Say whatever you want about the Dave Wannstedt era of Pitt football but this much is for certain - the Panthers over the past five years have become a very tough, physical football team. And that has really been a thing of beauty because that's still fundamentally where football games - despite all the spread and finesse offenses spread throughout the country -- are won and lost.
And no player really epitomises what Wannstedt is looking for in football players better than Henry Hynoski, who I am convinced could line up on the train tracks next to the SouthSide complex and run full speed into a train - and the train would be the one which would take the worst of it. The guy is a football player - he just runs people over.
A couple of us were joking with him the other day that he should be held out of the rest of the camp because he is seriously going to hurt someone. I've never seen a guy run so hard and enjoy contact so much.
If he were in Spain, they could forget about running with the Bulls and just have "running from Henry" and I promise you it would be much more scary to have him chasing you through the streets than a pack of those 2000-pound angry animals with horns that could kill you!!!
Which brings us to today's practice and the point of all this - there is no practice in the country where there is as much hitting, short yardage situations and inside run drills taking place each day. I know this because I've been to many other practices in my time covering sports and because I've talked to many of the assitant coaches who have come through here the past five years and have worked elsewhere.
I remember former secondary coach Chris Ball - who had come to Pitt from Alabama - shaking his head in amazement after a few practices and saying "I've never seen anything like it."
Yes, there are downsides to tough camps - guys get injured, guys can get worn down (though the past two years he's done a good job of backing off some as the season got closer) but the bottom line is if you survive this camp, you are a clearly a tough guy and you are clearly going to be able to line up with anyone and knock them off the ball.
That's why the highlight of today's practice, at least to me, was the short yardage (third-and-2) and goal line periods.
The first play of was a hand-off to Henry Hynoski and he had a nice hole to run through - which is bad news for the linebackers and secondary because they made the mistake of stepping in and trying to stop him - and he blasted them with the sounds of pads and helmets colliding.
The second play they handed the ball to Dion Lewis and he got a vicious lead block from Hynoski on Greg Williams (who was sent into the backfield on a run blitz) and Williams seemingly deflated as Hynoski trampled him and Lewis went through the hole.
In all, the offense was only stopped once (until the scrubs were put in) on the short yardage drills but the defense got its revenge a bit during the goal line drill when they stopped the offense six out of eight times (though there was one disputed as it looked like Ray Graham crossed the goal line but Ox, the equipment manager and de facto referee declared him down and Wannstedt gave the point to the defense - much to the displeasure of the offense who loudly protested.)
At any rate there is something really fun about watching both sides of the ball compet in these kinds of short yardage drills because it really is basically who wants it more (after the offense got three first downs in a row, linebackers coach Bernard Clark, who I've said looks he could still play the game better than half the guys out there and has brought some of that U. swagger with him, got into the defensive huddle and challenged them. Loudly.) and both sides get very competitive and intense because the loser of these drills has to do up-downs as a punishment.
It is just a lot of hitting, blocking and both teams trying to develop that will to win. It has showed up in the fourth quarter of most of their games the past two years as they have won a lot of close games and games coming from behind because they simply wore their opponents down.
So when people ask me why so many teams who play the Panthers are quoted as saying how physical they are, I tell them -- its because that's the kind of football Dave Wannstedt wants them to play and it is because they spend their days in training camp knocking each other silly - and getting up after every play to do it again and again and again and don't make excuses or whine about being tired.
Pitt might not win every game, there might be things on game day that drive you crazy about the Panthers, but I promise you, this team won't ever be pushed around again like it used to be on a regular basis.
It truly has become a tough guy team.
** Tino Sunseri had his best day throwing the ball - though he did toss a wounded duck into the air that was picked off by Jarred Holley -- and looks like he is rounding into form. Like I wrote yesterday, he is way ahead of where Bill Stull was at this point last year and that is a very good development but I will be interested to see how he handles the scrimmage tomorrow. He was 17-for-24 today according to offensive graduate assistant Luke Getsy.
** Ray Graham is getting bigger and stronger and really has developed into a North-South runner. He was in for a lot of the short yardage and goal line drills and he really is getting good at fighting off tackles and moving the pile forward. Last year he was a bit of a dancer, this year he is hitting the hole and then, once he gets in the open field, performing his magic and making guys miss.
** I'm not saying that Dave Wannstedt is starting to get a little bit frustrated with Greg Romeus - who missed again - but his comments about Romeus when asked about him are starting to head in that direction of "it is time for this kid to get on the field." Wannstedt is obviously going to be smart with Romeus and nobody is questioning that he is hurt, but I'd be willing to bet if you took a pool of the 105 or so players who are here in this camp - about 103 of them have a sore back by this point in camp. Romeus is way too valuable of a player to take chances with so he won't be back until he believes he is ready, but it is clear that Wannstedt is starting to get a little anxious about his return.
** The Panthers will scrimmage tomorrow and the format will be 75 plays, everything and everyone is live. Wannstedt said he wants to get everybody about 20 to 25 reps, except for guys like Dion Lewis and Jon Baldwin, who he said will likely play less than ten plays.