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Pitt training camp – Scrimmage No. 1

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While we here at Sitting Ringside (OK, just me) typically take pride in trying to disprove the conservative offensive philosophy of a certain college football coach (Dave Wannstedt), let us instead play devil’s advocate.

Consider, for a moment, that you are the head football coach at the University of Pittsburgh. Your Panthers have been picked in a preseason media poll to win the Big East Conference. Your defense is considered one of the top 10 nationally. This is your fifth year, and you are expected to deliver on your promise of returning Pitt to national prominence.

Are you going to bench a fifth-year senior quarterback with a 9-4 record in 13 career starts in favor of a redshirt freshman who has never taken a snap in a college game after eight days of training camp?

The answer is a resounding no.

So, before we begin the recap of Pitt’s first controlled scrimmage, let us end the outrage over Wannstedt’s insistence Tuesday that Bill Stull remains the starting quarterback. Stull has struggled. Tino Sunseri has shined. Pat Bostick has been steady, solid if unspectacular.

What is Wannstedt supposed to do? Pitt fans would like to hear Wannstedt announce that he is opening the quarterback job up for competition. They would like to hear him say, “Let the best man win.”

Don’t hold your breath.

What Wannstedt is doing is standing by his starting quarterback publicly, despite Stull’s unimpressive play in camp so far. It says here that Wannstedt should be applauded. Now is the time to build confidence in your quarterback. The season opener is less than two weeks away.

The message has been served. Offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. has made it clear in the quarterback room that there is open competition. Stull knows this, as do Bostick and Sunseri. It’s as simple as this: perform and play, struggle and sit. But training camp is not the time to, as Cignetti likes to say, make such decisive decisions.

Come September, it’s a different story.

Perform and play. Struggle and sit. Win or lose.

• The scrimmage started with Stull running the first-team offense against the first-team defense, although Greg Gaskins was at right tackle in place of Lucas Nix (leg), Greg Cross in the slot for Cedric McGee (hamstring) and Mike Cruz at tight end for Nate Byham (headache) and Chas Alecxih started at defensive tackle for Mick Williams.

Advantage: defense.

The white jerseys got off to a rough start, drawing a flag for illegal procedure on first down and tailback Dion Lewis picking up 2 yards on the first play before Stull’s quick pass intended for Jonathan Baldwin was picked off by Jarred Holley and returned for a touchdown. Stull said the defense inserted a sub-package he hadn’t seen before – employing six defensive backs – and credited Holley for jumping the nine-step route.

The second series didn’t fare much better, as Lewis ran for a 2-yard gain and a swing pass to Cam Saddler went for 4 yards before Lewis was stopped short by middle linebacker Adam Gunn on a third-and-4 screen.

The quarterbacks were supposed to be off-limits to contact – on Wannstedt’s whistle – but defensive end Jabaal Sheard hit Stull to cause a pass to fall incomplete. On the next play, another dime package on third-and-6 at the 39, Stull sidestepped Sheard and completed an 11-yard pass to Saddler for a first down.

That awakened the offense. Stull found Oderick Turner for gains of 11 and 7 yards, and Lewis converted a third-and-2. Sheard was whistled for a facemask, giving the offense the ball at the 14, and Lewis shrugged off a tackle attempt by safety Andrew Taglianetti on his way to the end zone.

• Bostick took second-team snaps and proceeded to go three-and-out on his first two chances. Credit strong-side linebacker Tristan Roberts for making a nice tackle on tailback Chris Burns on a pass in the right flat for a 6-yard loss on the second series.

On the third series, Bostick converted a third-and-3 with a swing pass to fullback Kevin Collier for an 8-yard gain. Burns had gains of 10 and 1 yards before cornerback Ricky Gary’s blitz forced Bostick to throw it away. On third-and-9, Bostick’s pass intended for Aaron Smith fell incomplete.

• Sunseri took his turn with the first team, but mostly handed off to Lewis, who broke Berry’s ankles on a 9-yard run. Sunseri’s first pass was nearly intercepted when it was batted high at the line of scrimmage and Gunn and Gary collided while trying to catch it. A low snap on third-and-13 caused Sunseri to be sacked by Taglianetti for a big loss.

• Bostick returned with the second-team offense, where he has been mostly relegated, taking almost no first-team snaps. That is prompting conversation that Bostick, who is 4-4 in eight career starts, is a) the pre-ordained backup; or b) he’s a candidate for a redshirt. It’s too early to tell, but players say that Bostick has the best huddle presence of the three.

Freshman tailback Jason Douglas hit the hole quick on a third-and-3, picking up 6 yards for a first down before safety Danny Cafaro wrapped up Douglas by the ankles. Bostick ran a bootleg for a first down on a third-and-3, but a holding penalty brought it back. His third-and-8 pass intended for Caleb Wilson fell incomplete.

Bostick’s next series was another three-and-out, this one ended on a sack by defensive end Brandon Lindsey.

• Sunseri took over with the first-team offense again, this time leading a scoring drive that ended with a 30-yard field goal by Dan Hutchins. An 8-yard pass to Turner set up Lewis’ 5-yard gain up the middle on fourth-and-1, and Sunseri hit Turner again for 15 yards to the 10 on a crossing route with DeCicco and Taglianetti in coverage.

Sunseri threw another pretty pass, a corner fade to Baldwin, who caught it over Gary but dropped it on the way down. On third-and-goal, DeCicco was flagged for defensive holding against Cruz in the end zone. Burns ran for no gain, and Sunseri was sacked for an 8-yard loss.

• The offensive momentum had a hiccup when freshman tailback Ray Graham entered with the third team and promptly fumbled on his first two carries. Strong-side linebacker Shane Gordon recovered the first and ran untouched down the sideline. Graham’s second run, which went for 15 yards, was negated by receiver Ed Tinker’s holding penalty.

Graham recovered, however, going for gains of 8, 1 and 4 yards, the latter on a third-and-2. Two plays later, Sunseri rolled right and found walk-on tight end Jon Tisak behind Todd Gilchrist and Jeremiah Davis for a touchdown.

• Stull returned and, after a three-and-out, led another field-goal drive, this one ending with Kevin Harper’s 36-yarder. A 13-yard pass to Aaron Smith and a 10-yarder to Wilson on third-and-12 set up the kick.

• Andrew Janocko led the third-team offense on a touchdown drive from the 50, although Graham did most of the heavy lifting. He ran for several big gains – including one in which he made four defenders miss – before scoring on a 1-yard run to end the scrimmage.

Here are some highlights:

• On the first punt, Smith stood at the 10 and let the ball sail past him, but Andrew Taglianetti raced after it and made a diving save that Antwuan Reed downed at the 1-yard line.

• Sheard was whistled for holding when he horse-collared Gaskins and swam by, a penalty that outraged defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, who barked at the official for several minutes about having such audacity. Bennett has an entertaining way of chewing out people, whether it’s players or officials, so long as you’re not on the receiving end of it.

• Greg Williams made a nice hit on Burns, standing him straight up after a 1-yard gain on a first-and-goal.

• Between Lewis and Graham, both New Jersey natives, Pitt has a pair of freshmen with dazzling open-field cuts. Lewis has the early edge because of his experience in spring drills and ability to hold onto the football. By my count, Graham has fumbled at least four times in the first eight days of camp. That’s a sure way to find a redshirt in Wannstedt’s world.

• Final statistics:

Rushing: Ray Graham 12-42, Dion Lewis 13-41, Chris Burns 9-20, Jason Douglas 6-16, Aundre Wright 1-4, Ed Tinker 1-(-4), Pat Bostick 1-(-6), Tino Sunseri 1-(-15). Total 45-98.

Passing: Bill Stull 9-14-1-57, Pat Bostick 5-10-0-18, Tino Sunseri 6-7-0-60. Total 20-31-1-135.

Receiving: Oderick Turner 4-42, Jon Tisak 1-22, Caleb Wilson 3-19, Cam Saddler 2-15, Aaron Smith 1-13, Aundre Wright 2-10, Kevin Collier 1-9, John Malecki 1-3, Chris Burns 3-(-2), Dion Lewis 1-(-3).

• Freshman tailback Jason Douglas, who rushed for 16 yards on six carries, suffered a leg injury and had to be carried off the field by assistant strength and conditioning coach James Smith.

• Wannstedt said redshirt junior defensive tackle Ty Tkach had surgery on his left foot and is expected to miss three weeks. He is the third Panthers player to undergo recent surgery, following center Wayne Jones (knee) and quarterback Kolby Gray (shoulder).

• The Panthers scrimmaged without the following players: safeties Irv Brown (calf), Elijah Fields (foot) and Marco Pecora (ankle), tight ends Nate Byham (headache), Dorin Dickerson (hamstring) and Andrew Devlin (knee), linebacker Carl Fleming (headache), tailback Shariff Harris (hamstring), cornerback Buddy Jackson (jaw), receivers Cedric McGee (hamstring) and Mike Shanahan (hand) and right tackle Lucas Nix (leg).

• After missing three days of practices, redshirt freshman tight end Mike Cruz returned to practice and ran with the first-team offense in the absence of Byham and Dickerson. Wannstedt said defensive end Tony Tucker was excused for “personal reasons.”

• Pitt practices again on Wednesday afternoon. Follow live camp updates on Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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