Arguably, as Pitt works its way towards the end of the first week of camp, the toughest battles remain for the starting center position and a starting corner position opposite of K'Waun Williams.
After trying out four different centers in the spring, which ended with Chris Jacobson in the lead after moving over from left guard, Todd Graham decided to open training camp with redshirt junior Ryan Turnley at center. Turnley sat out spring ball recovering from a shoulder surgery. He's been given the opportunity to lock up starting spot, but according to Graham, it's still a long ways from being decided.
The offensive line should be a strength this season. With returning starters Lucas Nix, Chris Jacobson and Jordan Gibbs, the line has two new spots to figure out. Even though Jacobson worked out at center, it's an added luxury to keep him at left guard and to bring in Turnley. In addition to that, if Cory King is able to hold on to the right guard spot—a spot he has held claim to since the spring, Pitt's 2012 offensive line looks in better shape, with Turnley and King returning as starters.
The idea of Turnley earning the starting spot, simply falls to Turnley. From a developmental standpoint, Graham also relishes the pressure faced in developing the next offensive lineman—seemingly comfortable with the other four he has right now.
"I've seen some positive things out of Turnley," Graham said. "King, we have a lot of confidence in him, as well as that group. That group that is essential there is Gibbs, Jacobson, Nix and King. Those guys we have the most confidence in, and have the most confidence in each other. We have to develop one more guy, and then you have to have some depth in what you're developing there."
Among that depth includes Matt Rotheram, Arthur Doakes, Juantez Hollins and Zenel Demhasaj—a junior-college transfer who also took some reps at center, but has been working in at tackle in training camp. It sounds that out of all those possibilities, Rotheram is in a battle with Turnley and King in terms of who is the next offensive lineman to develop into a class that the three seniors are in.
"We won't know until we get the pads on," Graham added. "We have to develop another offensive lineman and continue to develop the ones we have. I've seen some positive things out of Matt Rotheram. I've seen some positive things out of Arthur Doakes. Guys like Hollins and Zenel, at the tackle position, we've got to develop inside as well.
"We're trying to look for that other person. Jacobson could be at center, could be at guard. It depends on who develops, and who steps forward. We'll have a lot better evaluation after we get the pads on."
One thing Graham did confirm, was that while Jacobson was tried out at center, a senior tackle like a Lucas Nix will not be tried out at center. The experimentation process is done.
"No," Graham responded, when asked if Nix would be given a shot. "Our system, as much as we throw the football, you have to protect the quarterback. (Nix) is a special tackle. Our tackles are as good as you could want. You see a lot off that edge. I just feel very comfortable with those guys."
There's another tough battle going on at corner between Antwuan Reed and Buddy Jackson. K'Waun Williams has solidified himself at one spot, even going back to the spring. Each day, Reed and Jackson have taken turns making plays in practice. On Tuesday, Reed came up with a couple of big pass breakups in 11-on-11 action. On one, he read receiver Cameron Saddler perfectly, timing it up so he was there to break up the pass the second it got to Saddler's reach.
On Wednesday, it was Jackson's turn to make a couple of plays. Tino Sunseri found Hubie Graham over the middle for a couple of nice completions in Wednesday's practice. On one play, however, Jackson snuck behind Graham and pelted him right as the pass came to him. Chances are, if it was full contact, Jackson would have had a bone-jarring hit on Graham. Still, the physical play by the senior corner was enough to draw cheers from his defensive teammates in the huddle and on the sideline.
While the cornerback position stepped up was a whole on Wednesday, the debate between which corner—Reed or Jackson—will start, becomes tougher. Graham added at his opening press conference on Monday that some position battles will be ongoing. This could be a position where that happens. The competition picked up Wednesday, Graham says, with the addition of the shoulder pads.
"It's a little different deal when you put the pads on," Graham added. "That's what creates contact and being physical as a football player, is what causes those turnovers to happen. I think our guys were flying around the ball. Our guys are trying to be better zone players; trying to see the ball, get the ball, anticipate the ball a little bit better."
Co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson couldn't agree more. His philosophy entails producing tackles for losses and turnovers—something the defense prides itself on all day. When he sees Reed, Williams and Jackson providing plays in this key area, it clouds his decision too.
"The things they're doing as well as their vision to the quarterback, and let them see the ball, get the ball," Patterson added. "They had good days today. I feel really good about our depth at those positions."