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Pitt practice No. 12 — Second scrimmage

The one thing you have to understand about a controlled scrimmage is that the play-calling can and will be manipulated by the coaching staff, which makes training camp scrimmages no different than the dog-and-pony show in the spring called the Blue-Gold Game.

So, for those hoping that the second scrimmage would create separation in the quarterback competition and force Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt to play backup Tino Sunseri ahead of starter Bill Stull, think again.

Wannstedt, after all, is the one calling the shots.

When it became evident that Pitt’s passing game wasn’t going well — Stull was 2 of 7 for 3 yards, Sunseri 4 of 10 for 36 — Wannstedt made it a day to focus on the running game. Smart move. Instead of Pitt fans walking away wondering why star receiver Jonathan Baldwin hasn’t caught a pass in two scrimmages, they marveled at the elusive open-field running of freshman tailback Ray Graham.

“Of the quarterbacks, I don’t think anybody really did anything bad,” Wannstedt said. “I don’t think anybody did anything to make you jump up and down, partially because of the limited number of passes we threw today and the emphasis being on the running game.”

As the Guinness ads say, brilliant!

What, you say Graham rushed for 128 yards, including a 65-yard touchdown on his first carry? Brilliant! What, you say Graham turned a screen pass into a 24-yard scoring play? Brilliant!

“It was not a passing emphasis,” Wannstedt said. “We ended up trying to make some evaluations on a couple of these young backs and our offensive line. We took the ball the length of the field, basically running the ball every play on our defense and we put the ball in the end zone.

“I thought, as a group, our offensive linemen stepped up.”

As long as you’re not counting the first six series.

Stull tried to involve Baldwin on the first three-and-out, throwing deep on first down and into double coverage on third-and-6. Both passes fell incomplete. After Dion Lewis broke off a nice 11-yard run, only for Stull to throw it away under pressure from ends Greg Romeus and Brandon Lindsey on second down and get sacked by Lindsey – who beat right tackle Greg Gaskins handily – on third down, Wannstedt made up his mind.

No more throwing the ball, at least not downfield.

Unless, of course, you count Pat Bostick’s 51-yard bomb to freshman receiver Devin Street against a third-team defense filled with walk-ons in the secondary. (We don’t, as both appear headed for a redshirt year).

The good news is that Lewis continues to run hard and that Graham showed breakaway ability. Nothing masks a poor passing attack like a strong running game. Nothing opens up the passing game like the run, either.

What’s exciting about Graham is that he didn’t provide just one play. He had nine carries for 44 yards on an 11-play, 50-yard scoring drive. He shook middle linebacker Dan Mason, then followed a crippling crack back block by receiver Aundre Wright on safety Irv Brown into the end zone. Graham had maybe his most impressive play on a 16-yard run where he sprinted into one of his blockers, tight end Brock DeCicco, bounced outside and stiff-armed defensive back Danny Cafaro before being knocked out of bounds on a big hit by cornerback Jeremiah Davis.

When Davis talked trash, Graham responded, “I’ll lower my shoulder (next time).” Wannstedt said Graham had some Shady runs, referencing LeSean McCoy. Well, he’s got some Shady attitude, too. And, perhaps most important, Graham didn’t fumble on a day Chris Burns lost one.

“I’m real excited with what Ray Graham did today,” Wannstedt said. “That’s obvious. We saw signs of that up to this point. There’s nothing like live scrimmage work to really make a true evaluation: would the guy be tackled or would he not be? He held onto the ball today. That was a concern early in camp.”

It was a concern with McCoy, as well, and a reason why LaRod Stephens-Howling got the starting nod for the first two games of the 2007 season. There was that trust factor, Wannstedt wondering whether Graham will protect the ball and running backs coach David Walker wondering whether Graham can protect the passer against the blitz.

“There’s a lot that goes into it. Obviously, what they’re doing out here on the field, what they do in the meetings, how well they’re grasping everything. Some guys are further ahead in the run game part of it, not as far along in the pass game and protections,” Walker said. “We can take an example of Ray – he made some nice runs – but he’s still got a ways to go if we’re going to drop back and throw the ball. As exciting as he’s shown he can be, he’s still a work in progress.”

Which is a promising sign, especially after Walker said “tailback-by-committee” isn’t just a possibility but a certainty. Lewis is the best runner between the tackles, Graham the best outside the tackles – both are elusive in the open field – and Burns the best receiver of the bunch. Don’t be surprised to see the Panthers play them based on the situation.

Although, at this point, Pitt’s best situation is running the ball.

* Forgive me for tempering my enthusiasm about Graham, who clearly was the star of the day, but yards were harder for Lewis to come by. Lewis played against the true first-team defense before Wannstedt pulled end Greg Romeus, tackle Mick Williams, corner Aaron Berry and safety Dom DeCicco after 14 plays. Graham might not have gone untouched around the left side if Romeus and DeCicco were on the field.

Heck, Graham might not have got out of the backfield unscathed.

· This is why Pitt’s depth on defense – a major accomplishment of the Wannstedt era – is so important:

Ends Jabaal Sheard (knee) and Shayne Hale (concussion) sat out, forcing Brandon Lindsey into the starting lineup and freshman Jack Lippert onto the second team, alongside Justin Hargrove, who was moved back from nose guard. Hargrove injured an ankle, forcing freshman Bernardo Nunez to take second- and third-team reps on the right side.

Nate Nix moved to left end, and made three tackles and forced and recovered a fumble by stripping Bostick in mid-throw. Not bad for a guy who was getting buried at strong-side linebacker, first behind starter Greg Williams and backup Tristan Roberts and then behind Shane Murray, who switched from the weak side after Roberts injured his shoulder.

Now, Nix looks like he has found a home.

· Speaking of getting lost in the shuffle …

Bostick has worked exclusively with the second- and third-team offense this week, and it appears that he’s headed for a redshirt year. Neither Wannstedt nor offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. has mentioned as much, always counting Bostick when talking about quarterbacks, but Bostick addressed the idea when asked about it Saturday.

“I’m open to it,” Bostick said. “I don’t know what they’re thinking. I can’t read minds. I’m not too concerned about it. I’m just concerned with getting better every day. Those decisions are out of my control. I go out there every day, try to improve. Whatever decisions are made, those are the decisions that are made. If the redshirt’s in the back of their mind, OK. If not, OK, let’s move forward. I just try to take it all in stride.”

· If there is a surprise element to the scrimmage, it will be the impression Mason makes on the coaching staff and whether Wannstedt decides to increase the freshman middle linebacker’s playing time.

Mason had a strong scrimmage with a team-high six tackles (one solo), including two tackles for losses of 3 yards. As important is his field generalship, as he barks orders and backs down from no one.

Mason had one tackle in the first scrimmage.

“I just worked hard on all the mistakes that I made. I only made a few mistakes, but no mistakes are good so I’ve got to work at it. People see if you work hard. I’m just going to work hard continually,” Mason said. “If they want to play me, hey, I’ve got no problem with it. I’ve been playing hard and getting it down mentally and everything, so I think I should (play).”

I’m not predicting as much, but it wouldn’t be a total surprise if the coaches decide to play Mason in the middle and move Adam Gunn – who had five tackles (three solo), two for losses of 4 yards – back outside.

Highlights from the scrimmage:

· Gunn stopped Lewis for no gain twice, once on second-and-6 at the White 26 and once on third-and-7 at the White 49. No question Gunn is capable of manning the middle – the sixth-year senior knows all three positions – but he could be an upgrade on the weak side.

· Nix needs to look no further than Lindsey for inspiration. A year ago, Lindsey was buried on the depth chart at linebacker, bouncing from strong side to weak side and back. He played nose guard at Aliquippa and appears more comfortable with his hand on the ground. Wannstedt noted that Nix often lined up like a rush end at Thomas Jefferson on blitzes.

Lindsey blew past right tackle Greg Gaskins to sack Stull on a third-and-9 at the 47, and Nix showed similar burst on the play he stripped Bostick.

· Although his first series resulted in Graham’s touchdown, Bostick got the offense rolling on his second series by completing a 15-yard pass to Ed Tinker and the 51-yarder to Street. The third series ended in the fumble.

* Weak-side linebacker Max Gruder, who’s now wearing No. 55, had four tackles (three solo) but his biggest play came when he recovered a fumble by Burns on a second-and-5 at the Blue 33.

· Cam Saddler brought the sidelines alive when he took a reverse 15 yards, following a block by left guard Joe Thomas on safety Irv Brown.

· Kevin Harper has the leg, if not the accuracy. He made a 31-yarder but missed on field-goal attempts from 51 and 42 yards, both just wide left. Wannstedt has made it clear that consistency is his main concern and that he’d prefer not to have Dan Hutchins handle placekicking and punting duties, but don’t be surprised if Hutchins handles the short kicks (35 yards and in) and Harper handles the longer ones, as well as kickoffs.

· If there’s a silver lining for Stull, it’s that he took only one sacks, one less than both Sunseri (two for minus-11) and Bostick, despite facing a defense that included All-America candidate Romeus in the pass rush.

* Pitt practices again at 4:15 p.m. on Sunday. For live camp updates, follow @KGorman_Trib on Twitter.

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