This is going to be a long 1st of two articles so pour yourself a drink and get comfortable… I know its morning so make it a Bloody Mary, Screwdriver or Baileys in your coffee… Yinz guys are drunks anyway so just embrace that and enjoy.
I drove up to the Southside complex today, leaving at 5:00 am and getting there at 9:30 so I had 45 minutes to kill before the practice started at 10:15. With that I had a chance to sit around, drink coffee and watch the players and coaches get out of their cars and walk into the sports complex. I tried to guess who was who but no one was wearing their jerseys… lack of pride in the program I think!
The local media outlets were well represented with Peak from rivals, Flinn from 24/7, Werner from the P-G and Jerry DiPaola from the Trib along with Pat Bostick of CBS – The Fan radio and Borghetti and Ted Feely from the SID department. That made for some really interesting conversations regarding the staff and players that I’ll paraphrase later on in the article. Interestingly enough though there weren’t many of the player’s family members at this practice, just a handful and a big difference from other practices.
I got into a nice conversation with Inoke Breckterfield while walking over to the practice fields, mostly about Hawai’i and the HS football there. I mentioned to him my wife grew up on the Big Island and that I lived in Kailua and watched the Kailua HS team play every chance I could. That is where Taleni hails from and when I asked how Jeremiah Taleni and the DL were doing he cracked a big smile and said “Doing well”. I know Taleni’s a favorite of mine because of the Island connection and he rotated in for a good amount of reps but I think we’ll see him contribute a lot in 2015 and beyond rather than this season.
New additions to the sports admin staff is “The Drone & Drone Wrangler”. PITT has a small concrete circle near the clubhouse that is kitted out as the Drone Pad. They use the drone to film overhead shots of the formations and the mini-scrimmages. At one point I saw two young guys looking all around the sky saying “Where the hell is it?” The drone also comes in handy for missile strikes on the players dogging it out there.
As to the attitude during practice it was all work and more work. There was a minimum of horsing around and much of that was due to the upperclassmen taking everything seriously. Not that it felt strained or anything, not at all and there were player’s cheers when good plays happened but this staff is all about teaching and immediate mistake correction type coaching rather than being friends with the players or screamers. Chryst was approachable by anyone it looked like and players would jog back to him and/or their position coach for feedback. I could count on one hand the times any of the coaches started screaming and a few of those were for hitting the QB and tackling a ball carrier as it was ‘keep up’ football.
One thing surprised me and that is that PITT plays loud music during almost all of the practice especially during the serious 7 on 7 and the 11 on 11 drills which you would think would be distracting but isn’t for the players. The music rotates between Rap and Country mostly with some R&B thrown in. Chris Jacobsen was there also, slimmed down to look like a normal human being. It looks like he dropped 50 pounds and in turn gained a stunning blond girl who was with him at the facility.
It was a beautiful weather day for outside drills and practices, sunny but no so hot that it was knocking anyone for a loop. I saw very few kids have to come off the field to get water or because they were tired toward the end of the 2h 15m practice. Which leads to my first observation of the players this season which is they are all well toned and the kids who I thought were very thin in the past have add muscle to their frames. Jones is smaller than Saddler was, let’s hope he’s a better receiver; Orndoff isn’t very hefty and almost looks more like a well built WR than the typical TE like Holtz does; Manasseh Garner looks to be above his listed weight of 220 lbs and Bam Bradley, who got a lot of 1st and 2nd string reps today, is a solid 230 but moves very well at that weight.
Two years ago I stood next to Dorian Johnson when he was recruited and thought he was way too thin to play OL, now he’s gained about 45 pounds and he looks awesome. Parrish has gained weight mostly in his butt and upper legs, places you want a FB to have it. Bennett has filled out as well putting on 20+ pounds without losing speed. The consensus around the camp is that everyone is very high on the Strength and Conditioning (S&C) program and staff and that the players are in the weight room more so this offseason than in the past. Getting a newly expanded weight room helps and is another financial commitment to the program.
I finally figured out how to use my phone as a voice recorder and made 61 comments on things I observed today. I won’t list them all but here is the gist of the offensive ones along with some additional thoughts.
The first thing I watched were the QBs warming up. We’ll talk about the QB1 and QB2 in a minute but one thing that jumped out to me is just how big Adam Bertke is compared to Voytik and Anderson, a redwood among pinion trees. He is listed as 6’6” and 210 lbs. I think he probably weighs more than that as I was those same stats years ago but was skinny. Bertke is pretty well built with a very good arm. I might go as far as to say maybe the best arm on the team at this point.
Another nice surprise was how well the walk-on from Upper St. Clair, Joe Repischak, did out there. He’s 6’2” and 210 and is listed as running a 4.6 40. I don’t doubt that because in the few times he rotated in with the young player’s drills he either made a nice pass or took off and ran very well. I’m kind of surprised that he flew under the recruiting radar like he did. One of his USC coaches was there watching him practice and he had nothing but good things to say about the kid.
After the initial warm ups the players split up into position groups to conduct walk-through technique lessons. During this event Conner was the main recipient of DE Coach Palermo’s attention. That was the only time I saw Conner with the defense at all as he didn’t take any snaps at DE today. The talk is that the staff has him firmly planted at RB1 and will use him sparingly at DE for ‘special situations’ which I take to mean plays like 3rd and long situations. Keeping with Conner, he was a beast out there executing big yardage runs to the interior of the line and to the outside on sweeps. One play had Voytik fake a handoff to Conner then pitch it to a WR on an end around play, Conner absolutely flattened the DE he was matched up on. He got around the corner and outran LBs on a regular basis.
Now let’s talk about the practice by the two deep positions on offense.
QBs – Voytik took the majority of the QB1 snaps and looked up and down to me. When he was standing in the pocket with no pressure he threw a nice catchable ball, but any sort of pressure in front of him and his accuracy suffered. I don’t know if the staff told him to stay in the pocket and make the play today but under a rush he either threw the ball over the receiver’s head or at their feet. That said, when he had time in the pocket and in the times he rolled out, mostly to his throwing side, he hit the receivers well. But least twice when he was rolling out he waited for a deep receiver to get open and ended up throwing the ball away while his outlet receiver Parrish was wide open 10 yards in front of him.
It is apparent that there is still work for both Voytik and his coaches to do to get him ready as a starter in D1 football. Everyone I talked to was of the same mind along the lines of “It’ll be interesting to watch…” or “Well, once he gets some games under his belt…” and honestly, after seeing him yesterday in practice I was surprised that he looked much the same as he did in practices last season. He also needs to work on putting all the aspects of QB together meaning that he has to learn the playbook better and know where his primary, secondary and outlet receivers are. One camp regular told me ‘Voytik thinks way too much out there and it hurts him’ which makes sense given the type of play he’s exhibiting. He’s a cerebral kid and nothing is coming naturally for him out there at this point but it’s early days yet and that will change with getting him time under center leading up to the opener.
But there is no doubt he’s the starter and I still think that a large part of that decision is the fact that he has the capability to be a three year QB1 for us. After every series he proactively reviewed his decision making with Chryst until it was his turn to put the helmet on again. Personally I think he’ll do a good job for us but with the growing pains that every new QB goes through under real competition. We have two tough games with BC and Iowa in our first five matches and those games will be good tests for how he’s progressed and can play against FBS teams.
Anderson also took QB1 snaps during the 11 on 11 scrimmages and played well. He missed some throws and connected on some intermediate and deep passes. The times he rolled out and took off with the ball were big yardage plays. Everyone talks about Voytik’s running ability but I think Anderson is at least as good in that aspect of play. Their arms are about the same and Voytik probably has a small edge in accuracy… maybe a small edge in ball speed also, but not much. Anderson will be a solid back up this season if needed and he’s a ‘coach on the sideline’ because of his football intelligence.
WRs / TEs – Obviously Boyd is set as the primary WR. There is little to talk about with him except to say that what we fans saw in the games last year is what we are seeing in camp also. All he did yesterday was catch TD passes from both QBs on a regular basis, you almost come to expect from him now. One nice point is that he’s taken the younger WRs; Jennings, Davidson and Zeise, under his leadership wing and he is the first one to congratulate these other young kids when they do well.
The real issue at WR is who will be the guys to try to take the heat and inevitable double teams off Boyd is going to see this year. Garner is currently the guy opposite Boyd and he’s a good solid receiver who also blocks extremely well downfield – something that is totally overlooked by fans but is a big issue regarding who sees the field. Rounding out the two deep at that position yesterday was Ronald Jones, who is doing well, and a committee of three: Ford, Jennings and Weah for that 4th spot.
I paid close attention to Adonis Jennings and Weah yesterday and agree with the popular thought that Jennings will see a good amount of PT this season. He is big and has strong arms and hands, like Boyd he uses his hands 100% of the time, and can high point a pass very well. He turned a couple errant throws into completions just by his athleticism. Weah is somewhat of a mystery so far in camp. He’ll have a bad day then show up the next with no consistency in his practice, but as a rsFR with a year in the system you’d expect more than that.
Challingsworth, Wuestner, Weatherspoon all looked good and got reps in the two deep drills also. Much like what I think we’ll see at running back this season it looks like we’ll see a slew of WRs get on the field for situational plays also. But if I had to bet on the top three now in the beginning of the season it would be Boyd, Garner and Jones… with Jennings getting more PT each week.
Garner worked a bit at his old TE position and that was mostly because he blocks well I think. Both Holtz and Orndoff looked sharp and both caught TD passes, which prompted one media guy to say “Good, we need 17 more like that this season” which is true. No one could really explain to me why the TEs have seemed to fade into the background in Chryst’s first two years except that the OL was so poor they had to stay and block.
RBs – I’m starting to feel that this Conner to DE debate is way more active among us fans then it is among the coaching staff. As I said above he got about ten minutes of DE hand/arm use instruction at half speed at the beginning of practice then went straight to RB for the remainder. Of course that debate also hinges on Chris James and whether he’ll break out enough to supplant Conner at RB1.
Nothing I saw yesterday would lead me to believe James will be in the top three RBs at the start of the season unless Boyd’s injury precludes him. James didn’t get any 1st or 2nd string reps and carried the ball only in the FR/SO inside run drills where he did OK against FR/SO defenders. James is listed as 5’11” and 210 which is exactly the same as LeSean McCoy was in his last year at PITT. I call bullshit on that as James is much stockier than McCoy. The reason I add that is that one media guy I had a conversation with while watching James was very much ‘James is great and plays just like McCoy did. I mean this guy couldn’t praise James enough which was markedly different than other’s opinions. They were that James will probably see time as a FR but has a way to go before he’s the starter. No one was negative about him at all and everyone felt he has talent; they just aren’t as high on James being a FR phenom as the fans are and they have been watching him every day in camp. Who really knows though and we’ll see how the season unfolds for him but Ibrahim and Bennett will be out there first behind Conner.
OL – All in all I think the OL looked better than what we saw in 2013 yesterday. The starters are huge and the backs ups are also. Taking 1st string snaps across the line were, from the Left Tackle position on: Bisnowaty (bigger and stronger), Johnson (bigger with improved technique), Rowell (no botched snaps), Rotheram and Clemmings. They worked well as a unit and opened up some nice holes for the RBs. The times when Voytik had a heavy rush were mostly because of his hesitation to throw the ball and not so much because of OL breakdowns.
On paper and in practice they look good and there’s a chance we may see a big improvement over last year especially because the 2nd string guys are talented and practicing well also.
Later on I’ll put up my thoughts on the defensive side of the ball.