Todd Graham felt the performance of a few in Saturday's final scrimmage of training camp would help determine some final spots on the depth chart. Though he added that nothing is final, a few players took a major step towards claiming a starting spot for the opener against Buffalo in 12 days.
The biggest one appears to be on the offensive line, where redshirt sophomore Juantez Hollins—who has yet to play in a game at Pitt—was working with the first team at left tackle at Monday's practice. Entering camp, the big story surrounded redshirt junior Ryan Turnley handling starting duties at center. Turnley appears to have locked down the center job. The focus now is seeing if there's another lineman—Hollins, Cory King or Matt Rotheram—that is also starter-ready.
"He's snapping the ball good," Graham said of Turnley. "He had four that I didn't like today. I think it's just doing it. He's a natural snapper. (Chris) Jacobson might be the better snapper because he's done it a lot more, but Turnley is a natural snapper."
Last week, Lucas Nix moved in at right guard in place of Cory King, who had been working with the first team at right guard since the spring. Nix has remained at guard since last Wednesday. Jordan Gibbs, who has been at left tackle going back to the spring, is back over at right tackle where he started the final 10 games of the 2010 season.
"Juantez Hollins had a really good scrimmage," Graham said."(Greg) Gaskins is coming on, and King had a real good scrimmage. We've kind of, today, we started off with Juantez at left tackle and Gibbs at right tackle. Then, Nix (at right guard), Jacobson (left guard) and Turnley at center. We got good competition there, and we continue to work it the other way too with Gaskins and Hollins being the swing guys at the tackle position. We feel good about how we're developing our depth."
To say that they're developing their depth is an understatement. Graham knew he had a good thing with seniors in Jacobson, Nix and Gibbs. Past those three, the rest of the unit was mostly unproven and inexperienced. Gaskins began 2010 as a starter, before being bounced out of the starting lineup after three games. Turnley had battled injuries and not seen much playing time entering his fourth year of the program. Those two have put forth a competitive effort in this camp—with Turnley looking to start. In addition to Hollins, King and redshirt freshman Matt Rotheram all fall in line.
Graham may not be set on a top five, but at least we know of a top eight or nine offensive linemen—something that wasn't as clear, even at the end of the 2010 season.
"I felt Rotheram got better in the scrimmage," Graham added. "Our offensive line depth is improving."
Offensive line coach Spencer Leftwich said the thing that has worked most in all these younger linemen coming along, and at least pushing for a chance to start, is simply the competition factor.
"The best thing about it, is competition," Leftwich added. "Competition brings out the best in everybody. Every kid wants to play. When you look back over your shoulder, and someone's back there creeping up on you, that just brings out the best in you."
Another position Graham was keeping an eye on, is not for the first or second running back positions, but for a third running back. It sounds like Malcolm Crockett still has the edge—an edge he gained after the first scrimmage. Corey Davis continues to push him. Even though Crockett is ahead of Davis, Graham insists that Davis must see the field this year.
Aside from the running backs, Graham continues to be impressed with the freshman class as a whole. From a recruiting class he assembled in 22 days, there are at least seven players who are in excellent position to see the field this year. In addition to those freshmen running backs, Ronald Jones—who Graham says was one of Saturday's superstars, Lafayette Pitts, Ejuan Price, LaQuentin Smith and Lloyd Carrington all have a legitimate shot at playing time this year. He even considers Price a starter at that Panther back, and elaborated on that a little bit.
"Probably the star of the scrimmage was Ronald Jones," Graham added. "He looked really good. He did some really good things; six catches, he had a punt return for a touchdown that was real impressive. Crockett has been steady. He's ready to play. He's not running like a freshman. Corey Davis is explosive, and he can do some things. He's going to play. Isaac Bennett continues to get better. He's a bigger back.
"LaQuentin Smith is getting better every day. At Panther, we're feeling really good about (Brandon Lindsey and Ejuan Price). On third down, both of those guys will play. Ejuan Price will play. We consider him a starter."
As for some of the big plays out of the scrimmage, according to Ray Graham, quarterback Tino Sunseri threw for a touchdown on the first play of the scrimmage. Linebacker Max Gruder said that Shane Gordon had a pick six—a play he considered nice plus for the linebackers.
"Every practice, we shoot for a good number of takeaways," Gruder said. "We had a good amount. There was a pass deflection, and Shane Gordon ran it back for a touchdown; ran it back 40 yards, it was pretty nice. It was good to see the linebackers getting a pick-six."
"The second scrimmage, we came out, first play was a touchdown by Tino," Ray Graham added. "We just came out on a roll. Ronald Jones came out, he played pretty well. Kevin Weatherspoon played good too. Corey Davis and the other young freshmen, they played good too. That was exciting to see too, seeing what they're capable of doing."