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Spring preview: Quarterbacks

Written by Sam Werner on .

Doesn't it feel like the 2013 season just ended and just yesterday we were enjoying the beauty of Detroit in December? Well, it's already time to start looking forward. Pitt starts its 2014 spring practices March 16 and, in the 10 days leading up to that date, let's go through and take a look at where each position stands heading into Paul Chryst's third spring session at the helm. First, let's take a look at the guys who will be under center this spring (spoiler alert: there aren't many of them)...

Projected depth chart (returning starters in italics)

1) Chad Voytik, RS So., 6-1, 210 lbs
2) Trey Anderson, Sr., 6-0, 195 lbs

And that's it. Pitt will go through spring practice with just two quarterbacks on the roster. Both guys will obviously don their usual red jerseys, and it wouldn't surprise me if Chryst used up Pitt's entire supply of bubble wrap on Anderson and (especially) Voytik during the spring. While they obviously won't receive any contact, the dearth of options is a unique opportunity to get plenty of worked. I spoke to Voytik earlier this offseason and he said that, despite two years in the system, he's still learning the finer points of the system. As the presumed starter heading into the season, he's going to need all the practice reps he can get. He showed some flashes in the bowl game, but one half of good football is a far cry from being able to start and be successful for an entire season.
The biggest benefit of all these reps in the spring could actually just be Voytik's ability to develop some chemistry with his receivers. Most of Pitt's receiver options are younger guys, who Voytik could already have a rapport with. He has probably thrown plenty of passes to Zach Challingsworth (and other young guys like that) in second-team drills this year, so it'll be interesting to watch which guys he seems to target in the spring.
At this point, Anderson is really more of an emergency option than competitor for the starting job. Barring injury, it'll be Voytik under center (or in the shotgun) for the Delaware game in August. Anderson doesn't really have a big enough body of work to make any judgements on how effective he could be, but a spring with plenty of reps couldn't hurt him either.
The other aspect to watch this spring is the coaching situation. Chryst is now the quarterbacks coach, along with new graduate assistant Jon Budmayr. Voytik had some good things to say about Budmayr when I talked to him, and one thing to keep an eye on is how much Chryst is working exclusively with the quarterbacks versus how much of it is Budmayr. Obviously, Chryst won't be able to spend all of practice with one position group, but I think you'll definitely see an uptick in terms of how much time he spends with his passers.

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Colonials defeat Fairleigh Dickinson in first round of NEC tournament

Written by Craig Meyer on .

When Lucky Jones arrived back to Robert Morris after his team’s 59-48 loss to Wagner last weekend, he did so mired in his worst offensive drought of a season, a slump in which he had missed 51 of his past 64 shots.

So, naturally, he did the only thing he knew how to in that situation – take more shots.

“I kind of got my confidence back when we came back from Wagner,” Jones said. “Immediately that night, me and Chuck [Oliver] went into the gym and just started shooting a lot of shots. From that day until yesterday, we just continued to get shots.”

What happened that night in a lonely gym helped pave the way for a bounce-back performance, one that is partly responsible for the Colonials still having NCAA tournament aspirations.

The junior forward made seven of his 13 shots Wednesday night and had team highs in points (19), rebounds (seven) and assists (four) as Robert Morris overcame a scoreless performance from leading scorer Karvel Anderson in a 60-53 victory against Fairleigh Dickinson at the Sewall Center in the first round of the Northeast Conference tournament.

“I knew when I came into the game that I was going to stay confident and just let it fly,” he said.

Not even 48 hours after being named the NEC player of the year, Anderson struggled, but not without reason, as he was battling an undiagnosed illness. Entering the game averaging 19.6 points per game, he attempted a season-low three shots and sat on the bench for the final 8:37 of play.

“He wasn’t feeling well and he wasn’t being very effective out there, so we had to put people out there that were going to be effective,” Robert Morris coach Andy Toole said.

In the gamut of a conference tournament, one in which a single loss ends a team’s year-long goal, the fact that the Colonials (20-11) were able to win despite an off day from Anderson was encouraging to those on the team.

“I have confidence going into the next game because I know he’s going to have some fire and it’s not going to be pretty for our opponents,” point guard Anthony Myers-Pate said of Anderson.

After taking a 26-24 lead into halftime, the top-seeded Colonials saw their lead grow to eight in the first eight minutes of the second half. For the most part, that advantage held for the remainder of the game, with the eighth-seeded Knights (10-21) getting no closer than five.

It was Robert Morris’ second win against Fairleigh Dickinson in the past six days and in some respects, the games followed a similar script.

“Both games when we had to score, we didn’t score,” Fairleigh Dickinson coach Greg Herenda said. “We were up 15 with 8:48 to go at our place and we scored two points and then tonight, we never got in an offensive groove.

“I think it had to do with their athleticism on the top of the zone. They not only contest shots, but they contest passes. In this day and age, you don’t see that a lot in the half court. They’re really well-schooled.”

The win gave Robert Morris its sixth 20-win season in the past seven years.

The Colonials will play in the semifinals Saturday against Saint Francis, which upset third-seeded Bryant, 55-54.

Robert Morris swept the season series with the Red Flash, notching those two wins by an average of 5.5 points.

But coming off a night in which his team looked uncharacteristically jittery and sloppy at times, Toole knows his team needs to work on some things if it hopes to advance much further.

“They’ve got to relax and play,” he said. “Everything that’s been accomplished previously is now over and now everybody is 0-0. You have to go out and play. We played like a team that was afraid to lose, in all honesty.”

 

Craig Meyer: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG

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Another mock for Dennard.

Written by Dan Gigler on .

Add Sports Illustrated's Doug Farrar to the chorus suggesting the Steelers will take a hard look at selecting Michigan State's "No-Fly Zone" cornerback Darqueze Dennard with the no. 15 pick in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

In his latest mock draft released yesterday, Farrar writes

After a few rocky drafts, Steelers GM Kevin Colbert has a plethora of positional holes to consider. A primary issue is at cornerback, where William Gay was the only pass defender to log an opponent passer rating under 88.1 — Ike Taylor, who had the most passing snaps of any Steelers’ cornerback, allowed a 110.6 passer rating and six touchdowns with no picks. Dennard may have a few holes in his game, but he’s got the athleticism and ball skills to be a considerable improvement right off the bat.

Farrar has Ole Miss WR Mike Evans and Notre Dame NT Louis Nix -- frequently discussed as Steelers first round targets -- both off the board just ahead of Dennard, which is consistent with other national writer's mocks to this point.

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Shero on third line: 'We needed to improve' - 03-05-14

Written by Seth Rorabaugh on .

 Penguins general manager Ray Shero held court with the media today after the 3 p.m. trade deadline expires. He talked about the players he acquired in forwards Marcel Goc and Lee Stempniak and briefly discussed the one player he did not acquire, Canucks forward Ryan Kesler:

On pursuing Kesler:

"We had inquired with them [the Canucks]. At the end of the day, obviously he was not traded. I don’t think there was a deal there to be made. A lot of the focus media-wise, was on Ryan Kesler. Not only Pittsburgh but around different media markets. He’s a real good player. But our goal was to increase our forward depth up front and help our forward group. I think we’ve accomplished that and not touched anybody off our roster. That was our main goal. With the [Pascal] Dupuis injury, with the Beau Bennett injury, it was important for us to try and do that. I think we’ve accomplished that. Hopefully, it’ makes it a better, deeper team."

On how Goc and Stempniak will be used in the lineup:

"I’ll leave it up to the coaches but the good thing on these players is they are very versatile guys. Can play different positions. Both penalty kill, power play. Can help our penalty kill, our second power-play unit. So what I think what’s important to us was the depth at our forward position. Players that have been in the league, played well in the league, that’s what I think we were looking for and to try to add to that. Where they’re going to play, that remains to be seen. There’s 20-plus games left in the regular season and I’m sure they’ll get opportunity around the lineup and kind of see where the best fit is."

Can Goc be used as a winger?

"I think the great thing with Marcel is that he is versatile. He’s been a very good center iceman, a very good penalty killer. Back in [2001] he was a first-round draft pick but he’s really found his way in the league to become a very useful player and I think that’s what we were looking for. He was having a good year in Florida. I think he had a good year last year as well for them. It’s a guy we’ve had our eye on for a little while, including last year. I think the versatility of Goc is going to be important. We have some time here to move some guys around the lineup and see how they’re going to do."

Comparing this trade deadline to last year's trade deadline:

"I think every deadline is different. With the injuries that we have with [Paul] Martin, [Kris] Letang, [Tomas] Vokoun, and Beau Bennett, and [Pascal] Dupuis, if those guys are all healthy, we’re probably not doing anything because we’re a [salary] cap team and the cap went down $6 million. But it was important to us with these injuries that we improve up front. Last year was a different year in terms of an increased cap and the types of players we did pick up. What we did today hopefully is going to give us that opportunity to help out some of the players with our group and giving our coaching staff some options up front with makes us a better hockey team."

Did anything need to be done with the salary cap - such as putting players on long-term injured reserve - to get Goc and Stempniak on the roster?

"No. We’re fine right now with the salary cap. But these two moves gives us flexibility in terms of bringing back players off [long-term injured reserve] or [injured reserve], depending on where they’re going to be. We just don’t have a time frame yet for Beau Bennett. We don’t have one for Kris Letang or Paul Martin. We’ll see where that’s going to take us. That’s why without that time frame and knowing where we’re going to be, that’s why it was important to improve ourselves up front which hopefully we did."

Did you pursue any other big-name players?

"Yeah. Plenty of calls. Trying to find the right fit also and keeping in compliance with the salary cap. Lots of calls. A lot of activity actually I’d say over the last … I’d say … six hours. I think you’re always seeing what’s out there and trying to fit people in and if that makes sense for you and what the cost might be and where guys are going to fit on your team. Lots of activity but hopefully with the two guys we’ve got, that makes us a better team."

On how the coaching staff might use Goc and Stempniak:

"I think it just gives them different options. I think with Goc, who has proven to be a good NHL center iceman as well, whether you’ve got [Sidney Crosby] and [Brandon] Sutter down the middle with Goc, it gives you the opportunity to have [Malkin] play with [Crosby] a bit more. It gives Dan [Bylsma] that option. Or to go with four center or to move Goc to the wing. Different options because of the versatility of the players we have."

On the flexibility to remove players such as Tomas Vokoun from long-term injured reserve with Goc and Stempniak on the roster:

"That takes under consideration Paul Martin and things like that to have that flexibility. I don’t know where Tomas is going to be in a week or three weeks or a month versus being game ready and so forth but I wanted to have that possibility, especially on our defense. The good news on Paul Martin is he will be back at some point. I’m not sure if it’s right before the playoffs of the first game of the playoffs but we have the opportunity to bring him back. With Kris Letang, we’ll have to see where that goes but we’ll have to keep that in mind as well as far as what you have to work with salary cap-wise. Hopefully, it works out okay."

Dan Bylsma has talked about failing to find an identity for the third line this season. How have you viewed the third line this season?

"We picked up one, maybe two players today because of that. I think it was an area we needed to improve. That’s what as a group we set out to do at this deadline, was outside of any big splash or big name, was try to improve our depth on that third line or guys that can play on your third line and move around. I think we accomplished that and I think we needed to improve upon that for sure."

What does Stempniak offer?

"Lee’s a veteran guy. He has an ability to score goals, chip in offensively. He can play the power play, penalty kill. He’s strong on puck. A good experienced guy. Left or right winger, usually a right wing but he gives you that right-hand shot. Depth and versatility to our forward group which I think we needed."

Is Stempniak a first- or third-liner?

"I’ll leave that to the coaches as usual and they’ll try to find the best fits for guys and see if some guys click but we have 20 games to do that. But the versatility is a bonus and we’ll see where they go. If at some point we get Beau Bennett back, I’m not sure. These guys [Goc and Stempniak] will hopefully be in San Jose tomorrow and might be in the lineup tomorrow night. If not, the next night hopefully. We’ll see where they go and where the fit might be."

Last year, you dealt a number of prospects and high draft picks. This year, it was only mid-range draft picks. Was it important to retain some of your higher-end assets?

"Yeah. Last year, we didn’t have a first and a second-round draft pick at the deadline then at the draft, we recoup the second-round pick and use that on the young goalie [Tristan] Jarry which we’re really happy with. I sit here right now and say, ‘Am I glad I didn’t trade our first-round pick?’ Absolutely. You’re trying to do the right thing possible for the team with the salary cap and so forth. I’m happy we kept our first-round pick this year and first pick in [2015] and traded a few mid-range things that you may be able to get back over the course of the next year or two. To add a couple guys to our lineup without taking anybody off our team or trading a real-life prospect is better for us."

(Photo: Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

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Penguins acquire Stempniak - 03-05-14

Written by Seth Rorabaugh on .

Another trade deadline. Another acquisiton of a winger from the Flames.

The Penguins acquired right winger Lee Stempniak from the Flames in exchange for a third round pick in the 2014 draft.

Stempniak, 31, is in the final year of a contract with a salary cap hit of $2.5 million.

In 52 games this season, Stempniak (5-foot-11, 196 points) has 23 points (eight goals, 23 assists). He has averaged 19:24 of ice time this season including 1:58 on the power play and 1:41 on the penalty kill. Stempniak is capable of playing on either wing or on the point of the power play.

Having also spent time with the Coyotes, Maple Leafs and Blues, Stempniak reached 27 goals with St. Louis in 2006-07.

A native of West Seneca, N.Y., Stempniak played with Penguins left winger Tanner Glass at Dartmouth.

A few highlights:

-In three seperate minor moves, right winger Chuck Kobasew was assigned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton a day after he cleared waivers. Additionally, center Brian Gibbons and defenseman Simon Despres were each assigned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and recalled to the NHL in a paper transaction which will keep them eligible for the AHL playoffs.

-EN Says: When speaking this afternoon, Ray Shero wasn't certain about where Stempniak or Marcel Goc would play, but Stempniak is capable of playing on either the first or third lines where there are holes. He can also help boost the second power play unit which is shorthanded a bit on the point.

Stempniak won't make anyone forget Pascal Dupuis or even Matt Cooke, but he can offer some internal competition to the likes of Brian Gibbons or Taylor Pyatt.

(Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

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