Pitt's receivers will be asked to step up big-time in 2012, for this year's offense to be more productive. Pitt has only had one 1,000-yard receiver since 2005 (Jon Baldwin with 1,111 yards in 2009), and is looking for more production than what they had in 2011. Despite Devin Street finishing with a career-high 53 catches for 754 yards, no receiver finished with more than four touchdown receptions (Mike Shanahan with 4). Not to mention, it was an inconsistent group throughout the year.
Part of it can be contributed to the number of different position coaches that the fifth-year seniors have had. Those two players—Cameron Saddler and Mike Shanahan—were briefly recruited by Aubrey Hill, before he went to Miami when they signed in February of 2008. They had Bryan Bossard for two years, followed by Scott Turner and Michael Norvell each for a year. Now, it's Bobby Engram. Saddler believes this time, the coaching change was made for the best.
"You know what Coach Engram does? He doesn't overcoach," Saddler explained. "There were some coaches we had that overcoached; wanted you to be here at a certain time. Coach Engram is all about doing it the way you do as long as you get the job done. That's good playing receiver. You get a lot of freedom, but at the same time, he's not going to let you do some randomness."
Freedom and randomness, as Saddler alludes to, are important factors when you factor in a number of different abilities that each receiver brings. Shanahan is limited this spring, but is able to go through individual drills. Shanahan might have more of the build of a bigger receiver, there are a lot of smaller, slot-type receivers such as Saddler and Ronald Jones. Then there's speedier players like Ed Tinker and Devin Street, who may be asked to go downfield and make a big play. Throw in new receivers such as Brandon Ifill—a converted safety, and Brendon Felder who's now able to be in the mix after sitting out his transfer year, and there's a number of different skillsets that Engram has to work with. Therefore, with giving receivers freedom to use their specific talents, he's able to work with them. At the same time, he can't let them develop too much randomness, as Saddler refers to, which could lead to inconsistencies.
"We're trying to lay the foundation," Engram said. "These guys have not been in this offense, they have not been around us as a staff and vice-versa. The big part is really getting to know each other, building that trust, laying the foundation and building the fundamentals of what we're doing in the spring. I tell them, these are the things we will come back to in our first and in our second game. Learning the fundamentals and details of this offense. Right now in the spring is what's going to carry us over to the fall."
What we are seeing in spring right now, is not necessarily a first-team split end, a first-team flanker, and a first-team slot receiver. Instead, we're seeing different groups of bodies involved through the first half of the spring. For example, you could see Street, Saddler, Jones and Drew Carswell all on the field at the same time. In another series, you could see Ifill, a player like Salath Williams, Street and a Brendan Carozzoni in the next group. There's no method to Engram's selection to these personnel groupings. He is, however, trying to mix and match as much as possible, to not only give the receivers a chance in some different spots, but to also get as many reps in to see which groupings do work.
"Right now, there's no depth chart to me," Engram said. "Certain guys have earned the right to go in there. At the same time, they have to compete. I love that about them. They've accepted that challenge. Every man is working hard to compete and get a starting job."
He did point out a few, relating to some different areas. Shanahan, for example, is in as much as he can be whether it's film sessions, or individual drills. He's been limited in the spring with a back injury, but Engram said Shanahan has been setting a positive example every day.
"The veteran guys, you would like to see that," Engram added. "Mike has been there every day. He's in every meeting. He's at every practice. Although he's not participating, he's still a big part of what we're going to do. That's how it should be. You want your older guys, your veteran guys who have been battle-tested, to be in there. You want those guys to lead by example."
Also, along those lines, in getting to maximize the efforts of Shanahan and Street in particular, Engram says there's no reason why they shouldn't be counted on to produce this year.
"I saw some film last year, they both made plays," Engram added. "I don't know what they were projected to be (when they came to Pitt), but they're two guys if they do the right things, we're going to be counting on them."
Then there's Jones who played in a variety of different positions as a freshman, including ‘Wildcat' quarterback. Though he doesn't expect to be that liberal in using Jones in this offense, he says Jones does have the possibility to line up in multiple spots in the receiver formations.
"I think Ronald has had a pretty strong spring," Engram said. "The beauty of this is, and when I say concepts, they have to learn across the board what every receiver is doing. If you can show yourself as a guy that's valuable and can make some plays, a guy who's capable of learning new positions, that's when you give yourself a greater chance to see the field."
And of course, the two fairly new players in the mix, Ifill and Felder. Felder obviously worked out with the receivers last year, and was helpful in scout team matchups, this year is different because he is working for a spot.
"I think they're doing well," Engram said. "I think Brandon is a big guy who can run well. He's a smart guy. He's in multiple positions. Brendon, he's a little smaller, but he's quick; a lot of explosiveness. Everybody brings something to the table. It's up to me as a coach to learn what they can and can't do well. I'll help put them in that position, but right now, everyone needs to earn it—the entire offense, and go out there and play with great speed and attention to detail to give themselves a chance to earn some playing time."