By Dale Grdnic
PantherDigest.com Senior Writer
PITTSBURGH -- When a college is heavily recruiting an athlete, it's not uncommon for the head coach and several assistants to visit his school. The University of Pittsburgh is bringing its entire
football team to Center High School Friday night in an attempt to secure a verbal commitment from 6-foot-3, 305-pound Trojans offensive lineman Evan Blankenship.
The Panthers, who already have offered him a scholarship, will hold a spring practice session at Center's Sarge Alberts Stadium from 7-9 p.m.
"I just thought it went over real well at Gateway last year,'' second-year Pitt coach Wannstedt said, referring to last spring's Blue-Gold game held at the Monroeville, Pa. high school. That event is at Heinz Field this year since some 8,000 people jammed Gateway and some were turned away.
"Being on the road recruiting,'' Wannstedt added, "the high school coaches in the area have been so responsive in a positive way. They said that since we were out at the Eastern part of the city (last year), they wanted to know when we would come out their way.
"So, I thought it was a good idea to go out into the (Beaver) Valley area in the West, and then we'll go to the South Hills at TJ (Thomas Jefferson). And then, at some point, we've got to go to the North. So, it's good, and our players enjoy it. I just hope it doesn't snow. But it's energizing.''
The second practice away from the UPMC Sports Complex is April 7 from 7-9 p.m. at Thomas Jefferson High School.
Let the hitting begin
After two practice days wearing shorts, jerseys and helmets, Pitt finally got to put on the pads Thursday afternoon.
"Now, we'll do a little bit of what football really is,'' Wannstedt said. "Blocking and tackling. But no grass stains. We'll get turf burns. I didn't want to tear up the grass for just one day. If we get a couple nice days in a row, then, we'll go out.''
When Wannstedt opened his first spring practice at his alma mater last year, the weather was unseasonably warm. And he made the Panthers practice outside on the grass fields. That hasn't happened this year, yet, and it isn't likely if the weather remains this cold.
Stephens-Howling could carry the load
Sophomore LaRod Stephens-Howling, Pitt's top rusher last season with 434 yards despite missing two full games and parts of others with an ankle injury, bulked up during the offseason in an attempt to avert those problems.
"He tells me, so this is according to him, that he's every bit of 10 pounds bigger and stronger this year,'' Wannstedt said. "He said he came in at 158-160, and he's 170 now. But it's 10 pounds of good weight, and from what I've seen out here it doesn't look like he's lost any quickness.''
Wannstedt acknowledged that Stephens-Howling might have difficulty being Pitt's primary back, but he's the leading candidate to start right now.
"There's nobody tougher,'' Wannstedt said. "I think any great running back would be insulted if you said he was just a third-down back. That's what they don't want to hear. Or you say that they're just a situation guy.
"But I'm going to give LaRod the benefit of the doubt. I think he's a guy that can get in there and carry the ball 25 times a game, and until he proves that he can't then that's the way we've got to approach it.''
In any event, Stephens-Howling is the most experienced back right now.
"Experience is lacking, but desire is abundant,'' Wannstedt said. "But that's OK. And as long as a guy's got ability, and he's willing to learn, he can make progress. ... Tony Dorsett didn't have a bad freshman year, about 1,500 yards, and he didn't have anybody blocking for him.''
Wannstedt, he quickly noted, was a senior tackle on that offensive line.