From start to finish of spring ball, Pitt's receiver position proved to be pretty consistent throughout. There are a lot of different ideals or schemes that each one of the receiver positions is supposed to do. Luckily, the players in the first-team group seem to fit the bill of what this new offense requires.
Going back to Todd Graham's overview of the receiver position, which is coached by Mike Norvell, there is a five-back, a nine-back and a two-back. The five-back is a bigger possession-type receiver, who can also line up in the slot, and try to create mismatches—big enough yet faster to outduel linebackers who move up to cover them, yet fast enough and as bigger than safeties who might bump up to cover them. Working at that five-back position this spring was Mike Shanahan.
Shanahan is versatile enough to also play what's called the nine-back, which is also your big-play receiver who splits out wide. Between lining up in both spots in the spring game, Shanahan answered the call with a seven catches for a game-high 158 yards and a touchdown.
Shanahan also had four catches that went for 30 yards or more in the scrimmage, which included a 50-yard touchdown catch. Granted, he'll be going up against starting corners as opposed to backups Saheed Imoru and Jeremiah Davis, but for his first spring game in the new system, Shanahan was quite productive, and there's no reason to think he's capable of putting up these type of numbers on a weekly basis in the Big East. If it was a real game, Shanahan's numbers in the spring game would have been career-highs.
There are a number of possibilities to players that could back up Shanahan at the five-back spot. Salath Williams was a player who came on in that role as spring went on. When training camp started last year, Pitt had four talented freshmen receivers in Todd Thomas, Drew Carswell, Kevin Weatherspoon and Wiliams. Thomas is now on defense. Of the remaining three, Williams is closest to making an impact on the receiving group as a whole, and his first step will be as the five-back, in place of Shanahan.
This could either be in certain sets, or other situations where Shanahan is moved out to the nine-back. Walk-on Brett Zuck also filled out at the five-back, but he will be pushed by incoming freshman Justin Jackson (6-3, 190) who has the ideal frame for this position. Based on how much weight Jackson can put on from the time he gets on campus and if he can maintain his speed, he will really be the ideal five-back in the future.
The nine-back is the designated playmaker out of the receiver set. This is a guy who basically goes up and gets the ball, and makes a big play out of it every time. Devin Street is expected to be that guy. He had a couple drops in the spring game, and was hobbled a bit by a sore ankle through some of the spring practices.
Based on raw ability, he has the potential to be that game-breaker. Look no further than the 79-yard touchdown reception he had on the first Pitt offensive play at Syracuse last year. Only in this system, instead of being forced to turn a short screen pass into a 79-yard gain, he will be put into position—literally—to make plays like that. From here, it's all on Street. Drops like he had in the spring game are unaccepted. Otherwise, the coaching staff won't hesitate to slide Shanahan to the nine-back position at certain points, when they want to go for that deep ball. Street finished with a game-high eight receptions for 81 yards and a touchdown in the Blue-Gold scrimmage. In a real game, those would have been career-highs for Street.
Ed Tinker is another guy the staff will look at for the nine-back. Tinker was, at best, Pitt's number-five receiver on the depth chart last year as a redshirt freshman. He has moved up to number four on the depth chart, and should also be a viable option at the nine-back behind Street.
Then there's the two-back, which based out of how things worked at Tulsa, was their most productive position. In 2010, Demaris Johnson finished with 872 yards on 57 receptions as the Golden Hurricane's two-back. The position is a hybrid running back/receiver type—a smaller, shiftier type of receiver that looks and acts like more of a traditional slot receiver. It also is designed for a hybrid running back type because a lot of the short screens that are called in this offense. Those plays are often considered running plays by Norvell and co-offensive coordinator Calvin Magee. It won't show up in the stat book as a run, but a short pass is the equivalent of a long pitchback in their eyes, which makes sense.
Cameron Saddler is the ideal receiver in mind for this position, and outside of nagging ankle injury, had a productive spring at the position. He concluded with six receptions for 60 yards, which like Street and Shanahan, would have also been career-highs if the Blue-Gold scrimmage was a real game. He has the potential to put up explosive numbers out of this position in 2011.
Much like running back and quarterback, the real battle will be to see who backs him up at this position. In fact, of all the receiver spots, the battle for this backup will be under the closest eye in training camp. One, because of the competition involved, but also because of how valuable the two-back is to the offense. Kevin Weatherspoon also has the ideal body type for this position, and he should be able to see the field as a redshirt freshman. However, it was walk-on Jake Delmonico—now a redshirt sophomore—who surpassed Weatherspoon on the depth chart this spring when Saddler was out resting his ankle. That doesn't look like a definite for August, but it does look like Weatherspoon and Delmonico will be in contention for the reps behind Saddler.
That of course could all change with the addition of two freshmen who were signed because they fit the bill of this two-back in the eyes of the coaching staff. In cases where returning players are passed over by incoming freshmen quickly because they fit the system better than the returning players, this particular spot on the roster may be where we see the first movement. Darius Patton (5-10, 170) was one of the first players offered by the new Pitt staff when they were hired. Ronald Jones (5-8, 165) is a speed demon out of Florida. The fact that the backup spot behind Saddler is a little unsettled leaves a good opportunity for either of these players to step up and get on the field as a true freshman.
Looking at the receiver position as a whole, it's in good shape. There's no question that at least one, and as many as three can all contribute and put up big numbers. At the same time, Tulsa had four players with at least 30 receptions in 2010. It's easy to see how this group of Pitt receivers can do the same thing—between the guys already in place, and the three incoming freshmen.