PITTSBURGH -- The University of Pittsburgh football team ended its second training camp under Dave Wannstedt Saturday, and the veteran coach believed that the Panthers were much better prepared than they were at this time last season.
Pitt began Wannstedt's initial season coaching his alma mater with high expectations last fall, but those were quickly dashed during a blowout loss to Notre Dame in the opener and a 1-4 start. The Panthers finished strongly to go 5-6, but the damage already was done due to the poor start. Wannstedt is more realistic this season going into the opener against Virginia Saturday night at 7 at Heinz Field.
"It's gone well,'' Wannstedt said. "I think we've gotten a lot of physical work done out here. We've really stressed the basics and the fundamentals. (During training camp) is the only time, you don't decide to be a tough football team in week three or week four.
"You don't decide that you're all of a sudden going to start running the ball in week three or week four. This is when you have to do all those things. We've done those and put our emphasis on those areas of our team, and I think we've made progress. I like where we are at this point.''
The Panthers have an experienced quarterback in fifth-year senior Tyler Palko, but since his receiving corps is young. So, Pitt's offense might take a while to get going this season. But Palko isn't too concerned.
"I think the offense had been pretty steady moving the football,'' Palko said. "If you look at it, we've stopped ourselves more often than not, but we're making strides and get it going for a while, but then we turn it over or make a mistake somewhere else.
"So, they're not stopping us, but it's bad that we're stopping ourselves. So, we're trying things out, and we'll see where we are when Virginia comes to town. But I think we'll be all right. We have a whole week to work out the final bugs, and then we'll be ready to go.''
Palko had a decent camp, a little inconsistent at times, but mostly because his wideouts are the most inexperienced group on the Panthers squad. Junior Derek Kinder is the most experienced, but he didn't start until the fourth game last fall and finished with 37 catches.
The other starting wideout is redshirt freshman Oderick Turner. freshman T.J. Porter and redshirt sophomore Marcel Pestano are the other top receivers, but Pestano has just one career catch. Since redshirt frosh Cedric McGee struggled with injuries in camp and senior Joe DelSardo was suspended at least through the first game, walk-ons Austin Ransom and Branden Ballard have had to fill in to provide depth.
"We have a group of guys that kind of separated themselves, and I'm getting more of a rapport with them now,'' Palko said. "So, we're going into the Virginia game with a solid group, and I'm happy with that. ... We might not have one or two big-play guys, but we have a number of guys I can go to.
"When we need to make a play, we can count on all of them. Hopefully, we're developing multiple playmakers here, but we won't know until the games begin who can get the job done. That's going to be the final exam, the regular games, and it's where you truly find what kind of team you are.''
Right now, the Panthers are among the youngest teams in the Big East, if not the nation, with seven freshmen and four redshirt freshmen among the top players on their depth chart. Along with Turner at split end, redshirt frosh Doug Fulmer is the starting right defensive end. No true freshmen are in the starting lineup.
Since Wannstedt had to play many first-year players last year, seven sophomores are on the two-deep with tailback LaRod Stephens-Howling, a Johnstown grad, fullback Conredge Collins, defensive tackles Gus Mustakas and Rashaad Duncan and weak-side linebacker Tommy Campbell are starters.
"Sure, we're a young football team, overall, but we have a good group of seniors and veteran upperclassmen who are strong leaders,'' fifth-year senior quarterback Tyler Palko said. "And the young players are very talented, too, so I think we have a good mix this season.''
The top freshmen on offense are left guard Joe Thomas, tight end Nate Byham, tailbacks Kevin Collier and Dorin Dickerson and Porter, while defensive tackle John Malecki and cornerback Jovani Chappel are freshmen among the two-deep on defense.