Spring Practice Notebook: Fields Progressing

PITTSBURGH -- University of Pittsburgh defensive backs coach Chris Ball probably has visions where 6-foot-2, 210-pound sophomore safety Elijah Fields roams the Panthers secondary waiting to apply a big hit to an unsuspecting receiver or using his athleticism to pick off a wayward pass.

After missing the first week during spring practice sessions due to a suspension for breaking team rules, Fields has shown steady progression the past two weeks and appears to be ready to make a contribution.

"He's playing extremely well,'' Ball said. "I'm really pleased with him and with the way that he's been playing back there and learning the defense. He really understands the game of football. He really has a good understanding of it, but he's another guy that just needs to play.

"He just needs a lot of reps and playing time. The last two weeks, he's really come on. There's no question he can play. He has the potential to be a starter. He's as athletic a kid as we have on defense, but he needs playing experience. ... Athletically, he has all the tools to be a great one.''

Ball pointed out that while a lot was expected from Fields, he's still going to be just a sophomore this fall, while his competition for starting spots are fifth-year senior Mike Phillips and redshirt junior Eric Thatcher. The latter two players have had much more playing time with many games as starters during their careers as well.

"Oh, he can play,'' Thatcher said. "That's for sure. He's very talented, and he can hit. We're just trying to bring him along the best we can, and he is progressing. He's learning a lot with every practice. It'll be interesting to see how much he's retained when he comes back for camp this summer.''

Fields was not made available to the media despite several requests.

One More Test

The Panthers conducted another 90-plus-play intrasquad scrimmage at the UPMC Sports Complex indoor field, the last one before the annual Blue-Gold game Saturday at 1 p.m. at Heinz Field, and the defense ruled the day.

However, before struggling a bit, junior Bill Stull guided the offense on a 70-yard opening drive for a touchdown. He hit senior wideout Derek Kinder with a slant on a third-down play, beating fifth-year senior cornerback Kennard Cox to the inside for a first-and-goal.

Kinder then ran for seven to the 3, and tailback LaRod Stephens-Howling burst to the goal line. Stull plowed in from there by following center Chris Vangas. Stephens-Howling went in motion on the play, and junior fullback Conredge Collins remaining in the backfield.

"It was a good opening drive, but we had a tough time running the ball in the red zone after that,'' Stull said. "So, we still have a lot of work to do.''

After that opening offensive salvo, Pitt's first-team defense gave up little to no yardage. The blue-clad Panthers defense stopped the offense three straight possessions on third down. The line penetrated into the backfield, so the running game sputtered and the passing game didn't have much time to get the ball down field.

"The thing that I'm disappointed in is that we're not running the ball,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "We've got a lot of work to do with running the football on offense. I thought we threw the ball fairly well. We protected fairly well, but we did not run the ball like we need to for us to be a good football team. (And) defensively, I liked our energy.

"I think we're defending the run a little better. The struggles our offense had running the ball, I think we have to give the defense credit. Our defensive front is showing up more than they have in years past. They're all making plays, which we have to do. ... But I liked our energy as a team, and our emotion as a team was a lot better (today) than last Saturday.''

Stull was fairly sharp with 14-for-23 passing for 128 yards and one touchdown, but redshirt freshman Kevan Smith was even better. He completed his first seven passes and was 14-for-19 for 170 yards. He also was picked off by freshman cornerback Aaron Smith, who would have had a big return on the play.

"The scrimmage went well,'' Smith said. "I think Coach Cavanaugh wanted me to focus on executing my assignments and on my mechanics. He gave me a lot of waggles and rollouts and stuff like that to focus on pushing the edge. I had to make some decisions on whether to run or throw the ball.

"I really didn't have a big day dropping back to pass, but I think I did pretty well on the edge and didn't miss too many passes. So, I think we're happy with the completion ratio, and we're improving with each scrimmage.''

Smith's biggest pass play was a 43-yarder to redshirt sophomore wideout Oderick Turner. He beat sophomore cornerback Jovani Chappel on the play, as size and speed made the difference.

Turner also made a spectacular leap in the end zone to make a touchdown grab. He beat redshirt junior safety Eric Thatcher and sophomore cornerback Aaron Berry on the play. Size was the difference on this play as well for the 6-foot-3 Turner, who finished with four catches for 70 yards and the one score.

"It was good to have Oderick Turner join the team for the first time this spring,'' Wannstedt said. "I'm halfway kidding, but it was nice to have him show up and play like he's capable. That just reinforces to me that the receiver positions, we're going to be pretty good.''

Wannstedt was uncertain if Turner's improvement was a response to the previous practice when redshirt junior Marcel Pestano and sophomore T.J. Porter were rewarded for their solid play with some reps with the first-team in Turner's wideout spot. Pestano had five catches for 35 yards, while Porter had just two Saturday. However, on a slant route, he caught the pass just as fifth-year senior safety Mike Phillips crashed into him. Not only did Porter hold onto the ball, but he quickly got up and returned to the huddle.

"In my mind, both Marcel and T.J. Porter are playing like starters,'' Wannstedt said. "T.J. showed some toughness on that one play there. A year ago he doesn't make that play. He probably doesn't even try to make that play. Forget about dropping it. He probably doesn't dive for the ball.''

Sophomore tailback Kevin Collier had 60 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 15 carries, while Stephens-Howling added 27 on 12. Shane Brooks ran for 26 yards, and Smith had two on two scrambles. But he also tossed a blind pitch on the goal line that lost 19 yards.

Pitt practices late Tuesday and Thursday afternoon to get ready for the final scrimmage Saturday at 1 p.m. at Heinz Field.

Quick Slants

There were three injuries during the scrimmage. Fields got banged up on one play, but returned to the field. ... Redshirt sophomore center John Bachman got caught in a pileup and did not return, but it didn't appear that his rebuilt left ankle was re-injured. ... Senior TE Darrell Strong had another strong performance, three catches for 50 yards with a 38-yarder, but he injured his right shoulder and left the field in a sling. He won't return this spring, but Wannstedt said he should be fine for the fall.

"Darrell had a great spring, but it's nothing that will keep him out,'' Wannstedt said. "You'd like to have him one more week, but I think he's played tougher than he has in the past. I think he knows that with a good offseason, he can have a great senior year.''

Wannstedt also noted that sophomore OLB Dorin Dickerson (left ankle) could return to the field this week, while redshirt freshman MLB Greg Webster (Crohn's Disease) probably would not be back. ... Both place-kickers Conor Lee and Dan Hutchins nailed field goals. Lee's was from 38 yards, while Hutchins hit from close range. ... Sophomore CB Aaron Berry had some size problems in single pass coverage, but he displayed toughness throughout by making big hits in run support and on several open-field tackles.

"He's a good player, and I think we've got good competition in the secondary,'' Ball said. "That has created a higher level of play. We've got three good corners and three good safeties, which has elevated the play. They have really responded to the competition. Their intensity has been high. Coming out here and scrimmaging will only make them better.''

Quote-Unquote

Fifth-year senior Joe Clermond started all 12 games at one defensive end spot last fall, but he's taken his game to another level this spring.

"Joe's showing great leadership,'' Wannstedt said. "It's very obvious that he's not happy by what he did last year. He wants to be better, and he's working hard to get there.''

Redshirt sophomore Shane Murray continues to be impressive as a starter at weak-side linebacker for the Panthers after moving from safety.

"I knew Shane was a tough guy, or we wouldn't have moved him,'' Wannstedt said. "You don't have to be the biggest guy or the strongest guy to play in this scheme. If you're smart, and you can run ... he would be considered a fast linebacker and an average-speed safety. So, from a coaching standpoint, we have to utilize his talent to best help the team.''

Stull and Smith have waged a solid competition for the starting quarterback position this spring, and it will continue during summer camp.

"We still have a lot of things to work on,'' Stull said. "Even though it is the last week of spring ball, we still have a lot of packages to put in next week. And there's still a lot going on.

"I'm really looking forward to the summer, but we still have to take it one day at a time. And we have to try to learn something new every day. And the spring game, we'll see what happens there.''

Smith actually will miss the practices when spring workouts end.

"I'm just so focused on playing football right now, so I don't know what I'll do when this is over,'' Smith said. "Freshmen have to get up at like 5:30 every day to work out. I love working out, but it'll be nice to get a little break from that. That got to be a real grind after a while.

"I'll definitely miss practicing, though, even though we'll get right back at it after two weeks. We'll have some 7-on-7s and with Buddy, we'll have our hands full. He'll give us a lot to do. So, we'll be right back at it after a couple weeks, and that'll be good for us to get ready for training camp.''

Pitt opens the season against Eastern Michigan Sept. 1 at Heinz Field.


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