I'm back on the beat and happy to be home!
It was a very long road trip, heck it seemed like I haven't been home in a month or so -- even when I was home, I spent four long days covering the women's tournament at Pitt -- but I am back and ready to tackle this football thing again. I'll be updating this blog now and Im going to periodically throughout the offseason answer Q&A questions so you can send them through to me and check back in our Q&A.
Now then, today the Panthers scrimmaged and here is what I saw and from talking to some coaches and players, it seems like I'm seeing the same things they are...
** It is a scrimmage in the spring, so keep that in mind. Some of the top players, like a Dion Lewis, played very limited snaps for obvious reasons and thus you can't get a really good feel for how things are going to look come the fall. With that being said - this is a good football team. I've covered college football now for about 12 years, been to a lot of practices and games and whatnot and like I said last year, this team passes the look test - it is big, it is strong, it has a lot of athletes and it has a lot of speed. That's a great start, but it shouldn't be surprise considering the way Dave Wannstedt recruits and Buddy Morris conditions -- you take good athletes, put them in a great strength and conditioning program and you have what looks like a good football team. Of course, they haven't played a game yet, so we will have to see what that translates into.
** That being said, there are a couple of very troublesome spots on this team -- but keep in mind this before we get into them - it is only April and there is a lot of time between now and the start of the season. So guys can get better, they can get stronger and perhaps some guys can step up from the freshman class. However, the interior of the offensive line leaves a lot to be desired. OK, let be more honest - it looks like a mess right now to me. That doesn't mean it can't better, it means it NEEDS to get better and that means that there needs to be three guys - two guards and a center -- who step forward and seize the starting jobs. Right now I can't see any scenario that doesn't include Chris Jacobson and Alex Karabin at two spots and Greg Gaskins at the third. But this group needs to get better and right now there is also an issue with depth along the line as it is time for some of the younger linemen to step forward. Also, two of the linebacker spots are manned by Max Gruder and Dan Mason but that third spot has been inconsistent and Greg Williams is too experienced of a player now to be inconsistent. He needs to get it in gear quickly but here is the problem - I'm not sure there is another linebacker ready to step in and take that spot.
** Greg Cross, who I write about for tomorrow's paper, really has something to offer this team. He ran a reverse, he caught a pass, he threw a touchdown pass to Jon Baldwin - he is really happy with his role and it seems like coaches are happy with him. Right now he is Mike Shanahan's back-up and he is hoping to get some work in on special teams as well. I don't know, maybe I am crazy, but every time I see this guy with the ball in his hands he is making guys miss. He really made a move on his reverse where he broke a defender down and then finished the run the right way - with a little bit of power running. He seems like he can offer some things that nobody else on this team can - the eternal question is this ---- will the coaches give him the opportunity?
** I know that he's young and raw and all that stuff but I have to say this for the third time -- I cannot see how they are going to keep this Tyrone Ezell character off the field. I don't know much about the ins and outs of technique and all that stuff -- but I do know this: Every time I watch him, he is too explosive for whoever he's playing against and he seems to spend a lot of time in the backfield blowing up plays. He had five tackles, two for loss and there were a few plays where I swear he had to be offside because he got into the backfield so quick. Ezell, in case you don't know, is a redshirt freshman defensive tackle from Steel Valley. Now, it should be noted that Ezell is playing a lot against the second team offensive line - which is a ragtag bunch right now to say the least -- but even when he has played against the first team, he still stands out because of his quickness
** Another guy who showed up in a big way today is Carl Fleming, who, if he keeps having days like this might be the guy who knocks Greg Williams out of the lineup. Fleming, like Ezell, spent a lot of time in the backfield and made a lot of big plays. He had six tackles, one for loss. The defense as a whole had an excellent day, I thought, and Dave Wannstedt said as much after it. He said it was the best showing by the front seven thus far, which is good because if the offensive line doesn't come together, well, the defense better be able to stop the other teams.
** The quarterbacks are what they are and either won can win games for Pitt, I'm convinced of that. I thought Pat Bostick had a good day throwing the ball even though his percentage wasn't great. He really threw the ball a lot better than I've seen him throw it. He had some zip on his passes, he made some tough throws and he even showed some athleticism on a few scrambles. Tino Sunseri remains the starter and he is very good but there is no question that because of his size the coaches will have to move him around some in the pocket as he gets some passes batted down at the line. He is clearly a better passer than Bostick, but Bostick really played well today and I think showed he can be effective if he has to start.
** Dion Lewis played for about 30 seconds and then sat down for the day. And since Ray Graham was hurt, well, that meant it was the Chris Burns show and I'll say this - because he was the third man out last season - and thus the forgotten man -- I forgot how good he really is. He'd start for a lot of teams, a lot of good teams, in fact, and frankly, if he had run last spring like he did today, he might have won the starting job. He ran 17 times for 87 yards (5.1 per carry) and scored three touchdowns. There is no question that running back is a very deep position on this team and that shouldn't be a surprise because any running back who wants to carry the ball should sign up to play for Dave Wannstedt given how much he values the running game.
** The receiving corps is very good as well with Jon Baldwin and Mike Shanahan playing the role of the starters and Devin Street coming on strong. Street caught three passes for 83 yards and had a long touchdown reception and then caught a jump ball for a touchdown. Then there are guys like Cameron Saddler, Greg Cross and Todd Thomas who will battle for time as the fourth receiver. It is a very good group overall and I've written this before - in terms of talent, depth and numbers - I don't recall a Pitt team having this good skill position players since I started covering them.
** Also, because the receivers are so good, we've gotten a good chance to see just how good the corners really are and I'm going to go out on a limb with this one (and if I am wrong, I'm sure some of you will remind me) -- Saheed Imoru and Antwuan Reed - the two starting corners - will be better than Jovani Chappel and Aaron Berry were last year, both individually and as a tandem. Reed to me, along with Cross, are the most improved players on this team -- coach kept telling me Reed could play even though every time I watched him last year he was struggling but I'll tell you what, he's taken the bull by the horns so to speak and he's had a great spring. Once the safeties get healthy, this secondary could be really, really good. And that's a good thing because I think the secondary was torched a few times last year and probably cost them the N.C State and Cincinnati games.
** The kicking today was, um, suspect at best. Between Kevin Harper and Dan Hutchins they kicked 12 field goals and missed five of them. And the worst part of that is only one of those missed field goals was from 40 yards or longer (Hutchins missed a 46-yarder). Hutchins was 3-of-5 and and Harper was 4-of-7. This is a position that it is way too early to worry about but it certainly wasn't a good day for the kickers.
** So in short, I think, like I said, this is a good team. It can be a really good team provided there are answers at offensive line and the one outside linebacker spot and the quarterbacks continue to progress. The strengths should be the defense and the skill positions but I'm not ready to declare this a team that should win the Big East because the offensive line concerns me and I have a sneaking suspicion that the defensive line is going to miss Mick Williams and Gus Mustakas more than anyone wants to admit.
** Next week is the spring game -- um, I'm sorry, the Spring Football Festival -- and it will start at 12:30 with a kids clinic on the field and also the coaches shop talk. Then at 2 p.m. the game kicks off. Last year the kids clinic and coaches talk were very well received by fans and, if the weather cooperates, I would expect it to be another good day for Pitt fans.