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Pitt training camp — Practice No. 7


On the seventh day, they rested.

Two-a-days tend to takes a toll on players’ bodies. By the seventh day of Pitt’s training camp, the Panthers had their share of walking wounded.

Among those missing Monday’s afternoon session were right tackle Lucas Nix (infection), tight ends Nate Byham (headache) and Dorin Dickerson (hamstring), receiver Mike Shanahan (hand), defensive tackle Ty Tkach (foot) and safeties Irv Brown and Elijah Fields, whose injuries weren’t divulged but aren’t believed to be serious.

Add to that list an excused absence for tight end Mike Cruz, who missed his third consecutive day of practice for what Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt called “personal issues at home.” Wannstedt said he feels “very confident” that Cruz will return to practice on Tuesday.

The silver lining with injuries — so long as they’re not serious in nature — is that one man’s misfortune is another’s opportunity.

With Nix out, Greg Gaskins played with the first-team offense at right tackle and fared well. With the depleted depth chart at tight end, redshirt freshman Justin Virbitsky and true freshman Brock DeCicco split first- and second-team reps. Shanahan’s absence opened the door for Aaron Smith, who had a touchdown reception in the two-minute drill.

With Fields out, Andrew Taglianetti continued to work with the first-team defense. Third-team safeties Jason Hendricks and Marco Pecora took second-team reps. And Tkach’s injury prompted the move of Justin Hargrove (the subject of Wednesday’s feature in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review) from end to tackle. That switch already is being hailed by Wannstedt as an instant success — one that has had a domino effect by creating more playing time for ends Shayne Hale and Brandon Lindsey.

“From a personnel standpoint, the development of some of our backup defensive linemen has shown up,” Wannstedt said. “I’m very impressed with Tony Tucker, Shayne Hale, Brandon Lindsey and … very pleased with their progress. They’ve been steady day after day after day after day.”

Training camp is where jobs are won and the depth chart is determined. It’s only been a week of practice, but those things are slowly coming together. They will start to shape up more quickly after the first scrimmage Tuesday. Before you know it, the season will be upon us.

· That said, let’s take a look at the depth chart:

On offense, the first team has looked like this:

WR Jonathan Baldwin, TE Byham, LT Jason Pinkston, LG Chris Jacobson, C Robb Houser, RG John Malecki and RT Lucas Nix, WR Cedric McGee, QB Bill Stull, FB Henry Hynoski and TB Dion Lewis. In two-tight sets, Dickerson has replaced Hynoski at times. In three-receiver sets, Oderick Turner is the third wide out.

· There are serious battles at two positions, tailback and left guard. Lewis had some spectacular runs Monday, but he has to show improvement as a receiver out of the backfield and in picking up pass protections. Chris Burns and Shariff Harris have had their moments, and freshmen newcomers drew praise from Wannstedt this afternoon.

“The young running backs, Ray Graham and Jason Douglas, both showed up today a few plays, which was very encouraging. You could see their athleticism. You could see their ability,” Wannstedt said. “It will be interesting when they get in the scrimmage, when it’s full speed with no help from the coaches. Will they be able to deal with it all?”

The left guard competition is too close to call, although it says here that Joe Thomas has the early edge despite taking almost strictly second-team repetitions. The coaches know what they have in Thomas, who had a strong off-season. He’s one of the team’s strongest players – if not the strongest – and reported to camp in the best shape of his career.

That puts the pressure on Jacobson, whose greatest difficulty has been knowing his assignments. Physically, there are no concerns. But he has to earn the trust of the Pitt coaches to win a starting job.

Even so, if Wannstedt and offensive line coach Tony Wise determine that both Jacobson and Houser deserve to be in the starting lineup, that could put pressure on Houser. Pitt’s defensive line has been relatively dominant in camp, so it’s unfair to point the finger at one player in particular. But C.J. Davis proved an upgrade when he replaced Houser at center last season, and there’s a feeling that John Malecki could do the same, if necessary.

· Another potential position battle, one that is developing daily, is at quarterback. Stull has struggled in camp, while backup Pat Bostick has been solid if unspectacular. Redshirt freshman Tino Sunseri is impressing coaches with his playmaking ability, and his confidence in the huddle appears to be growing with each opportunity.

Wannstedt once again did his best to downplay the competition.

“I would say he’s having a good camp,” Wannstedt said. “So is Pat Bostick. So is Billy Stull. We’re evaluating them every day, talking about it. Things are status quo and we’re just the first week. We haven’t even had a live scrimmage yet. … but Tino is making progress. He’s getting better. He’s learning a lot. I’m very encouraged with where he’s at right now.”

· The first-team defense has looked like this:

DE Jabaal Sheard, DT Mick Williams, NG Gus Mustakas, DE Greg Romeus, SLB Greg Williams, MLB Adam Gunn, WLB Max Gruder, CB Aaron Berry, FS Dom DeCicco, SS Andrew Taglianetti and CB Jovani Chappel. Fields is the nickel back.

The defensive lineup is practically set. The only real position battle is at safety, where Taglianetti has surpassed Fields. The coaching staff probably would prefer to have Fields playing deep, only if for his size advantage but there is a trust factor with Taglianetti that gives him the edge.

It’s possible that Caragein could push Mustakas for playing time, but Mustakas has an edge in experience and Caragein suffered a setback by losing several full-contact practices to the ankle injury.

Chappel also is a proven commodity at corner, especially in press coverage, although his size is a concern against taller receivers. He has no answer for Jonathan Baldwin (few do), but the top backup is Ricky Gary, who is the same height (5-foot-9) and 10 pounds lighter.

Sophomore Antwuan Reed and redshirt freshman Jarred Holley have been impressive at times in camp, Reed for his coverage and Holley for his instincts in picking off passes, but Chappel is the odds-on favorite.

Aside from injury, the only player I can envision disrupting the starting lineup is Dan Mason, the freshman middle linebacker from Penn Hills. Not only does he look the part, at 6-foot, 225 pounds, but he’s a hitter who has shown signs of being aggressive and outspoken.

Mason already has passed fifth-year senior Steve Dell for second-team reps, and Mason’s development could determine whether Gunn remains in the middle or returns to the outside, where he might be better suited.

“Dan Mason continues to show us that he’s going to be an outstanding player here at the University of Pittsburgh,” Wannstedt said. “Mason is where we were hoping he’d be. The one thing with him is, physically, he’s ready to play but as the offense adds plays and situations, every day is a new learning experience for him. I’ll be curious to see where he’s at two weeks from now or the third week of the season.”

“I could see him getting playing time, and I think he will.”

Highlights from practice:

· Lewis had one run where he skipped through the middle and spun off a defender for a touchdown. Another time, he bounced outside and ran virtually untouched for a scoring play.

· Bostick found Aundre Wright on a pass, and Wright sped past Hendricks and Pecora to go deep along the right sideline. Wright has a chance to be a real game-breaker for the Panthers; it’s just a matter of getting him the ball in the right situations.

· The safeties teamed for a turnover when DeCicco forced a fumble by Douglas and Taglianetti recovered. Don’t be surprised to see DeCicco and Taglianetti working well together. They’re a natural fit.

· Weak-side linebacker Manny Williams made his first big play of camp, crushing Lewis on a screen pass from Stull just after the ball arrived. Lewis wasn’t looking when he came out of the backfield, and Stull hesitated until Lewis turned his head. Williams delivered a shot that left Lewis down for a few moments before returning to play.

· Sunseri fired a bullet to Wright in 11-on-11 drills, hitting him on the numbers for a completion despite Wright having Holley draped on his back. How close? When Wright stopped, Holley flipped over him.

· Hendricks drew praise from defensive coordinator Phil Bennett for his hustle, despite getting beat on a pass to Aaron Smith. Both right guard Ryan Turnley and right tackle Dan Matha threw blocks on Hendricks, but he recovered to chase Smith down along the right sideline after a big gain.

· Graham had a thrilling run where cut, spun and slipped through tackles for a 37-yard gain before Reed finally chased him down at the 13.

· The Panthers conducted a two-minute drill, and each quarterback took a turn with the first-team offense against a first-team defense using the second-team defensive front, just to even things out a little.

Bill Stull’s turn ended in an interception, when he was hit by DeCicco on a fourth-and-1 pass that tipped off Baldwin’s hands and was bobbled several times before being intercepted by Gary on the right sideline.

· Bostick’s turn ended with a 23-yard touchdown pass to Smith in the upper left corner of the end zone, a play in which Wannstedt raved, “He made a great throw in the corner of the end zone with Bokor hitting him right in the mouth.”

· Sunseri’s turn saw him complete passes of 20 and 17 yards to Baldwin to move the ball to the 3 with 10 seconds left. That set up a fade from Sunseri to Baldwin, who leapt and caught it one-handed like a softball over a helpless Chappel for a touchdown.

* Pitt will have a controlled scrimmage at 3 p.m. Tuesday. For live camp updates, follow me on Twitter @KGorman_Trib.



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