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Pitt training camp – Final practice

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To paraphrase the immortal words of Dennis Green, Bill Stull is what we thought he was. That’s why he took the (darn) field. If you want to crown him, then crown his …

Well, I think you get the idea.

Bill Stull has been crowned Pitt’s starting quarterback for the season opener for the third consecutive year. Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said as much back at Big East media day in early August, stood his ground midway through training camp and reiterated it again on Wednesday afternoon.

What Wannstedt revealed is that Pitt’s “quarterback controversy” actually ended after spring drills, was over before training camp even started and was never actually the open competition it appeared to be. Here was Wannstedt’s official explanation after the final day of camp:

“We went into spring practice and opened it up. We obviously keep track of everything every day, and I thought, coming out of spring, that all of our quarterbacks got a little better. But when we evaluated completions, interceptions, decision-making, everything involved with it, checks at the line of scrimmage, Billy came out with the nod. So that’s the fair thing to do going into camp.

“I’ve never been around a training camp where we rotated two or three guys with the first group like we did. We’ve had a lot of offsides with our offensive line because of rotating those guys in there. But Tino Sunseri’s had as many snaps with the first group as Billy’s had, and Pat Bostick’s had a share of them.”

Wannstedt went so far as to call this Pitt’s best combination of experience and depth at the position in his tenure. Tyler Palko had Stull as a backup in 2005-06. Stull had never started a game when he won the job in ’07, then gave way to freshmen Kevan Smith and Pat Bostick after a suffering season-ending thumb injury in the opener.

Now, Stull has a 9-4 record in 13 starts. Bostick is 4-4 in eight starts, including victories at West Virginia and Notre Dame. Sunseri has yet to take a snap in a college game, but has the best arm of the bunch. Even so, Stull is the starter, even if he didn’t shine the way a fifth-year senior should.

“Has Billy made the big strides? I would say probably no. But has Billy performed at the level that you would say he’s the starter? I would say yes. I’m just trying to be as honest about it as I can,” Wannstedt said. “He’s got 13 starts under his belt, so he’s our starting quarterback. I feel good about the other guys; I feel good about Billy. I think our quarterback position as a whole is better now than it’s been the past couple years, that’s for sure.”

Stull, however, is going to have to prove that he’s the quarterback of the first nine games of the 2008 season, not the final four. He’s going to have to put the Sun Bowl behind him – and fast.

“He’s going to have to go out and play when it’s for real,” Wannstedt said. “You know how we scrimmage: everything is about live, and he’s been knocked around and banged around with our pass rush. Teams are going to pressure us, don’t get me wrong, but we’re not going to face many teams that pressure much better than we do. He’s handled it well.

“I believe he’s gotten back to where he needs to be.”

If not, we’ll have a real quarterback controversy on our hands.

• Wannstedt said Pitt went into camp with objectives of being well-conditioned, handling physical practices and working on its execution.

Check. Check. Incomplete.

The Panthers appear to be in great shape. There are very few fat bodies on this team, as opposed to the one Wannstedt inherited in 2005 or even the group strength and conditioning coach Buddy Morris inherited in ’07. And those filled with flab won’t see much playing time, if any. And Wannstedt called this his most physical training camp since taking over at Pitt, so physical that several starters were given time off the last few days.

“We’ve been beating up on ourselves for four weeks now,” Wannstedt said. “You can tell that the guys are looking for something new. It’s time to turn our focus on another opponent.”

As for the execution … the Panthers aren’t there yet.

“I think we’re right on schedule at this point,” Wannstedt said. “I’m glad we’re not playing on Saturday. We’re not by any means ready to play a football game. We’ve got to clean some things up in all phases, we’ve got to get better in all phases. We have time and we will.”

• The competition between redshirt junior Dan Hutchins and redshirt freshman Kevin Harper for the starting place kicker job heated up, as they matched each other by going 3-for-4 on field-goal attempts in Wednesday’s practice. Both made 43-yarders, went for 1-for-2 from 47 yards and converted 52-yarders.

Training camp ended with a mayday call to complete a two-minute drill, and Hutchins booted a 46-yarder through the uprights to cheers as the horn sounded signaling the end of the drill – and training camp.

“I was very pleased with Hutch, kicking that (46-yard) field goal as time ran out,” Wannstedt said. “That was a big confidence boost, I think, for him.”

And a great way for the Panthers to end camp, I said aloud – meaning that he made it instead of missing. That logic left one onlooker stunned, asking, “With a field goal?”

Hey, it’s more points than Pitt managed in the Sun Bowl.

• Don’t know which was scarier, seeing right tackle Lucas Nix and left tackle Jason Pinkston leave the field in mid-practice or Greg Gaskins and Dan Matha running with the first-team offense in their place.

Wannstedt said the Panthers escaped without serious injury.

“Supposedly, (Nix) banged heads with another player and got a burner, from what I was told,” Wannstedt said.

• One thing that really stood out about this Pitt training camp, as opposed to any other I’ve covered in 10 years at the Trib: how few freshmen have any chance at playing meaningful minutes for the Panthers.

That’s no knock on the recruiting class, which includes a handful of big-time prospects, but a sign of the depth and talent Wannstedt has built at Pitt. Four years ago, a 6-foot-4, 270-pound defensive tackle that looked like Tyrone Ezell would have walked in and started from Day One.

Come to think of it, Rashaad Duncan looked sloppy by comparison and still was a four-year starter at nose guard.

Wannstedt said that the only freshmen assured of playing this season are tailbacks Dion Lewis and Ray Graham and middle linebacker Dan Mason. Wannstedt added that another tailback, Jason Douglas, is on the bubble and that the coaching staff would like to redshirt tight end Brock DeCicco, if seniors Nate Byham and Dorin Dickerson can stay healthy and redshirt freshman Mike Cruz can continue to come to practices.

(OK, I added the last part about Cruz).

Quarterback Kolby Gray already is out, after surgery on his throwing shoulder. Barring injury, fullback Kevin Adams, linebackers Carl Fleming and Shane Gordon, safety Jason Hendricks, offensive linemen Fernando Diaz, Juantez Hollins, Cory King and Ryan Schlieper and defensive linemen Ezell, Jack Lippert and Bernardo Nunez and receivers Devin Street and Ed Tinker are likely to sit out their freshman seasons.

“It’s too early to determine that now,” Wannstedt said, “but we’d like to redshirt the majority of them.”

Just an observation, but most of those players saw where they were on the depth chart and realized early on that they weren’t likely to play. As a result, very few of them were impressive in camp. Among the exceptions were Ezell and Street, both of whom have a chance to be special.

• Pitt’s annual FanFest will feature Panthers available for a two-hour autograph session from 6-8 p.m. today at Heinz Field.

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