There’s closer to 3 than 2 weeks of spring practices left, but Sunday was the 7th practice and there are only 15 practice days permitted for the spring. There’s going to be some more spacing between practices as scrimmages will take place and more recovery — and time for coaches to review the film — occurs. Time to catch-up after sparing some family time in between the NCAA Tournament watching over the weekend.
The beat writers are taking extra note of the amount of high school coaches in the area that are attending Pitt practices — not to mention ex-PSU DC Tom Bradley — along with a fair amount of recruits and kids who will be here in the fall.
One thing that is clear about Paul Chryst – he is being embraced by the high school coaches in Western Pennsyvlania and the reason is – he is open to them and he wants them to know he values them and values what they mean to Pitt. I’ve seen more high school coaches at these few spring practices than I did all of last year and all of them have said the same thing – they really like and respect Chryst because as one guy put it “he’s a football coach, not a publicity hound” That should help Pitt recruiting locally, though, ultimately Chryst has to win for Pitt to have a chance to win some of these local battles.
That will help, especially given Chryst is not exactly a recruiting dynamo that overwhelms recruits, and everyone else with his personality and sales job. Obviously the hiring of Haering from the local HS ranks helps, but Chryst’s willingness to talk and meet with them is the bigger part. Talking shop with them and treating them as equals goes a long way.
Believe it or not, I’m going to pass on the obvious chance to bash FraudGraham. Why? Because the one thing Graham was doing that really didn’t generate animosity or divisions among fans was his recruiting. The incoming class is solid and Graham did a good job of stroking the local coaches and setting them at some ease. Not exactly the easiest thing given the rather cliquish nature of the WPIAL coaches. Remember how many were bashing Pitt for firing Wannstedt — who they viewed as one of them as a local.
Oh, hell I can’t let it go that simply. Saying anything nice regarding the FraudGraham tenure leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Let’s clear the palate by noting the guys who helped keep the class together after all that has happened at Pitt in the last year plus.
Speaking of Upper St. Clair guys … On my way home, I walked past director of football relations Bob Junko as he spoke to several young people, welcoming them and regaling them with stories. I wanted to stop and listen, but I didn’t think I’d blend into the group.
When you wonder why the Pitt program didn’t collapse under the weight of three head coaches leaving in 12 months, Junko and assistant athletic director Chris LaSala provide the answers. They diligently and professionally kept in touch with recruits through the transition periods, and Pitt recruited better than anyone had a right to expect. You won’t find two more loyal employees.
FraudGraham put a bunch of loyal Pitt guys out of work — including Matt Dudek who then bounced to Rutgers and now is in Arizona working for DickRod — but even Fraud wasn’t stupid enough (or he wasn’t allowed) to get rid of Junko and LaSala. Thankfully, he also couldn’t/wouldn’t get rid of E.J. Borghetti.
Former West Virginia coach Bill Stewart visited practice with his son Blaine, a receiver at Morgantown (W.Va.) High School. Blaine Stewart, a senior-to-be, is considering Pitt, along with Cincinnati, Harvard, Wake Forest, Duke, William & Mary, and VMI.
The elder Stewart, who resigned as WVU coach last year, said he spends most of his time these days “being a dad.”
While watching practice, he also spoke with former Pitt quarterback Pat Bostick, who helped lead the Panthers to a 13-9 upset of the Mountaineers in 2007. Stewart, an assistant on that WVU team, said, “We couldn’t rattle (Bostick), and we had a defense that could rattle people.”
Among several other visitors at practice were South Park coach Tom Loughlin, freshman-to-be Rushel Shell and Metro Index scout Joe Butler.
Let’s see. We are now rooting for a Hoopie and ex-Hoopie head coach to win games in Arizona. We may be recruiting the son of an ex-WVU head coach to Pitt. We have an ex-PSU DC visiting practices. I don’t know which way is up any longer.
In QB news, E.J. Banks is no longer trying to be a QB. He is now working as a running back. Because, clearly there is a wealth of opportunities at that position come the fall. Why, hello Mr. Shel, Mr. Graham and Mr. Bennett.
Chryst said [Isaac] Bennett is not unlike a lot of the players this spring. He occasionally will make a positive impression on the staff, but, then, just as quickly, he will make a negative one.
That was the case Saturday in a scrimmage against the first-team defense. Bennett had the play of the day for the offense, an 80-yard run when he blew past the defensive backs. But later, he fumbled and also failed to pick up a blitzing linebacker in pass protection that raised the coach’s ire.
“He’s getting a lot of chances,” Chryst said. “He does some things. He had a big run, then he does some things that just kill you, like not picking up a backer in pass protection. It’s day 6 of 15 [practices]. He’s like a lot of them. He’s into it and giving effort. Now it’s, ‘Can we learn?’ Are we going to repeat the same mistakes? Or are we going to learn from them?”
Learning the mental aspect of the game is something all young players grasp at different times. Quarterback Tino Sunseri said this is when Bennett has to take advantage of Graham’s expertise.
Skipping the easy joke of Tino Sunseri addressing the need to grasp the mental aspects, and moving on. Not sure what Banks is going to do as a running back other than to take some snaps in spring practice. Apparently no one has an idea of what to do with Banks. DB, QB, RB. Notice a trend? I guess that just leaves LB by the fall.
Other transfers, though, haven’t been moving around. Instead they are running a lot with the first team.
[Ray] Vinopal and redshirt sophomore cornerback Cullen Christian of Penn Hills – also a former Wolverine – have been running with the first defensive unit for much of the spring.
Former Gateway wide receiver Brendon Felder, who transferred from North Carolina to help his father care for his ailing grandmother, caught a long touchdown pass on the first day of his Pitt eligibility. He had been pushing veteran wide receivers for practice time before tweaking a hamstring last week.
All three didn’t especially like working with the scout team and watching football on game day, but they lived with it and learned.
“We used to give (the offense) some headaches,” Vinopal said, recalling last season’s practices. “We took pride in that.
“But having to walk out of the tunnel in a jumpsuit without your chin strap buckled on, it makes you a little hungrier and makes you not take things for granted. We would have given anything to buckle up with our teammates.”
Now, Vinopal and Christian look like contributors, if not fixtures, in the secondary. They have fit in well with veteran safeties Jarred Holley, Jason Hendricks and Andrew Taglianetti and cornerback K’Waun Williams. In fact, if there was a game today, Christian might start opposite Williams.
The secondary now has a little more depth, after being very weak the last couple years. The player more likely to start at corner opposite Williasm will be LaFayette Pitts. Williams has turned out to be a surprising gem at corner, while Pitts was the jewel in in the salvage job of the February 2011 recruiting class (can’t count Ejuan Price, since he didn’t join until after Tressel got canned). So there are a lot of expectations for Pitts. Not to mention, it looks like the defensive scheme — a return to the 4-3 — will be relying on the corners to handle a lot of 1-on-1 matters.
One key difference between the Panthers’ current 4-3 and the way it was played under Wannstedt is that one or even both of the safeties will be asked to play more in run support, so there will be more pressure on the cornerbacks as there will be some plays in which they won’t have help to cover receivers.
Huxtable said he likes to have an eight-man look and sometimes will even drop a ninth man into the box, but it will only work if the corners are able to cover on their own.
He knows he has one of those cover corners in K’Waun Williams, who could be one of the top players at his position in the Big East, and now he is looking for a second.
Redshirt freshman LaFayette Pitts has been running with the first team most often at camp.
“K’Waun is really an excellent player and he can even get better and he is serious about it,” Huxtable said. “LaFayette is a guy who has a lot of potential, he is obviously very athletic, he plays hard and he is learning. So he will be much better at the end of spring than he is now and then with him he will only keep improving.”
Bringing up the safeties in run support — and dare we suggest some safety blitzing? Overall, this is not going to be the Wannstedt-dictated 4-3 that only wants to contain and control. There is a much more aggressive tone.
The Panthers’ strength is again on the defensive line despite the graduation of Myles Caragein, Brandon Lindsey and Chas Alecxih. There is a younger group of talented players, led by Aaron Donald, ready to step in and contribute.
Huxtable said that group will play a big role in the defense because they will be asked to make plays in the backfield.
“No, no — we don’t want them just eating up blocks, we want to them to move, we want them to be active and we have guys who are capable of that,” Huxtable said. “We want them to make plays and get off the ball. I think that is what is so exciting to me, we have some guys up there who have a lot of explosiveness and if they can attack, that gives us a chance to be very successful.”
Dave Huxtable is not a free-wheeling, gambling DC. But he is willing to take chances and risk giving up some big plays to be aggressive on defense. That should play well with the fans and the players.