Power through and clear some links time.
It has seemed like a long time coming but it’s good to have Todd Thomas back on the field. He made his presence known with the blocked punt against Louisville. Unfortunately, the linebacking corps is not getting any deeper. Thomas saw more action in the Louisville game in no small part because Shane Gordon and Manny Williams both were hurt. That has also led to more Dan Mason on the field.
As inspiring as it is to see Mason out there, it is really depressing that he needs to be played so much. The injury situation at linebacker has them shuffling guys around.
We only got to watch the first half-hour of practice today, but in the brief team session we saw, it looked like Todd Thomas was working at weakside linebacker. Up until now, he had been playing on the strong side behind Eric Williams. In the lineup we saw, it was Thomas, Dan Mason and Eric Williams. It’ll be interesting to ask defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable about that later this week, because that may be a way they see to get their three best linebackers on the field, regardless of position. Responsibility-wise, the weakside spot requires a little more in pass coverage, which I think Thomas should be able to handle with his athleticism.
Freshman Nicolas Grigsby has been seeing more action. He’s probably the first guy to come in when they rotate.
I know he is still a lightning rod of anxiety, anger, and arguments but the improvement shown by Tino Sunseri this season can’t be ignored. Yes, he still holds the ball too long. He hasn’t made great decisions every time. But the difference in the way he has played this year versus the previous two has been really impressive.
Senior quarterback Tino Sunseri ranks seventh in completion percentage and eighth in passing efficiency in Division I FBS, but coach Paul Chryst still believes there’s room for improvement.
“I really think we can get better at the position,” Chryst said. “I think he is making progress. I still think there are some very good plays he’s making, and when we are struggling, there are things that are correctable.”
Sunseri has matched his touchdown total (10) from last season while throwing only two interceptions in 189 attempts. Over the 2010 and ’11 seasons, he threw 20 interceptions.
“The more we get to know him and the more he gets comfortable with the offense, we will continue to make progress,” Chryst said. “It gives myself, (quarterbacks coach) Brooks (Bollinger) and (offensive coordinator) Joe Rudolph hope that we can continue to work and continue to get better and appreciate the way (Sunseri) goes about it.”
Sunseri’s passing efficiency stands at 163.5, and he’s completed 70.4 percent of his passes.
Obviously Chryst has had a reputation of being able to improve QBs, but I also have to give credit to QB Coach Brooks Bollinger. I did not like that hire. And I have some questions regarding his value with regards to recruiting. That said, it is clear that he has worked well with Sunseri and helped make a huge difference. That bodes well for the QB spot in the future with Tom Savage sitting out with transfer restrictions this season Chad Voytik redshirting, Tra’von Chapman coming next year, and presumably Chandler Kincade in 2014.
[Wow. Just reread that list. Next season, Pitt will have three 4-star QBs on the roster. The potential depth and talent — notwithstanding transfers and injuries — at the QB spot in the immediate future almost seems unnatural.]
Back to the passing game. A big reason Sunseri’s numbers are so much better has to do with the wide receivers playing so well. Especially Devin Street.
Street said he notices a difference watching film this year compared to past seasons.
“I think there’s an improvement with every year I’ve played,” he said. “This year, a big thing for me is playing as a complete player. I think my blocking’s better, being strong with the catch, [getting] yards after the catch. I think I’m just completing myself as a complete wide receiver.”
After playing last season around 185 pounds, Street bulked up to 203at training camp this year.
“Just catching the ball, getting hit, I feel like I’m definitely stronger with the ball,” he said.
The two biggest improvements I’ve seen with Street have been fighting for the ball when a defender is on him, and yards after the catch. In the past couple of seasons, Street was simply too passive when he was making a catch. If a defender got physical with him when the ball came his way, he couldn’t handle it. He’d let the ball be knocked out of his hands or he simply wouldn’t make the catch when there was contact. Now, he’s making catches in traffic. He’s not letting the ball be knocked free.
The yards after the catch is the other part. Street has always had the look of a wide receiver, but before he was just a strider. Needing time to get up to speed. Now he is turning up field and showing more explosiveness. Before he would stop after the catch and try to make moves. Now he just goes. Obviously being stronger has made a difference in both aspects. But it also seems that he finally has understood more of what he needs to do as a receiver.
“It’s just experience,” Street said. “Experience out there seeing different things and carrying it over from practice to the game and I just think I’m progressing.”
Rushel Shell continues to develop. Both physically and mentally with the team.
It’s nice to think Shell’s maturity finally is catching up to that talent. He missed the opening game against Youngstown State by doing something stupid to get suspended. Pitt was so dominated that night in a 31-17 loss that it wouldn’t have won even with Shell, but it would have beaten Syracuse Oct. 5 if Shell had been able to get more than one carry for 2 yards. The reason given for his little playing time was back spasms, which forced him to miss a couple of days of practice early in the week of the game.
“I lost a lot of mental reps,” Shell said. “I was slacking mentally. I don’t think I should have played in that game. I could have gotten someone hurt.”
The 14-13 loss in Syracuse should have convinced Shell he has to work harder at his craft, not just on the field but in the film room. He said Saturday that the mental part of his game is coming, especially in terms of pass-blocking and picking up blitzes. “I feel like it was really clicking today.”
Shell has said all the right things about his playing time. He hasn’t sulked or groused about it. He’s learning that natural talent is not going to take you the same place as it did in high school. A common lesson for lots of freshmen, whether they play athletics or not.
Shell said he had minor back pain in high school, but it got worse after arriving at Pitt. He said he doesn’t know if weightlifting aggravates it, but that’s been the other big change in his career.
“I never lifted weights in high school,” he said. “I guess it wasn’t something I enjoyed. Now, it’s like a big difference. My body is going through a lot of changes that it never went through in high school.”
Shell said weightlifting has helped his strength, speed and burst. “I see I am a lot better player than I was in high school.”
I am well aware of the rumors and speculations regarding his back spasms. I’m not going to question it or assume things. I have my own issues with back pain and the very unpredictable nature of it.
Now, for all the good of individual players getting better, there is still the fact that this team is 2-4. They have lost two straight, and Pitt is 0-3 in the Big East. Coach Chryst to his credit, admits that excuses and talk of correctable mistakes is wearing thin.
“It is the midway point of the season,” he said, “but I also think it’s a time where, you know what, they’re getting tired of me standing up — the same as you (reporters are) — and saying, ‘We’re doing some good things; we have to put it together.’
“You can’t have the same storyline all the time. That means you are really not getting better. The time is now where we have to get things going.”
That’s as close to an ultimatum that Chryst ever will present to his team, and it speaks toward his intolerance for mistakes so many weeks beyond training camp.
Quarterback Tino Sunseri has played the past three games and thrown 98 consecutive passes without an interception, but he’s the exception to the rule.
During the loss to Louisville, mistakes from previous weeks — shaky defense, poor pass protection — reappeared, but the list expanded to include special teams, with a partially blocked punt and a poor snap on another try.
Also, Pitt had converted 5 of 6 attempts on fourth down but was 0 for 3 against Louisville, including the bad snap.
“There’s enough there to keep us busy at work this week,” Chryst said.
I don’t think the coaches are prepared to rip the redshirt off of some players. Not at this point. So the question becomes, what can he do if they keep having the problems?
We’ve heard enough times already that this is the O-line that the team has, and that there really isn’t anyone behind them that can be any better. The linebackers were low in numbers when the season started, and there are more injuries. The D-line has already been shuffled once. Other than trying to coach them up some more, what are the options?