If the season were to start Saturday, as Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt is wont to say, the Panthers would have their starting tailback.
Dion Lewis emerged from spring drills as the frontrunner, and despite competition from since-suspended redshirt sophomore Shariff Harris, redshirt freshman Chris Burns and freshmen Jason Douglas and Ray Graham, Lewis never gave an inch during training camp.
“The tailback spot, I’d be comfortable saying that Dion is our starter if we’re playing today,” Wannstedt said. “The backup tailback spot is a battle right now, with Chris Burns making some serious headway.”
The Panthers will hold their second scrimmage of camp at 10:15 a.m. Saturday, and it should help resolve several position battles. Wannstedt will pay closest attention to left guard, where redshirt sophomore Chris Jacobson is trying to hold off senior Joe Thomas for a spot in the front five.
The next priority is at safety, where sophomore Andrew Taglianetti is ahead of redshirt junior Elijah Fields, who was demoted for a day last week for “internal issues” and missed a couple practices this week with a foot infection. “Because Fields missed time, Taglianetti made a move there so we’ve got to look close at that,” Wannstedt said.
Also interesting will be determining the backups at safety, as redshirt freshman Jarred Holley has split time between corner and safety and appears to have moved ahead of fifth-senior Irv Brown and freshman Jason Hendricks on the second-team defense and dime package.
“Jarred Holley is a guy that wherever he’s at on the field, he gives you confidence. He’s going to be a heck of a player for us, whether it’s at corner or safety, I don’t know. Right now, we’ve got him working in the first dime package and he’s alternating with the second group, some at corner, some at safety. He’s on all the special teams. Jarred Holley is going to be everything we thought he was when we recruited him.”
Finding a fourth receiver to complement the trio of Jonathan Baldwin, Cedric McGee and Oderick Turner is another concern. Mike Shanahan, a 6-foot-5 redshirt freshman from Norwin, was the leading candidate until he broke a bone in his hand last weekend.
“That fourth receiver spot is open,” Wannstedt said. “I would’ve said probably after the first week that Shanahan had the upper hand. Now, he’s hurt. So you’ve got Aundre Wright, Aaron Smith and Cam Saddler really kind of battling it out.”
And, of course, Wannstedt has to select a placekicker between Kevin Harper, who has shown great range, and Dan Hutchins, who has been consistent but also is the leader to handle punting duties.
• Tight end Dorin Dickerson (hamstring), tailback Jason Douglas (ankle) and right tackle Lucas Nix (leg) returned to practice for position drills, but tight end Nate Byham was pulled after experiencing concussion-like symptoms while blocking during 11-on-11 drills.
“Nate came out and worked yesterday and felt OK,” Wannstedt said. “Today, he came out and was so-so, so we held him at the end a little bit.”
• Shanahan, safety Marco Pecora (ankle), linebackers Carl Fleming (headache) and Tristan Roberts (shoulder), cornerback Buddy Jackson (jaw), defensive ends Shayne Hale (concussion), Bernardo Nunez (anke) and Jabaal Sheard (knee) all missed practice.
• Wannstedt said starters such as defensive linemen Greg Romeus and Mick Williams and safety Dom DeCicco will see limited action in the scrimmage, while the “majority” of players take about 30 snaps.
• Defensive end Tony Tucker was excused from practice for “personal reasons” again. He hasn’t practiced since Monday.
Highlights from Friday’s practice:
• An inspired Fields popped Burns in the backfield on consecutive plays in 11-on-11 drills, but drew harsh words from Wannstedt when he blitzed untouched and knocked over quarterback Bill Stull in a red-zone situation. Fields was sent to the bench and replaced by Brown on the second-team defense.
• Stull threw off his back foot, but connected with a streaking Devin Street for an 86-yard touchdown along the right sideline. Stull also threw a long scoring pass to Burns.
• Turner made a nice adjustment in the left corner of the end zone to catch a Stull pass thrown over his right shoulder for a touchdown.
• In the goal-line drill, each unit got three cracks – one from the 8-yard line, one from the 5 and one from the 2.
With Tino Sunseri running the first team, he dropped the snap but completed a pass to tight end Mike Cruz for 6 yards. Lewis ran 5 yards but was stood up at the goal line by Taglianetti before pushing his way in. Sunseri’s fade pass intended for Turner was broken up by Jovani Chappel.
With the second team, Stull completed a 6-yard pass to Saddler in the left flat on first-and-goal at the 8. Graham scored on a 5-yard run. Then Stull threw a 2-yard scoring pass to fullback Joe Capp, who beat corner Ricky Gary.
With the third team, Pat Bostick rolled right to complete a 5-yard pass to Greg Cross. Defensive end Jack Lippert stopped Graham in the backfield on first-and-goal at the 5. Bostick then threw a touchdown pass to fullback Kevin Adams, who beat Hendricks and Danny Cafaro in the right flat for a 2-yard touchdown.
• Pitt scrimmages on Saturday, but it is closed to the public. For live updates, follow @KGorman_Trib on Twitter.