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Pitt wraps up spring practice

Written by Sam Werner on .

Pitt had its 15th and final spring practice down on the South Side today. It was a bit of an abbreviated session with some fun thrown in at the end, but here are a couple of notes...

- Redshirt sophomore cornerback Jahmahl Pardner was absent today, and Paul Chryst said after practice that Pardner has decided to leave the team (though he is still enrolled at the university). I would imagine that Pardner will likely finish up this semester at Pitt and then transfer somewhere else to continue his football career. He came on with some really good promise early in the 2012 season as Pitt's starting nickelback, but tore his ACL against Virginia Tech and really was never the same after that. He came back to a much more limited role last year, but was fighting for playing time heading into 2014. It likely would've been an uphill battle — Lafayette PittsTrenton Coles and Titus Howard are both ahead of him at cornerback and Reggie Mitchell appeared to have passed him in nickel situations, too — but he likely would've seen some sort of role on the team next year.
That said, though, if there's one position Pitt could probably afford to take a hit depth-wise, it's in the secondary. The Panthers have all the guys I mentioned above, plus four more defensive backs coming in this summer as freshmen. It's never good to lose a guy who could've contributed but this is a much better situation than if Pitt had lost, say, a defensive end (where depth is pretty dire).

- Pitt was in full pads today, something they haven't done too much this spring (usually they haven't been wearing leg pads) but didn't tackle to the ground in any of their drills. They did some scrimmage-type stuff, but running backs stayed upright the whole time.

- In said scrimmage situations, the secondary looked pretty active early on with Howard, in particular, logging a couple of breakups. Terrish Webb, who appears to have locked down the starting safety job next to Ray Vinopal, also made a couple of nice plays. Those two guys have had really good springs, and will be critical pieces for Pitt next season.
"Those guys both have a lot of ability," Vinopal said. "Everyone on the team knows that and they trust their ability. It's just getting the mental side of the game down, and they're putting their time in in the meeting room, studying, watching film. They definitely are getting it. I'm very comfortable with both of them on the field, everybody on the back end I'm comfortable with."

- Wide receiver Jester Weah had a nice practice today. He beat Coles deep on a route in third-down drills, and also had a couple of nice touchdown catches in red zone drills. The first one was over Coles and the second one came over Pitts on a nice back shoulder throw from Voytik. I think Weah's still probably towards the back of the line when it comes to receivers who will see the field for Pitt in 2014, but his raw potential is so tantalizing that whenever you see flashes of it, it's impossible not to wonder what happens if he figures out how to harness that rawness into football ability.

JP Holtz also had some nice grabs down in the red zone. Obviously he's a nice target down there, but last year Pitt had to keep him in and block so much to make up for offensive line deficiencies, he really wasn't deployed as an offensive weapon to his full potential. I think there will still be a lot of that in 2014, but if they can let Holtz loose a little bit more, he seems to do a good job creating space and getting open around the end zone.

- Sticking with tight ends, Voytik appears to have a good connection with Scott Orndoff. He has looked for him a lot this spring, and today had two long completions to convert 3rd-and-15 and 3rd-and-18 situations. Orndoff lost the end of last year with an injury, but showed good potential as a receiver early on in the season.

- I'm interested to see how Dontez Ford fits into the offense next season. He's a guy who has clearly been getting more and more work (and, appropriately, getting better and better) as spring has progressed. They seem to like him a lot on short crossing routes, and he caught a couple of passes in those situations today. He looks noticeably trimmer and more in-tune with the offense than he did even in Detroit last year (where he saw some limited action).

- Pitt ended practice today with some fun stuff to send the players off into summer. First it was offensive and defensive linemen catching punts (most of them did all right), followed by a team-wide game of dodgeball. It ultimately ended with a few defenders against backup quarterback Trey Anderson, but Anderson rallied and pared it down to just he and Coles. After a brief wrestling match, it looked like Coles got the final throw in on Anderson. Here's video of the whole game...

I'll have some more stuff coming later this week, including trying to piece together what the depth chart will probably look like come August, so stay tuned.

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Talkin' Bout Practice - April 10

Written by Sam Werner on .

Pitt took things outside for the first time this spring today. Given the harsh winter we've had in Pittsburgh this year, it was a welcome change. It was mostly individual work today, with scrimmages and team drills mostly reserved for Friday practices. Even then, I would expect things will be toned down a bit with both James Conner and Isaac Bennett out for the rest of the spring. Here are a few notes from today's session...

- It's getting to the point in spring where it's becoming less and less likely that guys being held out will get a chance to return. We already knew about Bennett and Conner, but I would also expect LaQuentin SmithReggie GreenEjuan Price and Bam Bradley to be at least limited the rest of the way. Green was on crutches today, and the other guys were all just milling around in jerseys and no pads. None of the injuries, though, are serious enough that they're even doubtful for summer conditioning. It sounds like Pitt is just being overly cautious with most of these guys, not wanting to risk serious injury that could put them in doubt for the season.

- Offensive line coach Jim Hueber had probably the best quote of this spring after today's practice, regarding the current makeup of the roster (now almost entirely Paul Chryst recruits).
"When we came in here, there was a reason we got hired and it wasn't because this was utopia," Hueber said. "I think we fought through that. We had kids that didn't want to buy in to our way. You look around now, there's not much bitching and moaning, there's not many guys missing. We don't have the problems that we had before.
"How that pans out in wins and losses we'll only know as these recruiting classes get older."
That's a topic that has been talked about a lot over the last two years. Given the coaching turmoil in 2010-11, Pitt's roster was a hodgepodge of Wannstedt recruits, Graham recruits and Chryst recruits. Now, I don't think it's impossible for these three factions to coexist, but there were a number of guys on the roster in previous years who thought that this current iteration of Pitt football wasn't what they signed up for. Pretty much all of those guys are gone now, and that's what Hueber is referring to. All the guys Chryst recruited are obviously on board with this coaching staff's method and philosophy, and any seniors who were recruited by Wannstedt/Graham have stuck around long enough and have the right character to buy in to this staff, as well (Isaac Bennett comes to mind as a good example, but it really applies to everyone in those '10 and '11 recruiting classes).
Moreover, there's simply the roster depth aspect to it. This applies most importantly to Hueber's position, offensive line, because that's the area where it's really most important just to have bodies and experience, and you can't fix it with one (or, really, even two) good recruiting classes. Pitt has 11 offensive linemen on the roster now (nine of which are healthy) and will grow to 14 before the season starts. Even accounting for injuries, Hueber should be able to have two full groups of five offensive linemen for practices next fall, a luxury he hasn't had in his first two years at Pitt. That'll allow the older guys to rest and let the younger guys develop a little more cleanly because they're not worried about bouncing around just to fill personnel gaps.

- One of the questions lingering last season was whether or not Dorian Johnson would end up at guard or tackle. He played tackle at Belle Vernon, but had the potential to really do either. Through 12 spring practices, he has played every one at left guard, and is the pretty clear favorite to land that job on opening day.
"I think right now if you watch him, I think being in space creates some problems for him, just his body type," Hueber said. "I think when he's in a smaller area, he can use his strength. He's got to get used to the techniques inside because he didn't play there in high school."

- I've mentioned him before, but Tyrique Jarrett continued to get some pretty extensive work with the first team today. KK Mosley-Smith and Darryl Render are still the first guys out there, but it looks like Jarrett will have a role on the line this fall, and more defensive linemen that can help is only a good thing for Pitt.

- Chad Voytik has been a little up and down this spring, which is fine, for now, given that the opener is still five months away. He's working on some mechanical issues, and said spring has been eye-opening about all the different areas he can still improve by the fall.
"I learned a lot, but as you learn you kind of see how much more you have to learn," Voytik said. "I'm experiencing that. It's exciting because I see that room for improvement and now it's just time to do it. I'm excited for the process."
Voytik is in an interesting position this spring. It's pretty rare for a quarterback job to open up and not have any real competition for the vacant spot. Most times, there's a true competition or at least a charade of a competition (like Savage/Voytik last year). It's no secret that, barring injury, Voytik will be the starter against Delaware Aug. 30, and that's a bit of a double-edged sword when it comes to his spring and offseason preparation. On the one hand, competition is always good. Even though Savage was the heavy favorite last offseason, he and Voytik could push each other for playing time. If one guy sees his competition for the starting job doing well, that's going to make him work harder to try and beat him. On the other hand, the lack of competition has its benefits for Voytik because it means he can take the spring and summer working on mechanical details in his game (he talked earlier this spring about adjusting his stride and foot placement) without having to worry about impressing the coaches to earn the starting gig. You can go either way on this idea, but it's just something to think about.

- Pitt spent some time today working on option drills with the quarterbacks and running backs (since it was non-contact, even Bennett was involved). With Chad Voytik running the show, this will obviously be an area to watch in 2014. I don't think Chryst will go crazy with it, but he did effectively use Russell Wilson's mobility during one year at Wisconsin, so it will definitely have its place in the offense.

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Conner, Bennett out for the rest of spring

Written by Sam Werner on .

UPDATE: Well just a few minutes after I finished typing this up, Pitt's Twitter account came out with the news that James Conner (left knee sprain) and Isaac Bennett (left shoulder sprain) will both miss the rest of spring practice. It's not great that those guys will miss the final five practices, but "sprain" is better than "torn" or "ruptured," and both are expected to return for summer conditioning beginning in May.

That leaves Rachid Ibrahim as the only healthy running back for the rest of spring, but I expect we'll see some other creative options back there, too.

---------------

No use wasting time, let's just jump right into today's practice notes...

- The biggest news of Friday's practice came when running back James Conner had to leave the field with a left knee injury. Conner was ridden out of bounds in a full-contact team drill by Titus Howard and went down on the track surrounding the field in Pitt's indoor facility. He stayed down for a while before walking over to the trainer's table to get iced up. A few minutes later, he was leaving on a golf cart with an ice pack on his left knee.
Fortunately, I passed Conner as I was leaving the football facility tonight and he said "everything's good." He looked to be walking fine (if with a slight limp). I wouldn't be surprised if Conner is held out or at least limited for a few days, but it appears that the worst-case scenario of a serious leg injury was avoided here.

- Just a few plays after Conner got hurt, Isaac Bennett also went down with a left shoulder injury. It didn't appear to be serious, and Bennett didn't have to leave practice. He did sit out the rest of the session, though, which left Rachid Ibrahim as the only running back. To give him a break, Ronald Jones also saw some time in the backfield. Barring calamitous injuries this season (especially with freshmen coming in) it's unlikely we'll ever see Jones there in a game, but now we know what the emergency running back plan is.

- Linebacker Reggie Green sat out today's practice with an injury, leaving Pitt pretty depleted at the Sam linebacker position. Anthony Gonzalez stayed with the first team, obviously, but walk-on Nico Elms saw most of the second-team reps today with Bam Bradley also still out.

Tyrique Jarrett saw quite a few first-team reps today, and definitely looked like he belonged in that group.
"I think he came into spring practice with a great attitude," Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. "He's been working hard and working on his body. I think that's important. He went through spring drills last year, so he knew what to expect. He's gotten more reps than he did last year, and I think he's taking advantage of that opportunity. I like the way Tyrique is working hard."
Defensive line is a position where it's important not to really look at first team or second team, but rather just how many guys Pitt has that will be able to contribute this year. Darryl Render and KK Mosley-Smith are in that group, and if Jarrett works his way in there too, then that's a good thing for Pitt. The Panthers aren't going to replace Aaron Donald with one guy, and the more guys they have that can rotate in and stay fresh, the better.

- Pitt scrimmaged for most of practice today with officials present. It was some situational work and some general scrimmaging.
First, they did goal-line drills from the 3-yard line. Of the five series they ran in this situation, only one took more than one play to get a touchdown. Bennett scored twice, Conner scored twice (this was before both got hurt), and Pitt converted once on a pass from Chad Voytik to JP Holtz and Voytik was falling back.

- In red zone drills, the Panthers capped off their first drive by converting 3rd-and-14 from the 24-yard line on a screen pass from Voytik to Bennett for a touchdown. Conner banged home the second drive with a one-yard touchdown run.

- Wide receiver Manasseh Garner was back in practice Friday after missing Thursday with an "excused absence."

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Talkin' Bout Practice - April 3

Written by Sam Werner on .

IMG 1143We're entering the back end of Pitt's 2014 spring season now, and the Panthers took the field for practice No. 9 of the season today. Here's a quick rundown...

- Today's session was focused more on individual and positional drills than teamwork. It makes for less interesting viewing, to be sure, but given that the theme of spring is just getting better individually and as a team, rather than competition, it makes some sense.
"There's a little bit more teaching, less plays," Chryst said. "We'll get more plays tomorrow. That's the biggest difference; we'll get more 11-on-11 tomorrow with officials."

- No new injuries or players returning from injury today. Gabe Roberts and Adam Bisnowaty were in shoulder pads and helmets, and took part in individual drills, but not in the team sessions. Zach PokerDevin Cook and Ejuan Price were also limited. LaQuentin Smith and Bam Bradley were held out entirely.

- No significant depth chart changes today. Pretty much the same as it has been all spring. The only difference today was with Manasseh Garner out with an excused absence, Chris Wuestner stepped in to take some of the first-team reps at receiver. That's a position, though, that's in flux during spring with a lot of guys moving through both teams.

- One spot that I've been keeping an eye on is the cornerback position, and I think it's pretty interesting. It looks like Titus Howard and Trenton Coles are battling for the starting cornerback job opposite Lafayette Pitts (with Howard having the edge right now), but Jahmahl Pardner has been seeing a lot of action as the first-team nickelback in pass situations. Today, we even saw Wisconsin transfer Reggie Mitchell as the first-team nickelback for a brief spell. That likely means that there's something about Pardner's skill set that they think translates better to the nickelback spot than Coles'. Coles, meanwhile, has been primarily with the second team at cornerback (though he did see some first team work earlier this spring).

- The only extensive team drill Pitt did today was a red zone session at the end of practice. They ran six 11-on-11 series starting at the 20, with quarterbacks Chad Voytik and Trey Anderson rotating through with the first and second team. On the whole, it was pretty unsuccessful for the offense. The first two drives were stopped before the offense could get a first down, first on 3rd-and-6 and then on 3rd-and-2.
The first touchdown of the period came on the third session — first team offense vs. first team defense with Anderson at quarterback. On 3rd-and-3 from the 13-yard line, Anderson threw a perfect back-shoulder throw to Tyler Boyd in the right corner of the end zone. Most receivers probably wouldn't have come down with it, but Tyler Boyd is not most receivers. He showed great body control to get some separation from his man and make a diving touchdown grab.
Anderson was also responsible for the second, and final, touchdown of the period, when he hit Isaac Bennett on a two-yard swing pass to cap off a four-play drive that was sparked by a 12-yard keeper by Anderson.
Voytik finished 1/4 for 5 yards and four yards rushing in three red zone series.

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Talkin' Bout Practice - April 1

Written by Sam Werner on .

Pitt passed the halfway mark of spring ball today with its eighth practice of the season. Here are a couple of quick notes from the session (which was unfortunately indoors on this gorgeous day)...

- No real change to the depth chart on either side of the ball. Bam Bradley sat out of today's session, which meant that redshirt freshman Reggie Green was the second-team Sam linebacker. Other than that, it was pretty much as it has been all camp with backs and receivers rotating through, and Jones-Smith/Johnson/Rowell/Rotheram/Clemmings along the offensive line.

- On the defense, more of the same with Soto/Render/Mosley-Smith/Durham along the line and Gonzalez/Galambos/Thomas at linebacker. Starting secondary is still Coles/Vinopal/Webb/Pitts.

- Chryst described today's session as "up and down" and we saw that with three picks from the quarterbacks. The first was a pass from Chad Voytik intended for Ronald Jones running a corner route, but the pass was just a bit underthrown and Lafayette Pitts was able to step in front and pick it off. The second one came from Trey Anderson on a crossing route over the middle where it looked like he just didn't see Nicholas Grigsby dropping back into coverage, and Grigsby made the pick. Finally, Voytik had the third when he didn't see Trenton Coles falling back and Coles picked him off.

- James Conner did some positional drills with the defensive linemen today. This isn't necessarily news, because he has been subbing in on the defensive line at times this spring, but most of those times were just him coming on in emergency situations. This was the first time I can recall Conner actively working with defensive ends coach John Palermo and the rest of the unit in individual drills.

- One position to watch this spring is the nickelback role, which has fluctuated a lot. Today, it looked like Jahmahl Parder was the first guy off the bench in sub packages, but I also think the coaches do like Trenton Coles in that role too.

- Grigsby was a guy who stood out to me in today's practice because I think he could bring a lot of versatility to some defensive packages next year. He's a linebacker by trade, and the second-team Will linebacker right now, but he also comes on some of Pitt's sub packages as essentially a fourth defensive lineman. Specifically today, we saw a look that had Soto/Render/Durham as the defensive line, with Grigsby and Galambos as the linebackers, but Grigsby playing more as just a stand-up rusher, similar to what Ejuan Price would do at times last year (before he transitioned to more of a true defensive end).

- The day wasn't perfect for the secondary, as they bit hard on a couple of fakes at the end of practice. First, Lafayette Pitts fell hard for a double-move by Tyler Boyd, which went for a 63-yard touchdown from Voytik. A couple of plays later, pretty much everyone in the defensive backfield bit on a play fake, which allowed Anderson to find a wide-open Ronald Jones for another long touchdown.

- Still limited work for Adam Bisnowaty and Gabe Roberts in today's practice. Both had helmets and shells on, but neither took part in team drills. 

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