Pitt Football begins

The University of Pittsburgh hosted "Media Day" at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex on Monday. PantherDigest.com senior writer Dale Grdnic attended the event. Dale was able to speak a number of the Panthers coaches and players. Read on for the first of many training camp reports.

PITTSBURGH -- When Dave Wannstedt returned to his alma mater more than 19 months ago, he believed the University of Pittsburgh football program could return to its past glory by developing a strong, power running game on offense and building a stout line to stop the run on defense.

The Panthers did neither too well and stumbled to a 1-4 start and 5-6 overall record. As his second season began Monday with equal optimism, Wannstedt was adamant that Pitt's road to success did not change.

"We're not going to deviate from our philosophy,'' Wannstedt said. "It's as clear as day. West Virginia wins our conference last year, and they were the best at running the ball, and they were the best at stopping the run. ... And then, when the Steelers win the Super Bowl under their philosophy.

"If nothing else, that reaffirmed, in my mind, what I said last January. Now, we didn't get it done, but we're going to get it done. And we're going to make strides, and that's how we're going to build this football team.

"And that's the type of people that we're going to have be a part of it from an ability standpoint and a philosophy standpoint, and that's not going to change,'' Wannstedt added. Senior middle linebacker H.B. Blades believed that even though Pitt wasn't successful last season the team made strides during the second half and had a strong spring and offseason that should carry over to this fall.

"We started developing some things late last season between the veterans and younger players, and that continued in the spring,'' Blades said.

"We also had a strong offseason with conditioning, and we need to keep it going during training camp. This is where you lay the groundwork for the season, and we're looking forward to coming together as a team.''

Wannstedt believed that several areas needed to be strengthened, by upgrading those on the roster and through recruiting better players, for Pitt to be more successful this season. "The defensive line, for us to take a major step, those guys need to really come on and mature and play at a higher level than what we did last year,'' Wannstedt said. "The other thing for us to do is to determine our four best receivers. We have a lot of guys there that have a chance.''

There are six defensive linemen with experience, including junior starters Chris McKillop and Joe Clermond at end and sophomores Rashaad Duncan and Corey Davis at the tackle spots. Freshmen McKenzie Mathews, Jared Martin, John Malecki and Jason Pinkston should add depth. However, Pinkston and wideout Aaron Smith are academically ineligible until "some things are sorted out'' by the NCAA Clearinghouse, Wannstedt said.

The receiving corps has Derek Kinder returning with 37 catches and three touchdowns last season, but Pitt needs to find a big-play threat after losing Greg Lee a year early to the NFL. Senior Joe DelSardo, redshirt sophomore Marcel Pestano and redshirt frosh Oderick are in the wideout mix with incoming freshmen Dorin Dickerson and Elijah Fields, although the latter could be moved to the defensive backfield.

"At running back, will sophomore Brandon Mason step up,'' Wannstedt said to continue his areas of concern. "We know what LaRod Stephens can do and Shane Brooks, but will (freshman) Kevin Collier be in the mix.''

LaRod Stephens-Howling led Pitt in rushing with 434 yards as a freshman last fall, but no touchdowns. Conredge Collins, a sophomore slated to start at fullback, had just eight carries for 25 yards.

Place-kicking was mentioned in passing by Wannstedt, but in truth it's an area of concern initially. Two-year starter Josh Cummings has graduated, but former starter David Abdul was expected to step back into that spot as a fifth-year senior. However, a heart condition afflicted him in the offseason, and he is not medically cleared to practice with the team.

Now, sophomore walk-on Conor Lee and freshman walk-on Dan Hutchins from Loyalsock High near Williamsport will compete for the top spot.

Along with the aforementioned freshmen, junior-college transfer Jeff Otah, a 6-foot-6, 340-pound offensive lineman, is expected to contribute. Otah will battle sophomore John Bachman for the starting left tackle spot.

Along with Abdul, several other players had medical concerns. Redshirt sophomore linemen Nick Williams (defense) and Dave Weber (offense) are still recovering from offseason leg injuries and will not practice. Sophomore tight end John Pelusi had knee surgery after the season and will practice, but he will be limited until he fully recovers. Redshirt junior free safety Mike Phillips has recovered from ankle surgery that caused him to miss the latter half of last season, and he's ready to go.

The regular season begins with Virginia Sept. 2 at 7 p.m. at Heinz Field. Pitt will honor its 1976 national championship team on its 30th anniversary.


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