wannstedt for dropping it. Stull rolled right on the next play and looked to Shanahan again in the right corner of the end zone, but that pass also deflected off the receiver’s hands. When the series ended, Stull had a short talk with Shanahan and patted him on the helmet.
Bostick took third-team reps and almost threw a touchdown pass to Greg Cross, but Holley broke it up – with some interference.
• Other practice highlights:
• Fullback Kevin Collier dropped a swing pass in the open field. He made up for it a few plays later when he ran the same play and made the catch, then ran over Holley at the goal line for a touchdown.
• Burns used a nice stiff-arm on safety Andrew Taglianetti, knocking his helmet off kilter, then sprinted down the sideline to the 1-yard line.
• In the two-minute drill, Dorin Dickerson drew praise for holding onto the ball for a 22-yard catch while absorbing a hit from safeties Taglianetti and Dom DeCicco.
Bostick floated a pass over the fingertips of linebacker Tristan Roberts that hit Shanahan in the chest for another drop. It was a rough day for Shanahan, who has had a nice spring. He finished strong, though, by leaping high to make a catch on a pass thrown by Sunseri.
“I was a little disappointed in today’s practice because I felt the defense did get the best of us walking off the field,” Cignetti said. “I’m a little disappointed in how we competed. I didn’t think we were very tough today. I thought when we handed the ball off, for the most part, the defense handed it to us. That was disappointing. But I also know we had 13 practices prior to this where we had success. We have an opportunity Saturday to go out there and redeem ourselves.”
• The Blue-Gold Game is 2 p.m. Saturday at Heinz Field.