Despite the chain of events that the Pitt program has experienced over the last month, the Pitt players have waited for the opportunity to just get back on the field. Wednesday was the team's first practice in Birmingham.
One new wrinkle, is that of a new head coach in Phil Bennett. It's not as if Bennett hasn't been around, or hasn't left a mark on the players up to this point. In talking with some players after Wednesday's practice, he has clearly done that. Even offensive players like Jason Pinkston are responding to Bennett's abilities as a head coach.
"He's a defensive coach," Pinkston said. "He's always hyper, yelling, more up-tempo. We're all excited about it. He's a great coach. We all love him. You ask all the guys (on the team), and they only have good things to say about Coach Bennett. It's a good time, and he's a great coach. He's working us hard. There's no slack."
Others such as quarterback Tino Sunseri--again, not a defensive player--see what Bennett brings to the table from the other side of the ball.
"Energetic, enthusiastic," Sunseri said, describing Bennett's traits.
From a defensive player such as linebacker Max Gruder, who is used to taking orders from Bennett, Gruder said there's not much of a transition in going from Wannstedt to Bennett.
"It really hasn't been as hard as you'd think," Gruder said. "With Coach Bennett stepping in, there's not much of a drop-off. He's been a head coach for six years. We have a presence on our team. We have confidence in our team."
While the players seem to be responding to the change well, what does Bennett have in store when it comes to actually calling the game, and being the head man in charge?
"We pretty much stayed with the schedule," Bennett said. "That's the great thing about Dave (Wannstedt). We sort of worked together. We believe in what we've done and had success with it. I think we pretty much stayed on course."
Bennett talked about opportunity. Saturday is an opportunity for him--for everything Pitt has been through over the last month--to leave a lasting mark on some of these players, especially the seniors, by guiding them to a win after everything they‘ve all been through, with the dismissal of Wannstedt as head coach, a new head coach in Michael Haywood--hired and fired, and now an intense coaching search going on during bowl week. Then, there's the fact that by the time this team takes the field, it will have been five weeks since their last game.
While he neglected to talk about his own opportunity of calling the shots on Saturday, he did talk about some players on the team--particularly younger players--who have a chance to lay a foundation for the future of their careers.
Pitt has already been without defensive end Greg Romeus, for practically the entire season. Now, they're without Big East Defensive Player of the Year Jabaal Sheard, who had an elective surgery on his elbow after the season. The door is open for someone to step up there, but also at defensive tackle where Myles Caragein is being listed as doubtful with a sprained knee he suffered in the regular season finale against Cincinnati. Defensive line is one area that is wide open for some players.
"It's an opportunity," Bennett said. "Aaron Donald, we think is an outstanding player. Ty Tkach, I think will come in and do a very good job. We got Nate Nix, we got Shayne Hale. Shayne Hale is what you're looking for. He has a chance to get in the mix. It's an opportunity, the way I see it."
There are also some other players in the mix in the secondary to either see some more time, or get some more playing time from what we saw in the regular season.
"K'Waun Williams, I like him," Bennett added. "He's a good football player. We're going to be down some (players), but we're excited about the opportunity.
"K'Waun Williams is going to start; he's going to play. You're going to see, (Andrew) Taglianetti is going to play more. He's finally (healthy). He's doing some things I really like."