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April 15, 2007

Yes, I had taken note of the story that Pitt is looking to use the safeties more in run support and dare we say, blitzing.

That prompted Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt and defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads to re-evaluate everything from their defensive scheme to personnel in the off-season. Midway through spring drills, the Panthers added a new wrinkle by moving a safety closer to the line of scrimmage to help in run support and occasionally blitz the passer.

“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” Wannstedt said, only half-kidding. “We’ve really been looking at a lot of ways to help our run defense. Getting the safety involved with blitzing is one way we haven’t done much of and is something we’re taking a look at this spring.”

I take it fully serious.

Honestly, I had to hold off on posting this until I could beat down the urge to make it all about DC Rhoads’ new-found responsibility for the linebackers and realization that his job (should) could be on the line if Pitt doesn’t start stopping the run. All of the sudden, there is value in bringing the safeties up. Especially as things are completely unsettled and no matter how much potential there may be at the Linebacker spots, it’s a huge question mark.

This has struck me something of a classic groupthink issue. The article points out that Coach Wannstedt hates bringing up the safeties as well because of the risk of giving up the big play. Well, that’s been nothing but reinforced with DC Rhoads’ similar approach. That means no dissenting voices (aside from screaming, pleading fans) to change the view. At least new secondary coach Chris Ball is willing and supportive of using the safeties up closer to support the overall defense.

Eric Thatcher is perfectly willing to contribute.

“If bringing the safeties up in the box is going to help this defense stop the run – and that’s the problem we’ve had since I’ve been here – I’ll be as physical as I have to be,” Thatcher said. “I think it’s going to help us out big-time. The way it’s run this year is definitely a lot better than last year.”

At this point, I’m not even concerned as much about the blitzing as it is about stopping the freaking run. If this is what it takes to finally get Pitt to start stuffing the box against teams — like Rutgers and Ray Rice — so be it.

The other point is that for all the happy and hopeful talk about how the D-line will be better and positive surprise this year, the planning to use the safeties in run support and blitzing reflects one of two possibilities:

  1. That maybe all that talk of a stronger D-line is just a lot of smoke being blown-up the collective behind of Pitt fans, and the coaches are much more cognizant of the reality; or
  2. This is some advanced planning because while the D-line might be better, the depth isn’t there at this point and it is better to start planning now for what needs to be done when things go lower on the depth chart.

I hope for #2, but suspect #1.

In the Blue-Gold Game, neither QB was particularly impressive, but Stull definitely seemed to have a firmer grasp on what he was doing. That makes sense since this is now his third season learning from OC Cavanaugh. Kevan Smith, is still struggling with things. The most glaring is locking in with his eyes on his primary receiver. Even with the internet feed, you could see his eyes follow just one receiver when he dropped back. Elijah Fields noted that when he talked about his interception after the scrimmage.

Fields followed quarterback Kevan Smith’s eyes, broke on his pass and returned an interception 53 yards for a touchdown Saturday in the Blue-Gold Game at Heinz Field.

“I usually can catch Kevan staring a receiver down,” Fields said. “So, I just went on a guess and just broke on it. And it was right there. It felt like high school again. Once I see the end zone, I don’t let anything stop me.”

Hopefully the light for Fields stays on. He says he has a much better understanding of the defense and his role out there. That the game is slowing down for him once more.

I guess the coaching staff is not satisfied with anyone at the Center position right now. Something that makes me nervous.

Mike McGlynn has been Pitt’s starting right tackle the past three seasons, but he sat out spring drills with a shoulder injury. As a result, sophomore Jason Pinkston has been the first-team right tackle and has filled the role admirably.

Pinkston’s emergence at tackle might mean McGlynn could be moved to shore up the center position, which is shaky. That could mean McGlynn would move to center or he could move to guard with junior C.J. Davis shifting to center.

“We have to look at getting the five best offensive lineman out there,” Wannstedt said. “And really, Mike McGlynn gives us the most flexibility to move someone because he is the leader of that group and he can play a number of positions for us. He has the most knowledge of our offense.”

McGlynn is the long-snapper on punts, but this is a little different. Spring practices won’t decide the depth chart for the fall, but you would hope that by the end there’s an idea of where players will be lining up. That they won’t be changing the positions after the final scrimmage of the spring.
It’s hard not to see how LeSean McCoy won’t be competing for the starting tailback job — or at least rotating with LaRod Stephens-Howling. Stephens-Howling looked good out there, but Shane Brooks won’t get much playing time if he puts the ball on the ground, regardless of how well he runs and how good he is at catching the ball out of the backfield. Kevin Collier had a nice run for 28 yards, but only 26 on 11 carries after that.
Nice that DT Gus Mustakas and OT Jeff Otah won the awards for most improved players in the spring. It’s all line play right now.

The defense looked much better then the offense overall. Not a complete shock with the QB position still unsettled. I’m a little worried about the corners right now. I think they will improve and get a lot better — high ceiling and all of that. Right now, though, they are not looking that great. Aaron Berry had a gift interception. He was behind Kinder who went high to try and get a pass from Stull. Kinder was able to get one hand on it while trying to stay inbounds. Berry didn’t go up for it or try to break it up. Instead he stood flat-footed behind Kinder and when the ball tipped off of Kinder’s left hand it went right to Berry.

Maybe it’s because he didn’t want to level a teammate in a scrimmage. Maybe he felt his position was wrong to make a play on the ball (which was probably true). All it looked like he was going to do was shove Kinder out of bounds if he came down with it.

Kevin Gorman’s blog post on the game has lots of nuggets on the Blue-Gold game, and he ends with a little blast to AD Jeff Long:

The past eight days have been a public relations disaster for Pitt athletic director Jeff (Not For) Long, who moved the marquee home game (Navy) from a Saturday to a Wednesday night so it could be televised on ESPN and then charged admission to a scrimmage.

I’d be more forgiving if Long hadn’t issued a news release at 3 p.m. on Good Friday so that he wouldn’t have to answer for changing the game. Or if he hadn’t sat alone during the Blue-Gold Game in a coaches’ box, with a glass window separating him from having to deal with members of the media in the adjoining press box.

For an athletic department so desperate to sell season tickets that it’s practically giving away a second seat (at $10) to first-time buyers (of the $199 package), this was a poor way to promote the football program.

And an even worse way to answer for it.

I noted the timing of the release last week. Gorman seems more annoyed about the avoidance of dealing with the media rather then the more populist perspective that sitting alone and sealed off also kept him away from the fans and general public.

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