Practice 11 in the Books - Offense is Improving

Written by Paul Zeise on .

I thought today was rather crisp to be honest and I can certainly see what coaches are talking about when they say the team is improving because it is, especially on offense. The throwing and catching is becoming a little more consistent, the blocking is getting better and it seems like the team is playing faster now that they are gaining confidence in what they are doing.

So all of that is good stuff, but keep in mind, we're still in April so none of it is particularly relevant. I think the thing that I can say without a doubt is that the players have picked this system up much quicker than they did last year and a lot of that has to do with coaching style.

This staff has really slowed things down, broken it down and focused on teaching, last year it was sort of a "baptism by fire" mentality and guys either had to sink or swim. I'm not saying one approach is better or worse, I'm just saying there is a stark contrast and the results are easy to see as this group seems to be gaining confidence.

One thing I must say even though we've said it and written about it for days and days and days and weeks -- the fact that Dan Mason is out there performing at the level he is performing at and playing so hard and without fear is a minor miracle and frankly inspirational in so many ways. No way he should be able to do what he is doing, it just doesn't seem possible given his injuries, but this guy's drive is amazing to me and I say it almost every snap when I watch him.

1.) Trey Anderson, as amazing as it seems - given Anderson's background as a "spread guy who was brought to Pitt as a preferred walk -on specifically to play the spread offense - has forged his way into the quarterback discussion again as he has been splitting time with Marky Myers on the second team. Pitt coach Paul Chryst addressed this today and basically said this has more to do with Anderson than anything else and that he had done enough to merit a longer look. Time is running out in the spring, basically, and the coaches need to find out what they have with Anderson. Chryst made it clear that Myers is not injured nor has he fallen out of favor, but really just that they want to look long and hard at Anderson to see what he can do. And I'll be honest, he did some really good things in the scrimmage periods and I think he is going to be a guy who is going to challenge Myers deep into camp. The other thing that is pretty clear, now, however, is that Tino Sunseri is unquestionably the starting quarterback and frankly, he deserves to be as he has begun to distinguish himself the past week or so and separate from the other two. That's why he's not sharing reps and it is why they've now begun to focus on the back-up spot. The bad part of this is that it means Myers hasn't progressed as quickly as he needed to in order to really create a competition situation and that leaves the team without a viable "Plan B" at least for now.

2.) If there was a college football hall of fame induction based on one practice, I think Cam Saddler would have earned it after today. Of course, even if you weren't at practice to witness the way he played, I'm sure you heard him celebrating a diving, over the shoulder touchdown catch during redzone drills. Seriously, though, he has been very good recently and he looks like he is playing a little bit faster than he did last year so he may be all the way back from his knee injury and maybe the sternum injury late last year - and having to sit out as a result - helped him get his legs back underneath him. Receivers coach Bobby Engram, who the receivers all seem to love and respect, said Saddler's energy, his enthusiasm and his consistency at playing fast. I thought Devin Street had a nice day as well. Like I said, the pitching and catching is getting better, it is getting more consistent - the quarterbacks are more accurate and more confident and the receivers are running better routes and catching the ball more consistently.

3.) One of the more interesting compare and contrast moments today was Street talking about the difference in the systems from last year to this. He said the route combinations make more sense in this offense as they are actually running defined routes as opposed to last year, when "we were just told to go...." That I think was as big of a problem with the passing game as anything - the receivers never fully bought into the system and thus Sunseri was left often to hold the ball too long trying to figure out who the heck to throw it to. Now they are running good routes again and it has shown in that guys are getting open. Street said he knows he's got to become the go-to guy and that is what he wants to do and Engram echoed these sentiments. "The thing about becoming a go-to guy is you have to bring it every day, every snap and you have to show up ready to work," Engram said. 

4.) The first unit offensive line - Junatez Hollins, Cory King, Ryan Turnley, Ryan Schlieper, Matt Rotheram - has remained largely intact throughout spring and they've gotten better each week. That's not a surprise because offensive lines usually take a little bit of time to come together but here is what will be interesting - who is the odd man out when Chris Jacobson comes back in the fall? Obviously Schlieper or King would be the natural choices but what if they decide those two are among the best five? Will they stick with the guard-tackle thing or will they start moving guys around? Could we see a scenario where Jacobson plays center and Turnley moves to tackle? These are interesting questions but the thing I have liked about this unit is that it has gotten better, especially run blocking. We still see too many pass blocking breakdowns, especially at the edges, but the unit seems to be getting it more. Jim Hueber, who is an old school offensive line coach but is far more of a teacher than you might think, has done a nice job with this unit and he met with the media today as well. He said the key with this group is that they've worked hard and that has pleased him more than anything. “I don’t think you can watch us practice right now and think that somebody hasn’t bought into what we’re doing," He said. "I think right now guys are straining to do what we want them to do.” This is, of course, is a version of a certain former coach's favorite lines -- "we're gonna strain them, then we're gonna train them...." or maybe it was "we're gonna train them, then we're gonna strain them...." I forget which way it was, but I do know there was a lot of rhyming going on in that mess.

Paul Chryst also talked about the offensive line's improvement and said that he can see that the unit is starting to understand some things and improve each day and he has been very happy with the way the run game has progressed. I'm telling you, this camp has been spoon feeding as opposed to force feeding, and the gradual, but steady improvement has been very easy to see in just about every area.

5.) The offense had a really good day in the redzone drills today. Like I wrote, Cam Saddler had at least three, maybe four touchdowns and Devin Street had a nice catch and most importantly they didn't turn the ball over. It was really good stuff as they were efficient, both the quarterbacks (from what I saw it was Sunseri and Anderson) made good, quick decisions and the offense really clicked down there. Again, it is the spring, there is a long way to go, but you have to be encouraged by the progress and improvement in such a short time.         "Guys are starting to get some things, every time they play there is learning and that's hopefully where this group is at," Chryst said of the redzone improvement.

6.) In case you missed the Panthers are down two linebackers - one (Carl Fleming) because he had a little episode with the police and some Chronic in his car on Friday night and the other (EJuan Price) because he had pectoral surgery Monday. Price will miss the rest of sping but he will be back by the fall so it isn't a big deal, though you hate to see a young guy with so much potential miss out on any practice time.  Fleming has been suspended indefinitely and his status with the team is a little bit shaky. Fleming, who is a redshirt junior meaning he is entering his fourth year in the program, has never really been able to crack the depth chart and seemed to be a guy who was destined to never fulfill his potential so maybe this will be the wake up call that he needs to develop a sense of urgency and salvage the rest of his career. That is, of course, assuming that he is able to continue with his career once his legal troubles are cleaned up and his suspension is lifted.

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