Football is back.
Well, football practice at least. Pitt opened its 2014 training camp Monday with a 2 1/2-hour session in only helmets. In case you missed it this weekend, here's a link to my five questions the Panthers face heading into the 2014 season. For now, let's jump right into some observations from the first practice session, with the caveat that it's tough to tell too much from a helmets-only practice.
- Suspended cornerback Titus Howard was present at Pitt's practice, wearing his new No. 21. As part of his year-long suspension, Howard is allowed to practice with the team and defensive backs coach Troy Douglas referred to it as essentially a "redshirt" year for him. Howard's friend and former Clairton teammate Tyler Boyd also assured that he would stay in Howard's ear and make sure he does what he has to do to get back on the field.
- Incoming freshman linebacker Jamal Davis, on the other hand, was not at practice Monday. Chryst said his eligibility is currently going through the NCAA Clearinghouse, but he expects Davis to join the team "sooner than later." Receiver Jaquaun Davidson, another late enrollee, was at practice Monday.
- A lot of the talk this offseason has centered around just how much James Conner will play defense this year, and it seems like the answer is a fairly significant amount. Conner was working with defensive ends coach John Palermo when I arrived at practice this morning, and Palermo said afterwards that he expects Conner to be a key part in third-down and pass-rushing situations. Palermo added that Ejuan Price's season-ending injury has increased the chances Conner will see significant reps on defense.
"I would tell you that we will miss Ejuan a lot," Palermo said. "Somebody else is going to have to step up to the plate in his position and, basically on third downs, we're going to have to get that help out of James, I believe."
- Sticking with the defensive ends for a second, Palermo said that he has "never seen a bigger hodgepodge of guys before in my life" with regards to size at the position. One projected starter, Shakir Soto, is listed at 6-foot-3, 270 lbs and the other, David Durham, is 6-foot-2, 240 pounds. Add in guys like Nicholas Grigsby (6-1, 220) and freshman Rori Blair (6-4, 230 lbs) and you do have a pretty wide range of sizes to choose from. The answer will likely be specialization, in that each guy will have a pretty clearly defined role, rather than all of them being interchangeable parts.
I mentioned Blair above because Palermo said he would "definitely" have to play for Pitt this season, despite being a true freshman. He did have the benefit of enrolling early and taking part in spring drills, but that does speak to the lack of depth Pitt has at defensive end.
"I'm hoping that Rori can fill that void that Ejuan left us with, but again, he's a young kid," Palermo said. "I don't want to pressure him so much that as a young kid he loses confidence right now."
- Running back Chris James and wide receiver Adonis Jennings saw plenty of action with the second team today. I'd be very surprised if both of them don't play this season.
- Running back Isaac Bennett was technically "limited" in today's practice as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery, but should be back to full strength within a few weeks.
- Defensive back Ryan Lewis has moved from safety to cornerback to help offset the loss of Howard. Reggie Mitchell, meanwhile, will stay at safety in addition to being the nickelback when Pitt puts an extra defensive back on the field. Douglas did note that Mitchell could play corner in an emergency situation, but also pointed out that it would make the Panthers pretty thin at safety.
- The highlight of today's practice was probably an interception by freshman cornerback Avonte Maddox off Trey Anderson during a team passing drill. Maddox made a nice jump on the ball and took it back for what would have been a touchdown. When Douglas was asked about the chances of either Maddox or fellow freshman Phillipie Motley would see the field this year, Douglas said he hoped so and noted that "we didn't recruit anyone to be backups."
- No real surprises when it comes to depth chart movement. Starting offensive line was Bisnowaty-Johnson-Rowell-Rotheram-Clemmings, as expected. The second team offensive line was JonesSmith-Roberts-Officer-Baker-Reese.
- Chad Voytik got virtually all the reps with the first team at quarterback. Paul Chryst didn't provide a specific timeline for naming a starter, but it seems like a mere formality that Voytik will get the job.