By Dale Grdnic
PantherDigest.com Senior Writer
PITTSBURGH -- While cornerback Jovani Chappel has gotten the most publicity since he enrolled early at Pitt and has performed so well for the football team this spring, offensive lineman Kevin Hughes is trying to carve his own niche as well.
The 6-foot-3, 280-pound Hughes took classes in the fall and practiced with the team this past season, but he was not on scholarship. As a "gray shirt,'' Hughes had to pay for classes in the fall, and when he joined the team this spring he was put on scholarship.
Hughes, who has been working at left tackle, gets to practice this spring -- like Chappel -- work out with the team during the upcoming training camp and still retain his freshman eligibility. Hughes actually counts back to the last recruiting class, even though he's also a member of the new one.
"In the fall, I was able to work out and be around the guys a lot, but now that I'm here in spring practice, practicing and just being a part of the team, it really has such a better feeling,'' Hughes said.
"Every day you come in, no matter what, they're your teammates and they respect you more. Everybody respected me in the fall, because they knew I was on the squad. But it's a lot better for me now.''
While there has been a lot of talk about junior-college transfer Jeff Otah making a big impact this fall, Hughes also could provide depth this season. He hasn't had a chance to do much this spring due to a prolonged illness, but he should be able to go full blast during the final practice week.
Hughes, who played scholastically at Northern Highlands in New Jersey, was out three weeks with pneumonia and bronchitis, but a heavy dose of antibiotics had him back on the field this past week.
"Right now,'' Hughes said, "the one thing I'm trying to do is learn the playbook. That seems to be the hardest aspect of college football. Coming in and learning the huge playbook is tough, so that's what I'm trying to do.
"But (offensive line) coach (Paul) Dunn does a good job trying to get us all on the same page. We practiced what he wanted in the fall, so most of the guys' tendencies are all similar. And they're not that hard to get used to.''
While Hughes couldn't get on the field last fall, he had the best tutor on the team. Fifth-year senior Charles Spencer was a big supporter.
"Charles, when he was out for a play or two, he'd come over to me to try to teach me as much as he could,'' Hughes said.
"We'd look at the plays on the board, but I think the one way that I've always learned best is by doing it. So, I needed to be out there doing it, because I didn't learn as much as I should have or could have in the fall.''
Hughes was named an all-New Jersey offensive lineman by the Newark Star-Ledger (second-team) and third-team all-state by the Associated Press. He was a first-team all-star in Bergen County a first-team all-Northern Bergen Interscholastic League (NBIL) and second-team all North Jersey. Hughes also played on the defensive line and was the team's long-snapper without a single bad snap in his career.
Friday night's workout at Thomas Jefferson High School ended worse than it began. The Panthers got about half a practice in before lighting and rain halted the event. Pitt concluded the hour-long session with a goal-line scrimmage and also had an inside run drill and play-pass period.
Thomas Jefferson senior Nate Nix, a Pitt recruit in the fall, was in attendance. Henry Hynoski and Josh Marks from PIAA Class A champion Southern Columbia also watched the workout. They will be seniors in the fall. Pitt had about 30 prospective recruits at Saturday morning's practice at the UPMC Sports Complex, and more are expected at the spring game.
Wannstedt clearly was disappointed that the Panthers were unable to complete the practice session Friday night, and he noted that the offense did not get the job done Saturday until a goal-line drill at the end.
Defensively, the head coach said that defensive end Doug Fulmer, safety Irvan Brown and outside linebacker Tommie Campbell have shown tremendous improvement after their position changes. And middle linebacker H.B. Blades took his game to another level as well.
"This definitely was the best that the defense has looked thus far this spring,'' Wannstedt said. "I'm going to look at it from a positive side, and say that we're making progress on our defensive line.
"I think the guys are really moving around well, and they're starting to grasp the concept of making plays and not just taking up blocks. And for us to play this defensive scheme effectively, our down guys have to be playmakers. So, I was encouraged by that.''
There are three more spring workouts, including the Blue Gold game Saturday at 1 p.m. at Heinz Field.