Today's practice began outside and then the rain came and so we all had to move indoors for the day and the practice became more condensed as there is obviously only one field available inside as opposed to the two outside.
Still, it seemed like they got a lot of things done today and Todd Graham called it "the best day we've had yet" and he included all of the practices in the spring. So that's a giant step forward.
The practice lasted about two hours and it was indeed a little bit more intense than yesterday's session in that, it is clear they are turning up the tempo a little bit each day. One coach told me that he expects tomorrow night (which will be after the third practice) to be the one where the tempo and intensity of the first three days are when some of the guys might feel a little bit of fatigue.
This is a mental battle as much as a physical battle - these guys need to get ready to play 82 plays (offensive players) per game and they need to be able to play at a fast pace and not just play at a fast pace, execute at a fast pace.
So I don't anticipate, based on what we saw in the spring, that this camp will involve as much of the man on man physical stuff as the camps under the former coach but I do think it will involve far more pushing the players to the limit and challenging them to think and execute on their feet.
The drills are crisp right now (still no pads, remember) but coaches continue to push the pace to get it to a tempo they can live with.
Anyway, here are some notes from today's practice:
** I'm writing about the corners for tomorrow's paper. Tony Gibson told me that if the team had to play a game right now, there are only three guys - K'Waun Williams, Buddy Jackson and Antwuan Reed - who are really ready to play. And Reed really needs the entire camp to catch up to the speed and tempo of things because he missed the entire spring. But he's experienced and the coaches are confident in him so he and Jackson are splitting reps with the first team at field corner and Williams is pretty much the guy at boundary cornerback. But that doesn't mean Williams can rest on his laurels as both Jackson and Reed are capable of playing boundary as well. The next three guys in line, according to Gibson and in watching how they are using guys in drills, seem to be redshirt junior Jeremiah Davis and a pair of true freshmen, LaFayette Pitts and a guy who has surprised the staff, Lloyd Carrington. Gibson said he really has come on strong and is playing well enough to merit some second-team reps.
** The safety position is right now four players deep according to Gibson - the two starters would be Jarred Holley and Jason Hendricks and the two behind them would be Andrew Taglianetti and Brandon Ifill. Those four guys all can play so this position is pretty stacked. I originally thought the secondary may be one of the areas of question but watching these first few days, I'm not so sure. This unit is fast and athletic but as we've learned in he past few years, fast and athletic does not always mean a guy can play. And that's one of the things we have to remember and keep in mind - we hear a lot about "speed" and all of the "speed" that is being recruited but just being fast isn't good enough - a guy needs to be able to cover and be physical along with being fast. Later this week when they put the pads on, it will become very easy to see who can play and who isn't good enough. But for now, in these 7-on-7's and 11-on-11's with no contact, this group really does look the part.
** Keith Patterson talked about the defensive line depth chart and what the position battles are shaping up to be and frankly, he's got to be like a kid in the candy store given all the parts he has. If you include the Panther linebackers in this group ---- which, it is a hybrid position so we can argue where exactly it fits. The Panther linebacker is sort of a d-end/linebacker while the spur linebacker is sort of a linebacker/defensive back. So for our purposes, I will put the Brandon Lindsey's of this world in this group of defensive linemen --- it will be interesting to watch how many plays these guys play. It seems clear to me that Myles Caragein is the one guy who is going to be almost exclusively a nose tackle. Right Aaron Donald, Chas Alecxih, Khaynin Mosely Smith and Justin Hargrove have been battling and will continue to battle for playing time.
So right now, if the team was going to lineup, based on what we've seen and what Patterson said, the starting defensive line would be Alecxih and Hargrove at end and Caragein at nose tackle with Lindsey at the Panther linebacker position.And then the second group would be freshman Juan Price at the Panther position back up at that position, Donald at one end and Mosley-Smith at the other and Tyrone Ezell at nose tackle. That means the two guys who have to continue to battle to work their way onto the two-deep at defensive end are Shayne Hale and T.J. Clemmings, which is somewhat interesting considering they were two of the biggest names and highest rated recruits on this unit.Price, who is from Woodland Hills, by the way, has looked good and has really impressed coaches thus far, which is obvious given that he's been running the second team. It looks to me like he is going to have a chance to have an impact this year.
** As for the linebackers, the outside linebacker (or Spur) has been Greg Williams backed up by Todd Thomas and that seems to be where both will end up by the time the season rolls around. Williams needs to get into shape and when I say that, I don't mean he is out of shape as in, he didn't work out or he was lazy over the summer. It is just that he did not participate in the spring so he is still trying to get used to the pace of practice and speed of everything. But he looks like he will be able to thrive in this system, just from what I've seen the past two days at the two full practices I've observed. Carl Fleming has been running with the third team at spur. The inside linebackers - called the Sam and Will -- are two of the most experienced players on the team as Tristan Roberts (Sam) and Max Gruder (Will) have both been around for a long, long time. But this is a big camp for both as Patterson said this is one area that there needs to be some improvement and mostly because these two are being asked to do much different things than they did last year in the 4-3 defense of the former coach.
He said of all the players on defense, these two probably have the biggest adjustment to make so it isn't a surprise that they are a bit behind in terms of making big plays. The one player in that position who has made some big plays - and he is a guy who I think really fits in well and thought he should have played more last year - is Shane Gordon, who is backing up Roberts at Sam. I like Gordon a lot, he is fast, he is physical, he likes to make those high-impact tackles, he's athletic - I think in this system, from what I've observed, he has a chance to do some real damage as well. The other intriguing player has been the back-up will linebacker, LaQuentin Smith, who is a freshman from Florida. He has gotten off to a fast start and looks the part, but again, I caution, they aren't in pads yet so we have to see once he puts the pads on if he is really ready to play. The other player competing at Will linebacker is Eric Williams, who, the coaches like because he can do some things for them in coverage.
** I've gotten several e-mails asking about the quarterback competition and I'm going to say this one more time - there is no quarterback competition. Tino Sunseri is the starting quarterback and unless he gets hurt or has a Pittsburgh Pirates-like episode over the next ten days and seemingly forgets how to play, he will be the starter against Buffalo. He has been the most consistent quarterback, he has impressed Todd Graham with his work ethic and how much he's improved since the start and he is the guy who coaches believe gives the team the best chance to win. Mark Myers and Anthony Gonzalez are fighting for that second spot and right now Myers has the edge because Gonzalez is suspended for the first two games. But I will say this - the more Gonzalez works, the more I watch him, the more I think he could actually be a quarterback in this system. He still doesn't throw as well or as consistently as he needs to, but we are seeing some better throws from him and it seems like he has worked on his arm strength. Myers is a pure quarterback who can throw the ball extremely well - but again, in this system, they'd like a guy who can run as well, which is what Gonzalez brings to the table.
I don't see this ever coming to a situation where they use two quarterbacks (other than maybe bringing in a Gonzalez-like player for one or two gadget plays here and there) because this staff isn't in love with that concept. So those of you who have never been convinced that Sunseri is good enough, well, you are just going to have to be disappointed because he isn't going anywhere. He is going to be the guy and I do think he is good enough to run this system and run it well. Graham, by the way, said that the quarterbacks had by far, as a group, their best day throwing the ball (and that includes the spring).
** I've talked about some of the freshmen already and like I wrote - speed is one thing, but a guy needs to be able to play before that speed really means anything outside of a guy can run fast. Now, that being said, I've watched these freshmen receivers and I think a lot of them look the part but again, we need to see them in pads. The one guy who really looks the part is Justin Jackson, the kid from Daphne, Alabama (Pat White's old high school), but he so far has been plagued by a case of the drops. It is only two practices, though, so I'm sure nerves and everything else are a factor and he will settle in. He did make a few really nice catches today in some of the drill work, but boy, just looking at him, he is tall, he is fast and he looks like once he fills out and sort of grows into his body, he is going to be a pretty impressive physical specimen. I like his physical tools, I just need to see him catch the ball more consistently before I am ready to say he is a real player. To that end, I've liked the progression we've seen from Salath Williams, who you can tell has added a little weight, gotten a little stronger and is a more physical player than he was. I think he can help and the other guy to keep an eye on has been Ed Tinker, who, like Jackson, really looks the part. Tinker has some work to do on his consistency, but he is a guy who, when they give him an opportunity, has made some plays. Like I said, the receivers as a whole are an impressive looking group but I'd like to see a little more consistency from many of them than we've seen so far.
** In watching the spring practices and also watching the first two of these practices, I think it is clear that the H-back (or they call it the three-back) position is not going to be manned by a traditional tight end. That's one reason they moved Kevin Adams to that position. He fits the mold a little better - more athletic, quicker, good after the catch - than the traditional tight ends which fit into the former coach's system. Hubie Graham has done some nice things, though, and I do think he will be good enough but it is clear this is a position they have to recruit a hybrid-type player (think Dorin Dickerson) that can do the things they want to make this position as effective of a dual-threat weapon as they need it to be. Todd Graham has consistently said he will mold some of what he does to fit the talent he has, so I would expect to see some traditional tight end looks but it seems to me this will not be the case two or three years from now. For now, though, don't be surprised to even see some running backs man this position in certain formations against certain teams.
** Also, the offensive line continues to be a work in progress and it all centers around, well, the center. Ryan Turnley looked pretty good snapping the ball again today, Greg Gaskins, not so much, which means the real competition at center will be between Chris Jacobson and Turnley. But here is the thing, coaches are hoping Turnley wins this because Jacobson is so good at guard and if that's the case, it would mean they only need to fill one more guard spot to have their starting offensive line intact. I know they say all the things on the record about ongoing competition and how important that is - but every coach I've ever talked to ---- and this is my 12th year covering college football with seven different coaches (Ron Dickerson, Don Nehlen, Rich Rodriguez, Walt Harris, the former coach of this team and the Dolphins, Michael Haywood - well, for at least a few weeks - and Todd Graham) ------ has told me, they want to get the offensive line settled as quickly as possible in camp because that unit takes the most time to come together and needs as many reps as possible as a unit. So my guess is, this unit will be put together by early next week and the guys will remain in place at least through the first game.
** One thing that should make Pitt fans happy is this - at least three different position coaches have told me that they have absolutely no issue at all with putting freshmen on the field. As we all know, the former coach, was extremely hesitant to put freshmen on the field and many of you would fill my inbox with very angry e-mails about why so-and-so freshman (last year it was K'Waun Williams most people wanted on the field) wasn't playing. This staff makes it simple and wants the best 22 guys on the field, period. They don't care about anything other than winning and if the best guy at a position is a freshman walk-on from a high school that stinks at football, he's going to play. That's why we've already started to see some of these freshmen on the two-deep and others who are pushing to get into the discussion about being on the two-deep.
** One last note - Dan Mason obviously suffered a very tough, very brutal injury to his kneecap and has had a long, long road back. Many people have asked about him and as I wrote yesterday, he still has a long way to go to get back on the field and that is assuming he ever is able to get back and play. But it is a good thing to see him out there getting some reps with the third or fourth units, even just in some of the drills and some of the 7-v-7 stuff with no contact. The fact that he is able to run around and at least be out there, is a miracle in some ways given the nature of his injury. He is not cleared for full contact and may not be this year, but at least he is back out there running around a little bit.
And here is the other thing - I talked to him a little bit today and he is in great spirits, he has a great attitude, he is working hard and he is determined to beat the odds and get back. I know I'm supposed to be a neutral observer, but I have no problem saying I'm rooting for this kid to be able to get back because he is such a hard worker, has such a great attitude and really is the kind of kid who exemplifies what is good and what is right about college athletics. His attitude is tremendous and I've seen few kids come through here who work harder than he does and are more serious about it than he is.