Elijah Fields is still the starting strong safety.
Even if Andrew Taglianetti worked with Pitt’s first-team defense much of the fourth day of training camp.
Or something like that.
After dropping Fields to second team Thursday for “internal issues,” Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt tried to clear up matters:
First: “Elijah is our starter.”
Then: “Obviously, they are both alternating.”
Finally: “They are both starters in my mind.”
Confusing as that might seem, Wannstedt’s logic was sound. If Fields wants to start for the Panthers, he’s going to have to do the right things off the field. If not, Taglianetti is ready to go. The demotion seemed to light a fire under Fields, who had his best practice of camp – if not the best of his four years at Pitt – with a spirited performance that drew praise from his coach.
While Fields was beat deep for a 45-yard touchdown from Stull to Jonathan Baldwin on a fourth-and-4 in the two-minute drill – who on Pitt’s defense hasn’t been? – the redshirt junior received a high five from Wannstedt after shedding a block by fullback Henry Hynoski to chase down Cedric McGee on a receiver reverse.
Later, tailback Shariff Harris slipped through the grasp of linebacker Nate Nix only to run into Fields, who lifted Harris off his feet and slammed him head-first into the turf to the cheers of those wearing blue jerseys.
Which brought this clarification from Wannstedt after practice:
“They split reps with the ones today,” Wannstedt said. “Tags took the first shot out, but Elijah responded the right way today and made some plays.”
• Bad news for freshman quarterback Kolby Gray, as Wannstedt announced that he has a tear in his right (throwing) shoulder that will require surgery early next week. Gray, who sat out the past three practices after throwing with discomfort on Tuesday, will take a redshirt this fall.
“He came in and he was having severe pain. They tested on the MRI. He has a little tear on his throwing shoulder,” Wannstedt said. “Could we get through it? Yes. I think the smart thing to do under the circumstances, is to get it taken care of right now. Get him back rehabbed and doing some scout-team type of work before the end of the season.”
• Pitt’s depth at defensive tackle took a blow when redshirt junior Ty Tkach (foot) and redshirt sophomore Myles Caragein (ankle) missed practice. While Tkach is out for a couple of weeks, Caragein could return for Saturday’s first day of full-contact drills in full pads.
In their absence, the Panthers moved 6-foot-4, 265-pound redshirt sophomore Justin Hargrove from end to tackle, where he has lined up alongside Chas Alecxih and Craig Bokor.
• Wannstedt said he expects some separation in the position battles and on the depth chart, especially at tailback, when the Panthers start doing live – or full-contact – drills on Saturday.
“That’s what the live work will do,” he said. “We will do some form of live tackling, full-speed work every day from here on out.”
• Some more practice highlights:
• Strong-side linebacker Greg Williams made a nice effort by getting a hand on a Bill Stull pass over the middle, but it tipped into the hands of a streaking Jonathan Baldwin behind him. Baldwin later tipped a pass to himself – with cornerback Aaron Berry in coverage – in the end zone for a touchdown.
• Even an incomplete pass can draw the ire of defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, who chewed out cornerback Antwuan Reed for not using his arms to defend a deep throw that squirted out of the grasp of Mike Shanahan.
• While Fields had a strong day, Taglianetti made a pair of nice stops in succession: he made a diving breakup of a pass intended for Oderick Turner, then a tackle on the ensuing play.
• Turner later made a shoestring catch of a Stull pass on the left sideline, and caught a 45-yard touchdown pass from Tino Sunseri with corner Jovani Chappel in coverage.
• With Fields pressuring the pocket in a red-zone drill, Stull dumped a screen pass to Chris Burns, who slipped through the defense for a TD.
• Dion Lewis turned a swing pass into a big gain, stopping on a dime to make corner Ricky Gary miss then picking up extra yards in the two-minute drill.
• It wasn’t necessarily a bad day for the corners, as Aaron Berry and Jarred Holley both picked off passes.
• The Panthers practice again at 2 p.m. Saturday.