The first day in pads means it was the first real step towards figuring out who can play and who cannot play but frankly things went pretty much as we thought they would and there were few surprises...
** As expected, Dan Mason was all over the field and knocking people around. He set the tone on the first play from scrimmage when he chased down Dion Lewis on a sweep, tackled him and then proceeded to tell the offense that the defense had come to play. What I liked about Mason was this, though - he wasn't just running around randomly blowing people up - he was making big-time plays, like a middle linebacker is supposed to. That is one major difference in Mason this year as opposed to last year when he was a freshman going through camp. Oh last year he made some big plays and caught a lot of attention with some of his plays - but he had no idea what he was doing. Today, he looked a lot like a guy who knew what he was doing, was confident in what he was doing and was confident in trying to get the guys around him to where they were supposed to be as well. And then he also had that swagger about him - a little bit of trash talk after some of his bigger plays. I remarked that he sort of reminded me of a young Gerald Hayes. I think there is no question Mason is destined to have an excellent career.
** Another Penn Hills graduate, Aaron Donald, has been making a lot of noise at camp and it is presenting quite a dilemma for the coaching staff. That's because the coaches would love to be able to redshirt Donald but he continues to make the case each day that he is one of the four best defensive tackles right now. Donald is just so quick off the ball that he is very hard to block. One of the highlights of today, in fact, was when the coaches called on him to go in and play with the first team defense against the first-team offense for a play. Donald ran in, lined up at his defensive tackle spot, then proceeded to blow past Alex Karabin and into the backfield where he nearly ended Ray Graham's career as he knocked him to the ground for a big loss. Dave Wannstedt has continually compared Donald to former Panther Mick Williams, which is high praise considering it is only five days of practice and Wannstedt is usually very cautious about praising freshmen.
** One thing after watching practice for a few days that I jokingly said to a few people on the sidelines was that maybe a few more of Pitt's defensive players needed to spend a night in the SouthSide and get into a brawl which ends up with a broken glass door. Why? Well because the most focused guy out there might be Jabaal Sheard. He is certainly more focused than he's ever been - and this is a guy who has always played with a lot of intensity. Sheard has been, for my money, perhaps the best player - certainly the most consistent player -- at camp. He has been good every day. Scratch that, he's been borderline great every day and he doesn't seem be interesting in slowing down. Today he nearly made one of the more incredible interceptions of the day but he just couldn't get his second hand up to catch the ball. It is early in camp, but it is clear to me that Sheard is really dialed in and ready to take the Big East by storm.
** Unfortunately Sheard's bookend Greg Romeus has yet to make an appearance, at least in uniform. He has had some stiffness in his back and even though he has been a day-to-day guy officially, it seems a little strange that he has missed so many days. Last season Sheard missed a lot of camp with an ankle injury and it showed as he wasn't really himself until about four or five games in so this is not a good thing. Romeus needs to get into the mix and start playing because the Panthers really need him.
** Pitt also lost Ryan Turnley today to a shoulder injury but Wannstedt said he doesn't think it is serious. Turnley has had some shoulder issues in the past so it will be interesting to see how he fights through this. Meanwhile, the guy who Turnley is battling for a job - Greg Gaskins - struggled again, mightily I might add. He really has some work to do but it appears at this point that for better or worse, he is going to be the guy. One development to watch is what they decide to do with Jack Lippert as there have been some rumblings that he is destined to move to guard but we shall see how that progresses.
** Speaking of offense - and really, right now the offense is still behind the defense so it is tough to evaluate -- one player who I really think has a chance to be a difference maker on this squad is Ray Graham. Like Mason he has progressed a long way since last year and has gone from a guy with a lot of talent, to a guy who has a lot of talent that knows what he is doing as well. He also has bulked up and gotten much stronger and it is clear that he is going to be tough to tackle. Several times today he ran through arm tackles and even carried guys a few extra yards before going down. And then he also shook a few guys out of his shoes with his patented moves. There will be some big things from Ray this year, I really believe that.
** Swagger is something that is hard to put a finger on but when you see it, you know it. And along with his experience and knowledge, I think it is clear that linebackers coach Bernard Clark, brings some swagger with him from his days playing for "The U". Actually he brings a lot. One of the funniest sites is Clark and some of the offensive players, like Cam Saddler and Jon Baldwin, jawing at each other during team drills. Clark brings a no-nonsense approach to the job and he doesn't mince words when he has the linebackers working in position drills but it is clear that he is well liked and respected by the players. And again, he's brought a little bit of that old Miami Hurricane attitude with him and I think it is contagious. Clark has been a great addition to the staff no doubt.