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August 17, 2014

There were some nice efforts and results by all the defensive units, and I’ll address those but overall today the defense built “The Great Wall of Water Street” and didn’t let much offense trickle through.

Specifically, the defensive two deep up front against the running game made everyone breathe a little sigh of relief, especially in light of this being “Year 1 Perfectus AD”.  The starting four defensive linemen from left to right were DE Durham, NT Mosley-Smith, DT Render and DE Soto. Those guys overall looked good in the ‘live’ actions, stuffed the run and got good penetration on some passing plays.  Backing them up were MacLean and Blair at DE with Moody and Jarrett in the interior.   All eight kids played solid ball as I saw it and as each day passes the staff should be feeling better about this unit.

One brighter spot was that Darryl Render had some real “wow” moments with his quick off the snap play.  Jerry DiPaola of the Trib hits it on the head in this article about Render and while I wouldn’t say anyone going to forget our award winning Nose Tackle from last season, Render is starting to develop a reputation of his own.  He intercepted a pass on an athletic play and was constantly beating his guy for run stoppage. He’ll be a very good DT for us this season and later on as he’s a JR who had some nice game experience over the last two seasons.  We’ll have a solid two years of him on the line and that is a good, maybe great, thing to have.

Backing him up is Justin Moody, who as a rsFR is 6’3” and 280 (bigger I’d guess) lbs and can move for that size.  He was a solid 3* DE in HS and was the 20th ranked player in the state of PA. He’s fun to watch when he gets in and has a great wing span to get RBs coming through the line.  Hate to say it but he’s the type of talent, to my eye, who could also be a good OL if needed down the road but Chryst does like them taller.   He had a nice sack on Anderson where he got into the backfield in a blink.

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The day’s practice schedule was broken up into warm-up drills, then live full tackle drills, a  scrimmage with the referees calling penalties (and lots of them),  full 7 on 7 and 11 on 11 drills, finishing up with short yardage situations including red zone plays.  During the punting drills Winslow was getting the ball 40-45 yards downfield consistently and on the two directional punts I watch both went inside the 10 yard line and were downed.

Kevin Weatherspoon was the sole punt returner today as the staff had Boyd only warm-up with some drills early on then sit out the live action parts.  In the kickoff drills Maddox, L. Pitts and Ibrahim were on the receiving end and did OK. Maddox is fast as hell and is turning into a valuable guy for the team this season.   Again, Boyd was our leading KO return man last year and would have been back there this scrimmage also if he wasn’t resting.

Something that jumped out at me during these special team drills is that the kicking and coverage squads were populated mostly with players who are starting at other positions. Apparently Chryst is not screwing around with special teams play this season.

Blewitt was down today with a .500 success rate. He made four FGs, including a 52 yarder and missed four.  Not much to say about that except let’s hope that it was an off day and not the norm for him.

In discussing individual offensive units and players let’s first understand two things;  First  is that a scrimmage is in essence a tryout for the 2nd  and 3rd string positions and secondly,  if the offense doesn’t improve by giant steps in the next 14 days we are going to be some very disappointed fans.  You can point to the old saw that in camp “the defense is always ahead of the offense” but right now that’s an excuse.  What we saw from the sidelines was not pretty and centered on the QB position.

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August 14, 2014

First Scrimmage Question Marks

Filed under: Coaches,Football,Players — Reed @ 4:49 pm

I’m driving up to the camp’s first scrimmage on Saturday morning and here are the issues I’ll be paying close attention to while I’m there:

How consistent are Running Backs Qadree Ollison and James? Because we probably won’t play both freshmen, which one will be redshirted?  More importantly, where in hell is the “U” in Ollison’s first name?

How many reps does Conner get at Defensive End?  Chris Peak is reporting that Conner has been getting snaps on defense in the two minute drills.

How will Voytik respond with full time pressure from the defense? (I hope the scrimmage is full contact to get him ready for reality.)  How much protection is he getting?

How is Isaac Bennett coming along from his injury?  In the last practice I attended he was getting his share of reps.  Also, how many snaps does Ibrahim get?  I think Bennett’s becoming an afterthought in our fan’s minds but he’ll most probably be in the top three RBs.

Who will be our top three RBs going into the opening game against the Delaware Blue Hens?  Will one kid separate from the others?

How well is Offensive Line doing in their run blocking?  The young RBs are breaking some big rushing plays in practice so it has been pretty good so far.  Do they have the speed as some of our past RBs?

How are all the DE’s competing and who will be rotating in there on the two-deep, who gets dizzy and who doesn’t?

How are Caprara & Bradley positioning themselves for that MLB spot behind Galambos? Are they tough enough for that position?

Are the DBs playing more aggressively now?  Are they giving up big plays if they miss an INT or breaking up a pass?

How is our new punter Ryan Winslow doing with his directional punts and hang time?  Along with that, who are the personnel on our punt coverage team and how effective are they?

Those are the main issues for me.  Let me know in the comments section if there is anything you’d specifically like me to address and I’ll try to remember to do it.

 

August 12, 2014

Now that we have finished the Spring Drills and are a third of the way through Fall Training Camp it is about the right time to start wondering, with some intelligence in our folders, about how well the program, the coaching staff and players as a team will do this upcoming season.

Moving back to the East Coast after many overseas duty stations I started following PITT football closely again with the Walt Harris firing and Dave Wannstedt hiring as I agreed with both decisions.  One thing I have noticed over the last decade is that a lot of PITT fans make their season predictions based on emotion, more specifically on whether they like or dislike certain people in certain positions in the program.

A great example of this is those who couldn’t stand the “Slingin’ Sicilian” felt strongly that he’d never lead the team to a strong winning season, and with that they were pretty much on the mark as he always seemed to muddle through each year.  Along with that, fans who don’t agree with the Paul Chryst hire can’t see him coaching the team to an ACC championship; those who hate the Matt House hire as DC can’t see him ever molding our defense into a game winning unit, fans who think we can’t replace a superstar player like  Aaron Donald feel that whoever tries will fall way short of the level at which Donald played, and on and on and on…

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August 11, 2014

To start, and because you are already bored at work, here is a good piece from the NCAA website onFR Chris James’ introduction to college football and how he’s approaching it.  Watch the video on that page also, its a fun look at the freshman.  Pay attention to LB Brian Popp and DL Connor Dintino and tell me they don’t look like football players.

A little ‘look behind the scenes’ at some rules that are pertinent this time of the season…

Even though readers of The PITT Blather are already the most intelligent college football fans there is always something else to learn.  I was wondering the other day about exactly how a university’s athletic department and football staff strike a balance between what is required by the NCAA and how to best make use of the limited allowed time they can use to impose football preparations onto the players.

It is almost like rocket science when you look at everything that has to take place to maintain the athletic and academic career of the student-athlete.  But, to me, it is something that has to be formalized to ensure college football doesn’t lose its basic traditions.  Here is an basic overview of the rules.

If you are interested in the minutia of the NCAA regulations regarding what is required and allowed for college football programs this website explains it well.  You’ll have a headache after reading it.

Here is a nice companion piece for those of us who wonder what really goes on with the players between the football seasons, this is a great article written by a guy who was an All-SEC tight end.  It’s informative and entertaining.

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August 10, 2014

Earlier we discussed the overall feel and looks of the offensive players, staff and program at the first full pads practice.  Now I’ll try to give you my impressions of the defensive side of the ball.

I always think it’s a bit crazy to say “The Xs are ahead of the Ys so far” because in limited time, and watching from ground level, it is hard to make that call so I won’t do that.  What I will do is address the separate units and some specific players’ production and results, and make some opinionated predictions.

Defensive Ends – I paid more attention to the DEs than the interior DL during this practice, mostly because the idea of moving Conner over to fill in any talent gap we may have there is in rampant discussion.  My feeling now is that we might be fine at that position as is because I think we have some really good raw talent there.  Dave Durham is Dave Durham and he’ll be no better this season than last; he has a skill ceiling that has been reached.  But the other DEs we have are looking pretty good and that’s encouraging.

The DE two deep yesterday was as follows:  Soto with rsFR Luke MacLean as his back up on one side with Durham and Blair on the other.  At first glance that isn’t murder’s row.  Durham and Soto, who was 2nd string last year, are returning guys with game experience.  The two we lost from DE last year,  Murphy and Lippert are certainly replaceable by even average players and not to be rude but “see you later”.  Soto has moved over to the right side as a starter and it looks like both Luke MacLean and Rori Blair will get early playing time as the 2nd stringers.

They are both very young and not super rated recruits.  MacLean was a 3* and Blair was a 2*. However, if you look back at a couple of our past DEs who played as freshmen; 2* Greg Romeus and 3* Jabaal Sheard, and watched them play you can see how things could work out now.  Both those veterans excelled as soon as they got to PITT and each progressed to being a star DE here. Here’s a taste of how MacLean played in HS.  Also some Rori Blair highlights,  along with his position coach Palermo on Blair’s recruitment.

Let me say this about FR Rori Blair; make no mistake, the only reason he was listed as a 2* recruit was because of the stroke he had  prior to his senior year in high school.  He’s a 6’3” kid who is a solid 230+ pounds; is bull strong and quick as hell. He was impressive during his reps yesterday and I’ll go out on a limb and say he’ll surpass Devon Cook or anyone else to be Durham’s back-up at some point during the season.  I also wouldn’t be shocked if he even bettered that and started at one point.   He’s one of those players who the chatter about his play will keep getting stronger and stronger the more camp and the season progress.

Luke MacLean made some great plays out there also and he’s another DE youngster, a rsFR who checks in at 6’5” and 260 lbs; a readymade monster waiting to be unleashed! What I noticed about him yesterday was his good strength in forcing his way through blocks on one play, then using technique and speed in beating his Offensive Tackle to apply outside pressure on the QB on another.

3* FR Shane Roy is another kid who had us scrambling around to find his name on the roster after he made some fine plays.  He’s another big kid at 6’4” and 245 pounds and I was impressed with his speed off the ball.  He’ll probably redshirt this year but he’ll be a big part of the defense in the future.  So, I really think we’ll see a lot of PT from MacLean and Blair this season along with rsJR Devon Cook getting equal time in the field also.  I’m not down on Cook, I think he’s played well in spots in the past and he’s a pretty good ballplayer but I’m just very impressed with Blair and MacLean.

rsJR Nick Grigsby was getting reps at both LB and DE so he might be one who the staff feels his experience will help at the DE position.   At 6’1” and 220 he’s undersized for DE though and that might be a problem, especially if the coaches want more muscle at the position, but he’s got the speed and tackling ability to be successful also.  His will be an interesting issue to watch. (more…)

August 9, 2014

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.

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August 7, 2014

   As a final Part Four of our preseason review let’s look at how the coaching staff has done so far and what we can expect from those paid by the PITT administration to both prepare the team for competition and then guide it to a winning season.   This is an area of the program that elicits the strongest opinions, both pro and con, from us PITT fans and rightly so.  With our four year track record from 2010 through to the 2014 season, we have been pulled through the wringer with the trials and tribulations of not only the football coaching personalities and their actions but also by some debatable decisions made by the PITT administration.

   I don’t really want to revisit the head coaching hires and departures over the past five years in this article; nor do I want to parse the Athletic Director and the Chancellor’s decision making over that time period.  We all know what a cluster it has been and I’m not sure it has much to do with the current football team and the upcoming season at this point.  That said, we need to focus on the Head Coach and discuss what strength of program Chryst inherited as a new hire and how he has progressed from that point until this training camp.

   My personal opinion is that Paul Chryst has done an admirable job under the circumstances he walked into, with his eyes wide open, at PITT.  If you look back at a lot of D1 new head coaching hire’s first two years won and loss record you’ll see a dip from the previous seasons in a lot of instances.  Chryst has avoided that after inheriting a 6-7 team and then having 6-7 and 7-6 seasons, while at the same time strengthening the program from the inside out.  Perhaps it is small blessings but at least we didn’t slide backward in that transition to Chryst as HC.  He has approached this PITT job with a clear intent to recruit players he wants in his systems while also making sure that he gets kids who can succeed academically and take direction well.

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August 5, 2014

   Now that we have the player personnel issues discussed we need to talk about what I consider one of the most important aspects of a football team; the Special teams play.  Let’s look at the defensive (punting) special teams first.

   There are no other plays, save maybe a deep pass completion, that either gain or lose big yardage in one fell swoop than the kicking game.  A good punt and coverage can switch the field position of the opponent just as a deep kickoff and coverage can pin an opponent back in its own territory.  If a team can do that on a regular basis it has a huge advantage in-game and can even negate whatever talent shortcomings it might have as compared to the other team’s players.

   PITT didn’t do that last year and it hurt us. Our departed punter, Matt Yoklic, was pretty effective with his leg averaging a 20th nationally 43.0 yards per punt.  He shanked one or two kicks but overall he hid a good job as our punter both last year and seasons before.  It wasn’t his punting that hurt; it was the porous punt coverage by the punting team.  We gave up 16.25 yards per punt return which is way below the punting “Mendoza Line” and left us smack dab at 118th in the country.

   That has to change and fast. This year we’ll have highly rated rsFR Ryan Winslow as the punter. He was recruited specifically to be put on scholarship and I think that is just the way to build a key component of our defense.  Winslow came out of high school as the #4 nationally rated punter and had a chance to spend a year with Yoklic learning the college game.  I don’t recall how good Yoklic was at directional punting but I seem to remember that Winslow was doing that pretty well in camp last year. We need that skill so I’ll pay attention to it when I go up to the Southside next week.  One nice thing is that we didn’t have any punts blocked last year and that was because Yoklic was quick on the draw.

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August 2, 2014

Now that a severe suspension has been issued by PITT for whatever reason it may be a good time to review the NCAA’s and the School’s responsibilities in one aspect of discipline – the drug policies.

We don’t know what happened with Howard but we’ve seen the academic suspensions resolve themselves after one semester or a certain period of time.  We have also seen other disciplinary actions resulting from drinking, fights, arrests, issued by a number of games also.  If you remember Anthony Gonzalez was suspended two games by Graham basically for possession of pot, but there was no failed test involved.  However, any disciplinary action can be gived a year suspension if the university deems it necessary.

So, just to remind our readers;  there are two types of drug tests in D1 football.  One is the NCAA mandatory test that is unannounced and the other is the school’s tests issued according to its formal policy.  Here is a link to the NCAA’s drug policy.  Also, the following is from the NCAA’s Q&A about their policies.

“Who is responsible for testing student-athletes?
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That’s the nice way of putting it. It started leaking a couple hours earlier than the typical “bad news on a Friday” release (those are resereved for roughly around 5pm). Titus Howard got the season long suspension.

Pitt lost another key member of its defense Friday when coach Paul Chryst suspended sophomore cornerback Titus Howard for the season. Howard was listed No. 1 on a depth chart Chryst issued last month.

Chryst did not comment on the reason for Howard’s suspension.

Howard, who played on Clairton’s four PIAA and WPIAL Class A championship teams, was an important reserve last season. He played in 11 games and started against Old Dominion on Oct. 19 and Bowling Green in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl on Dec. 26. Overall, he recorded 21 tackles and two pass breakups.

Don’t even care to speculate. He’s a kid who screwed up. He’s not off the team for good. Howard will be fully reinstated to the team for next year, assuming he does what he should. He will train and practice with the team. He just will not be allowed to play.

There is no pretending that this isn’t a rough loss for the team this year. Especially when facing teams that like to run spread formations.  Howard had pulled ahead of Coles in spring practices. The cornerback position has some talent, but is paper thin and very inexperienced. Pitt may be forced to play true freshmen once again this season — Avonte Maddox and Phillipie Motley. The other possibility is seeing who can be pulled from the rather deep wide receiving corps.

August 1, 2014

I’ve been sitting down at the computer a few times over the last three days with fingers poised to write about PITT’s defense going into summer camp then the season and it has taken me some time to try to get a handle on what exactly to put out to you Blatherites.

I guess I’ll start from the very bottom and work up. Aaron Donald is gone and he ain’t coming back.  The “All-World” winner of every major award he was eligible for gave the defense its identity and leadership last year and he’ll be missed.  That isn’t cutting edge journalism folks as I just repeated what every single PITT already knows and is nervous about.

However, I’m a firm believer that in college football  players who have been in the shadows will frequently rise up and grab the reins of leadership by their play themselves.  This is what happens when underclassmen get a year or two of experience under their belts and become starters and sometimes stars.  We’ll not see anyone specific fill Donald’s shoes, he is a once in a generation player, but that doesn’t mean the staff can’t make adjustments to minimize his absence.

What I found interesting, and a bit disheartening,  is that this week Chryst stated publicly that he  heard from some of the DL kids after the season ended that they sometimes eased off a bit knowing that Aaron Donald was going to make the plays.  Here’s Chryst’s take on that and what it was like having Donald play for him.  I wholeheartedly agree that it will ‘take a village’ as Hilary says.

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July 27, 2014

Reading over the last two posts Chas wrote about the 2014 PITT football team I’ve been having a great time with the over 200 comments you guys left on them.  They show just how very ready we all are for PITT training camp to open next week and for the season to start soon afterward.  I’m just as anxious to get the ‘real life’ stuff happening and to jump in with both feet as anyone.

I’ve waited on writing another piece until the 2014 PITT Football Media Guide came out so that I at least can provide some truthful info to go with my opinions that I’ll lay out in this post, and please  remember they are my opinions unless I preface an item with “This is a no bullshit…”.  I’ll try to mix and match both though.

As to the comments on those two last articles; there are pretty detailed reasons we fans have for why we’ll probably either suck or be great – but no one seems to explain why we’ll probably be 7-6 again, or maybe 8-5 with a good bounce or two.   That’s pretty much where I am at this point of the offseason without having had my ‘boots on the ground’ as I will soon at a couple of the camp practices coming up.  Now, that projection can change either way once I see how the kids are doing during practices so nothing here is etched in stone.

Here are some of my thoughts on the offensive side of the ball going into the season.

I’m not as high on the expectation for quarterback Chad Voytik as some of us are. Yes, he did well in the bowl game and that showed me that at least he isn’t a deer in the headlights.  But beyond that I’m not convinced that he’ll match the level of play our last two QBs gave us in 2012 & 2013.  That’s right, I’m including Sunseri’s productive season of 2012 – what are you going to do about it?  That said I’m also not as panicky as some are in case Voytik gets hurt out there.

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July 17, 2014

Regardless of the ability to help Pitt, can we at least agree that the best thing in the long-term for Joseph Uchebo was coming to Pitt and getting better medical help for rehabbing his knee.

In moments like these, it’s easy to forget Uchebo is still recovering from a devastating knee injury that put his basketball career on hold for almost two years.

But then he runs up the court with a noticeable hitch in his step, a clear reminder that his battle to get back to full health is not over.

“It still hurts,” said Uchebo, a native of Nigeria. “Sometimes when I’m running I feel the pain, but not like it used to be.”

The pain was so bad in the weeks after Uchebo collided knees with an opponent while playing for Chipola Community College in Marianna, Fla., that he could barely sleep at night.

But Uchebo said he continued to play for about two more weeks on the recommendation of team doctors.

“They told me it wasn’t that bad and I was happy to hear it wasn’t that bad,” he said. “But it was that bad; they just wanted me to play.

“As time goes, the truth starts coming out. You know, I was so [angry]. Like, is my basketball career going to end just like that? I was thinking about that every day, every night.”

Uchebo had to go through two microfracture knee surgeries. As fast as players come back from ACL tears, microfracture surgery is a far different animal. It is a much slower process, and a lot more time is involved. And there is no doubt that misdagnosing it back at the community college made it that much harder now to heal.

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July 16, 2014

I’m sure you all know, but to repeat the news from this afternoon. Defensive End Ejuan Price has suffered a torn pectoral muscle and will require surgery. This will keep him out for the entire 2014 season. To say Price has had some issues with injuries is putting it kindly.

2012: Missed entire season with torn right pectoral muscle.

2013: Missed 7 out of 13 games with back problems.

2014 Will miss entire season with torn left pectoral muscle.

In a normal career, Price would be heading into his senior year. As it stands, he is looking at earning a rare 6th year for 2016. That’s about the only good news from a Pitt fan perspective. (more…)

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