The starting quarterback position was essentially handed to fifth-year senior Bill Stull at the outset of training camp, when Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt named him the starter and downplayed talk of an open competition.
That took all the pressure off Stull, who only had to perform at a consistent level to retain the job, and placed it on backups Pat Bostick and Tino Sunseri to perform at a higher level to gain consideration.
Through the first six days of camp, however, Stull has lost his vise-like grip on the starting job. And he has no one to blame but himself. Sure, you have to take into consideration that he’s running the first-team offense against the first-team defense, which has him running for his life at times. And that Tino Sunseri is playing well when given the opportunity.
But that’s not the reason Stull has struggled.
Simply put, Stull isn’t making the throws. He’s missing open receivers. He’s off-target, whether it’s too short, too long or over the wrong shoulder. That’s not the worst of it. On Sunday, the fourth consecutive day Stull has struggled, he threw three interceptions and two touchdowns despite working on gold zone (15 yards in) and red zone (15 yards out) drills.
Unlike Wannstedt, Frank Cignetti Jr., Pitt’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, hasn’t declared one quarterback the unquestioned starter. He’s charting every play, and also knows that Pat Bostick threw four touchdowns and two interceptions, Sunseri one score and no picks.
“The guy that we feel that gives us the best chance to win is going to be the starting quarterback,” Cignetti said. “A big part of that is going to be who protects the football. … Today, we defeated ourselves. … We took some sacks. We threw some interceptions. We did things that lose football games for you. We talk all the time about eliminating the bad play. We had too many bad plays today. We had plays that lose football games for us. On the other hand, we had some good plays. We need to make more.”
He wasn’t just talking about Stull, either.
After practice, Cignetti briefly outlined the traits he’s looking for from his candidates for the starting quarterback position. It’s no surprise that he’s looking primarily for a “game manager” although it should be noted that Pitt probably doesn’t possess a “game changer” at the position.
“First and foremost, which quarterback gives us the best chance to win? What quarterback can truly lead this offense? What quarterback can manage the game?” Cignetti said. “A big part of the quarterback is the functional intelligence. When adversity strikes, you better be able to overcome adversity. So the mindset is very important. Who can run the offense? Who can get us out of a bad play? Then we talk about what quarterbacks can go out there and compete, overcome adversity, wants the ball in his hand, wants to make the play?”
It appears to be a confidence issue for Stull, as bad days tend to get worse instead of better. I’m not suggesting Stull shouldn’t be the starter, but if he wants to retain that role now is the time to start performing.
· One of the problems for Pitt’s offense Sunday is that it was short on tight ends, a position once considered among its deepest.
Transfer Andrew Devlin is limited, after having surgery on his right knee this past spring. Dorin Dickerson has a sore hamstring. Nate Byham took a hit in the morning session – which was closed to the media – that left him with a headache, so he was held out of the later practice as a precaution. And Mike Cruz was missing for the second consecutive day, although Wannstedt called it an “excused absence.”
Wannstedt said he will meet with Cruz on Monday.
That left only Justin Virbitsky, Brock DeCicco and walk-on Jon Tisak at tight end, which forced the Panthers to adjust their formations and utilize more two-back, three receiver sets than normal.
· Another position addressed due to attrition is defensive tackle, where the Panthers have been without Myles Caragein (ankle) and Ty Tkach (foot) and gave Gus Mustakas (knee) the afternoon session off.
A pleasant surprise has been the move made by redshirt sophomore Justin Hargrove, who ran with the first-team defense in place of Mustakas. Wannstedt said Hargrove has found a home and will remain inside.
· Left guard Joe Thomas displayed some physical downfield blocking, twice at the expense of outside linebacker Tristan Roberts. The first time, Thomas shoved Roberts out of the way to create running room for tailback Shariff Harris. The next time, Thomas led the way on a screen to tailback Dion Lewis. Not only did Thomas clear out Roberts, but Thomas threw his body into two other defenders to spring Lewis on the left sideline.
“Joe is a starting guard for us,” Wannstedt said. “That’s working out. We have reasons why we juggle some people around. We aren’t close to setting a lineup for Youngstown State yet. If Joe keeps practicing like he’s been, we know what he’s doing and he’ll be in the lineup. He’s having a good camp.”
There’s one catch. Thomas is running with the second-team offense, behind Chris Jacobson. Which leads you to believe that Wannstedt still is looking for his “five best” linemen, and either Jacobson has yet to earn that distinction or the Panthers still could make a move at center.
· Redshirt freshman Mike Shanahan continues to impress and is making a strong bid to become the team’s fourth receiver, alongside Jonathan Baldwin, Cedric McGee and Oderick Turner.
Shanahan made a diving catch of a Sunseri pass near the sideline and caught a touchdown pass from Stull in the back of the end zone, but those weren’t necessarily the plays that captured Wannstedt’s attention. Rather, Shanahan opened eyes by engaging in a fight with safety Elijah Fields.
“Mike Shanahan did two things: he’s earned the respect of that receiver group and the whole offense,” Wannstedt said. “I don’t think the guy’s dropped a pass in six days I don’t want to jinx him but he also went after Elijah Fields. They got into a pretty good one on the sidelines. I’m not saying that’s what you do to earn the respect, but I’ll tell you, when you walk back to the huddle it sure as heck sends a message to the guys.”
· Not that it’s a news flash, but defensive end Greg Romeus continues to dominate nearly every practice.
Examples: On a screen to Lewis, Romeus was in the backfield but turned and tracked down the tailback at the line of scrimmage as soon as he caught the ball. On the next play, a reverse to Baldwin, Romeus hit the receiver 5 yards deep in the backfield.
Romeus also deflected a Bostick pass at the line – we’ve lost count of how many times this has happened in camp – and end Jabaal Sheard intercepted it and could have returned it for a touchdown. Defensive tackle Craig Bokor also had an interception.
“I thought the defense made a ton of plays,” Wannstedt said. “We had two defensive linemen get interceptions this afternoon. The front four, as long as they’re making it happen, we’ve got a chance on defense. They’re putting a lot of pressure on our offensive line and a lot of pressure on our quarterbacks. Today wasn’t real pretty, but we’ll get better. That’s the point of real good competition.”
· Cornerback Aaron Berry also has been outstanding in camp. Berry intercepted two Stull passes. The first was intended for McGee on the right sideline. (Stull’s next pass, also intended for McGee, sailed out of bounds). Berry also broke up a Bostick pass intended for Turner in the end zone, then got his second pick when Stull’s pass to Turner went over the wrong shoulder.
· Speaking of cornerbacks making interceptions, Jarred Holley picked off another pass in practice. He’s had several in camp, and his instincts in playing tight coverage are a reason why he’s pushing Antwuan Reed for the fourth corner spot behind Berry, Jovani Chappel and Ricky Gary.
Reed, by the way, made a nice breakup on a Sunseri pass over the middle intended for Aundre Wright at the goal line. Soon after, Wright showed his speed by beating Roberts on a slant for a 20-yard score.
· Not all of Stull’s incomplete passes are his fault, mind you. But this is what we’re seeing: Stull threw a pass down the left sideline to a wide-open Lewis, who misjudged the ball and tried to run under it at the last second and then dropped the ball. On the next play, Stull threw again to Lewis but this one was a floater that sailed over the tiny tailback’s head. Then, after being flushed out of the pocket by Romeus, Stull threw a pass to the upper corner of the end zone that didn’t reach McGee.
Then again, Stull stepped up in the pocket and threw a slightly wobbly pass over the middle directly to Turner, only to see Turner drop it at the goal line. It was one of those days.
· Bostick and Baldwin re-enacted their Notre Dame heroics with a fade to the right corner, this time from the 5-yard line. In South Bend, it took four tries. This time, they needed only one take. Bostick lobbed a pass and Baldwin soared over Chappel to catch it for a touchdown.
· Pitt practices at 2 p.m. Monday. The Panthers have two-a-days Tuesday, with the second session serving as their first scrimmage. For live camp updates, follow @KGorman_Trib on Twitter.