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Pitt training camp – Practice No. 14 (PM)

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The Panthers conducted perhaps their most entertaining and exciting offensive practice of training camp this afternoon.

Sorry I can’t tell you about it.

There are certain things we are privy to watching in practice but are not permitted to report, and offensive formations and gimmick plays are primary among them. So, I can’t share what I saw. Please forgive the tease.

What I can say is that Pitt has some playmakers and, when used in certain formations, its offense has the potential to be explosive. And we’re not just talking about receivers Jonathan Baldwin and Oderick Turner as deep threats or tailbacks Dion Lewis and Ray Graham and their make-you-miss moves in the open field.

Pitt has a receiving corps that is both tall and small. Baldwin and Mike Shanahan are both 6-foot-5, Turner and Devin Street 6-3, Greg Cross and Ed Tinker 6-2 and Cedric McGee 6-1 and Aaron Smith 6-foot. Then there’s the wee kids: Cam Saddler (5-7) and Aundre Wright (5-11), with the electrifying speed and quickness.

Let’s just say the latter two have a chance to become fan favorites.

If Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt allows offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. some creativity in his play-calling, especially when the Panthers face an opponent that is considerably slower, like Pitt’s 2005-06 teams.

“It’s a belief of mine, more so in college than the NFL, that if you do get in a situation where you have a few better athletes than the opponent that you need to run some plays where maybe nine guys don’t have to be perfect to make positive yards,” Wannstedt said.

Sometimes, it’s about taking advantage of mismatches.

“I’ve always believed that you can have a freshman linebacker, and if you’re going to run straight at him, if he’s a tough guy, you’re probably going to be in for a long day – if you want to use Dan Mason as an example,” Wannstedt said, “but if you give a freshman a bunch of spread formations and open stuff, it’s going to put more pressure on him.

“Offensively, we’re prepared to do both. Today in practice we opened it up a little bit and got the ball to some of our speed and playmakers and they had some fun with it.”

The fun resulted in big plays that broke up the monotony of training camp, energized the team and proved contagious. For example, one play resulted in a 55-yard touchdown. Another saw quarterback Tino Sunseri sprint downfield to throw a block, which was followed by another downfield block by Saddler and another by Street that brought the sideline alive.

If only you could have seen it for yourself.

“It was good for our kids to get back out here, a double-day practice in pads,” Wannstedt said. “We did some live contact stuff, a run period this afternoon. We worked situations this afternoon, down-and-distance, substitutions. All those things that we’re working on now are evidence that we are getting close to playing a football game.”

The season opener against Youngstown State is just 12 days away.

· Considering we can’t divulge much of what happened at practice, I’ll give some credit to the defenders who made standout plays:

Linebacker Shane Murray picked off a Sunseri pass thrown under pressure, a nice sign for the fifth-year senior still recovering from a torn ACL in his right knee. Murray, by the way, is the subject of Tuesday’s feature in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Safety Dom DeCicco followed a short pass to fullback Henry Hynoski and delivered a big hit, driving Hynoski out of bounds.

Safety Elijah Fields made a nice read on a Bill Stull pass intended for Wright on the left sideline and picked it off. It was a good day for Fields, who took reps with the first-team defense.

“Elijah is out here and back at it. That was encouraging to see,” Wannstedt said. “He needs to put together two or three days in a row like today.”

When Sunseri’s high throw tipped off the hands of Smith, cornerback Antwuan Reed made a nice play to intercept the ball.

· In other news:

Wannstedt said it’s “very unlikely” that redshirt sophomore defensive end Tony Tucker will return to the Panthers after missing the past seven days of training camp for personal reasons – although the Pitt coach did leave an open invitation.

“It’s not a team issue. It’s not a discipline issue. It’s not a problem on his end with Pitt,” Wannstedt said. “This is solely some personal problems at home that he’s dealing with.”

Tucker’s absence, combined with injuries to several players, has depleted a defensive line that was one of Pitt’s deepest positions at the start of camp. End Jabaal Sheard (knee) missed his sixth consecutive day of practice, while end Shayne Hale (concussion) and tackles Gus Mustakas and Mick Williams sat out the afternoon session. That forced the Panthers to move freshman end Jack Lippert to tackle on the second-team defense.

“It’s amazing how quick you go from having a luxury at one position to, all of a sudden, you’re out of bodies,” Wannstedt said. “When you don’t have those horses up front, it makes it difficult.”

· Aside from Sheard, tight end Nate Byham, defensive lineman Justin Hargrove, safety Marco Pecora, linebacker Tristan Roberts and receiver Ed Tinker missed both practices. Tight end Mike Cruz was excused from the morning session, but practiced in the afternoon. Tight end Dorin Dickerson and Shanahan both participated in some position drills.

· Wannstedt said Cross had a strong second practice and is making a move to be included in the conversation for the fourth receiver spot, along with Saddler, Shanahan, Smith and Wright, but added that all of them could have play a role for the Panthers.

“They all are a little different players,” Wannstedt said. “It could come down to who’s making the most plays, but also what we need to use and what matches up best against the opponent.”

Pitt practices again at 2 p.m. Tuesday.

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