The second session of Pitt’s first day of training camp gave us a first glance at the Panthers’ newcomers, and a handful of freshmen passed the look test with flying colors.
Among the most impressive players – at least, physically – were tailback Ray Graham, fullback Kevin Adams, receiver Ed Tinker, right tackle Cory King, defensive end Jack Lippert, defensive tackle Tyrone Ezell, middle linebacker Dan Mason and weak-side linebacker Carl Fleming.
Out of that group, Adams, Tinker, Mason, Ezell and Fleming really stood out. There is a buzz around training camp about Mason, who bench-pressed 350 pounds and gained the respect of upperclassmen with his physique and intensity. Ezell is 6-foot-4, 270 pounds, by far the biggest of the interior linemen, yet sprinted downfield on one running play.
Both Adams and Fleming were recruited as safeties, but outgrew the position. Adams showed nice burst on his carries from fullback, and Fleming still moves with the swiftness of a defensive back despite carrying 210 pounds on his 6-1 frame.
What’s interesting about the Class of 2009 is that very few will compete for spots in the starting lineup or even crack the depth chart. The only ones expected to play immediately (injuries notwithstanding) are one or two of the three true freshmen tailbacks – Jason Douglas, Dion Lewis and Graham – and, depending on how quickly he learns the defense, Mason.
Consider five years ago, when Conredge Collins, C.J. Davis, Rashaad Duncan, Gus Mustakas and LaRod Stephens-Howling all played significant roles. That combination of depth and talent is why the Panthers are predicted as favorites to win the Big East Conference.
“The biggest difference today compared to years past, it is so obvious in linebackers, tight ends, offensive and defensive linemen, there’s such a big separation freshman compared to the (veteran) guys,” Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. “A running back or defensive back who runs a 4.4 in high school isn’t going to get any faster. If he runs a 4.4 in high school, he’s going to run a 4.4 in college. The skill guys, there’s probably not as much difference now as there was in years past, but it’s so obvious with the linemen, linebackers and tight ends – and we’ve got some good-looking freshmen – but when you see those guys physically, there’s a difference.”
· Tino Sunseri looked sharp throwing the ball, and has demonstrated the best arm of the quarterbacks on both short and long passes. He shows his inexperience, however, in running the offense. There were occasional lapses, whether it was an illegal procedure, botched hand-off or off-the-mark throw. Sunseri has the talent to push for playing time, but the pocket presence is why he’s starting camp behind Bill Stull and Pat Bostick.
· Graham drew harsh words from running backs coach David Walker after fumbling a hand-off from Sunseri in position drills, but showed nice open-field moves during the inside-run and team drills. Graham can accelerate, then make defenders miss without breaking stride. The running back competition should heat up in the next few days, but we won’t really know much until the players practice in full pads on Saturday.
· Freshman quarterback Kolby Gray reportedly ran the 40-yard dash in 4.58 seconds – no other quarterback broke the five-second mark – but his arm strength needs work. While Gray puts nice touch on the ball, he seemed to struggle to throw the deep outs, putting a lot of shoulder into his passes. In other words, Gray will likely need some time for grooming.
* Tinker made a diving catch during position drills and, after spending a year at prep school, is physically ahead of many of his classmates in the skill positions. The hard part will be making a climb up a depth chart that includes seniors Greg Cross, Cedric McGee and Oderick Turner, sophomores Jonathan Baldwin and Aaron Smith and redshirt freshmen Cameron Saddler and Mike Shanahan.
· Two walk-ons made big interceptions, as Danny Cafaro picked off one pass in seven-on-seven drills and Marco Pecora cut off a wobbly throw by Gray later. Look for both Cafaro and Pecora to make their mark on special teams units this season.
· The highlight of the second practice was Aaron Smith’s one-handed catch of a Sunseri pass near the left sideline with Cafaro in coverage. Smith then raced away for a touchdown. He’s a dark horse in the competition for one of the top four receiver spots.
· Wannstedt said redshirt sophomore cornerback Buddy Jackson is “day-to-day” with a “non-football” injury, while redshirt sophomore center Wayne Jones it out indefinitely after having knee surgery.
· Pitt will split the squad again for two more helmets-only practices Wednesday before adding shoulder pads on Thursday and Friday. For up-to-the-minute camp updates, follow me on Twitter @KGorman_Trib.