The first two days of Pitt training camp should come with disclaimers:
This is not real football.
And this is not really the depth chart.
The Panthers have conducted helmets-only, split-squad practices with a mix-match of lineups. While the morning sessions most closely mirror the two-deep, some of the top backups and almost all of the top freshmen were practicing in the afternoon.
None of this is lost on Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt.
“We’re getting one day closer to playing football,” Wannstedt said Wednesday afternoon. “Tomorrow, the shoulder pads go on. Not quite full pads, but we are making progress toward being able to do some blocking and tackling for real.”
Later, he added: “We’ve got a long way to go. We haven’t tackled a soul. All these plays and blitzes, it looks good on paper. But this is still a game of blocking and tackling.”
If there was one thing Wannstedt was pleased with in the afternoon, it was that the newcomers learned a valuable lesson. A lightning storm midway through the practice forced the Panthers off the outdoor fields at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex and into the indoor facility.
“That gave us the opportunity to evaluate these guys from a focus standpoint. Can they handle distractions?” Wannstedt said. “They came in and on the first two plays we had two guys go the wrong way and we had one fumble. It was a great learning lesson that we can use to illustrate the importance of not being distracted.”
Safe to say, it’s a lesson the veterans already learned. Wannstedt has been impressed by their business-like approach to camp and especially how clean and crisp the first two days of camp have gone in the morning.
“The older guys did a very good job of coming out here and not getting too antsy about putting the pads on and jumping from Day One to Day Four,” he said. “They stayed with the program. The focus was good. We’ve been clean the last two mornings as far as turnovers – which tells me the guys are concentrating and executing.”
• As Wannstedt alluded to, the first handoff during seven-on-seven drills inside saw tailback Ray Graham fumble a handoff from quarterback Pat Bostick. Write it off as a freshman mistake if you will, but it’s the second time Graham has fumbled in as many practices.
And that’s a cause for concern.
In fact, Wannstedt recounted with backfield newcomers Kevin Adams, Jason Douglas, Dion Lewis and Graham the message he delivered to former Pitt star LeSean McCoy when he arrived as a freshman in 2007.
“I told all those running backs the same thing I told LeSean McCoy: He said, ‘Coach, what do I have to do to play at Pitt as a freshman?’ I said, ‘You’ve got to do three things: No. 1, you’ve got to hold onto the football. No. 2, you have to prove to this whole football team that you’re a tough guy. No. 3, you have to be able to go out and execute the game plan, know what to do,’” Wannstedt said. “I think that’s where we’re at with the Ray Grahams, Dion Lewis’, all these young kids. They’ve got to be able to accomplish those things before we put them into the ballgame for real.”
In other words, hold onto the football.
• Speaking of tailbacks, Douglas impressed with his burst out of the backfield and his open-field cutting ability. Wannstedt called him “fast, fast, really fast.” Douglas is only 5-foot-7, 170 pounds (soaking wet, probably), but Douglas combines the size and speed of LaRod Stephens-Howling with the change-of-direction wiggle of McCoy.
Not that he’s a combination of them, but not bad attributes to have.
As much pressure as there is to find a tailback to replace McCoy and Stephens-Howling, Wannstedt has the luxury of a talented cast to choose from and a veteran line to put the starter behind, so he won’t rush his decision based on one day of practice without pads or full contact.
“Jason Douglas came out here and said he looked like LaRod Stephens-Howling as a freshman. I said, ‘Yeah, but guess what? When LaRod came in, he was the fastest freshman on the team.’ I don’t think Jason Douglas is. We’ve got about three backs who can run as fast as he can, so the competition is better. He’s no different than Dion Lewis or Chris Burns or Ray Graham. We’ve got some backs who can make that happen.”
• Perhaps Wannstedt’s confidence in his backfield is greater after watching Burns play so well in the early session. After a forgettable spring, Burns is suddenly back on the radar for the starting tailback job.
“Chris Burns had a very good morning,” Wannstedt said. “We’ve got to get him back to where he was at last year at camp.”
• One player who stood out was redshirt freshman receiver Cam Saddler, who answered questions about his surgically repaired knee by making a diving catch near the left sideline.
“You know who laid out today and made two great catches and bounced up, was Cam Saddler,” Wannstedt said. “He’s a guy who was hurt in the spring. He’s not just back full speed, but he’s making plays.”
• Saddler was one of five players handling punt returns at the outset of practice outdoors. The others were Aaron Smith, Douglas, Greg Cross and Jarred Holley. Berry did the same in the morning session.
• Smith made a nice comeback for a catch on a throw by Bostick, who escaped pocket pressure by rolling left and throwing across his body on the run to the left sideline.
• Cross made a nice catch in triple coverage of a Bostick pass over the middle. The pass was slightly high and away, yet Cross shielded the defenders and caught the ball with both hands away from his body.
• Holley drew praise after he intercepted an Andrew Janocko pass intended for walk-on Caleb Wilson, the only turnover in either practice.
• Freshman quarterback Kolby Gray practiced, but did participate in throwing drills, which were handled by Bostick and Janocko. Offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. told Rivals.com Pantherlair editor Chris Peak that Gray’s shoulder “is bothering him a little bit, so we wanted to rest him a little bit, get a little rehab on it and get healthy.”
• The Panthers will conduct a full-squad practice at 2 p.m. Thursday, their first in helmets and shoulder pads. Pitt’s first practice in full pads is at 2 p.m. Saturday.
• Follow live camp updates on Twitter at KGorman_Trib.