Spring Notebook: Mustakas Draws Praise

PITTSBURGH -- While most followers of the University of Pittsburgh's football team believed that it was only a matter of time before sophomore Elijah Fields takes over for fifth-year senior Mike Phillips at one safety spot in the secondary, the upperclassman decided to make a statement.

After slowly working his way back into playing shape this spring, Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt believed that Mike Phillips "probably had as good a day Saturday (in an intrasquad scrimmage) as he had in two years.'' Phillips broke an ankle two years ago and recently said he wasn't completely recovered last season despite playing in all 12 games and starting five.

"He looked kind of like his old self,'' Wannstedt added. "He moved around, and he made some plays in the open field. We just have to be optimistic that his health is getting back to where it was.''

Wannstedt also reiterated that Scott McKillop has played much better than the head coach hoped he would play after taking over for H.B. Blades this spring. The redshirt junior has played in all 23 games during Wannstedt's tenure the past two seasons as the backup to Blades, but he has no starts.

"He's going to be able to handle and do everything that's required of him at the middle linebacker spot,'' Wannstedt said, "and that's the one linebacker spot that right now I would say we've got one starter for sure.''

If that's true, the outside spots are wide open and up for grabs between redshirt junior Adam Gunn, redshirt sophomore Shane Murray, sophomore Dorin Dickerson and redshirt freshman Nate Nix. Gunn and Nix have been competing for the strong-side position, while Murray has secured the weak-side spot with Dickerson out with a foot injury. Gunn and Nix; strong-side linebacker; hasn't been solidified;

"Nate Nix has made a lot of progress,'' Wannstedt said. "From where he started to where he's at right now, he's beginning to kind of look like a linebacker. The scheme's real different here. In high school, he played on the line and did a lot of blitzing. And our linebackers obviously play off the line and run to the ball. So, it's been different for Nate, but he's done a good job.

"It's just a learning process. He's a great example for what happens to a guy who comes in as a freshman, and all he does is run the scout team. ... It's difficult to be a redshirt freshman on the scout team and not get coached one-on-one every day. It's tough to make progress. So, that's why any bowl-game practice and spring practice is so important for those kids.''

Nix has bulked up to 220 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame, so he's physically able to handle the rigors of playing strong-side linebacker. He just needs more practice reps to get accustomed to the position.

Wannstedt predicted that there would be good competition at all the linebacker spots when summer camp rolls around, especially if redshirt freshmen Greg Webster (Crohn's Disease) and Dan Loheyde (knee surgery) are completely healthy. The head coach also said that linebacker probably is a position where some incoming freshmen will have a chance to compete and maybe get some playing time on special teams.

Wannstedt also believed that redshirt junior Marcel Pestano and redshirt sophomore Oderick Turner were battling for a starting wideout spot opposite senior Derek Kinder with sophomore T.J. Porter closing in on them as well. Turner and Kinder were the starters last fall.

"And from a corner position, Aaron Berry has made enough progress and has done enough good things to be real close to feeling good about being a starter at one of (those) spots,'' Wannstedt said. "He's got great quickness and great speed and great ball skills.

"He's just going to be a sophomore, but he has a chance to be a really good player. If he can keep working hard and keep his attitude right, he has a chance to be a very good player for us.''

On the offensive line, Wannstedt singled out senior left tackle Jeff Otah as the best among the five positions. Otah has continually showed improvement and had an excellent scrimmage this past Saturday.

Wannstedt again lamented Pitt's inability to run the ball consistently in scrimmage situations, but also acknowledged that the defensive line's strong play has had a lot to do with that. And junior defensive tackle Gus Mustakas is getting close to being a dominant player up front, Wannstedt said.

"I realize that we probably won't throw for 300 yards a game, but the biggest thing that we need from our quarterbacks is efficiency,'' Wannstedt noted. "If somebody's open, we've got to hit him. We can't miss the easy throws, and I thought that both quarterbacks had a few more opportunities to make some plays that didn't happen Saturday.''

On the injury front, senior tight end Darrell Strong saw a promising spring come to a premature end when he banged up his right shoulder Saturday. Wannstedt believed it was a two-week injury and said the player's worst nightmare would occur when he reports back to the team with strength and conditioning coach Buddy Morris for rehabilitation.

Also, redshirt sophomore center John Bachman is out this week after twisting his right knee when another player landed on it in a pileup. The Panthers are optimistic that Bachman can return for the annual Blue-Gold game Saturday at 1 p.m. at Heinz Field.

Finally, Dickerson took off the boot that kept him on the sideline the past few weeks and ran around a bit Tuesday, as Pitt practiced outside despite a stiff breeze and chill in the air. Dickerson even got in on a few plays, but he didn't participate in any contact drills.

"It's great to get outside,'' Wannstedt said. "I want to hear somebody ask me why we're outside. ... I'm kind of in the mood to hear that, but we're going to try to get outside these last two afternoon practices.''

The only player who noticeably complained after practice Tuesday was fullback Conredge Collins. The junior is a Miami native, so 40-some degrees in April likely is a bit colder than he's used to.


Collins also provided the biggest hit during the 11-on-11 session, and it ended contact drills for the day. The 6-foot, 230-pound fullback pounded through a hole up the middle, among the best plays by the offense, and lowered his shoulder as Phillips lowered his to make the tackle.

Phillips got the worst of that matchup and wobbled off the field. He appeared to suffer a shoulder injury, but his status wasn't known after practice. The remaining 11-on-11 plays were non-contact.

Still, Pitt's defense dominated, which led to the offensive players ending practice with a series of up-downs for their trouble.

Quick Slants

There were several interceptions by the defense. Berry had an easy one thrown right to him by Bill Stull. ... Berry and fellow cornerback Jovani Chappel, nailing tailback Kevin Collier, had the two best hits by a defensive player. ... DT Derrell Jones caved in the second-team offensive line that sorely missed Bachman at center and picked off a pass. ... Craig Bokor, who moved back to defense for the past two weeks, also broke free and sacked Kevan Smith. ... Murray and Eric Thatcher, from his safety spot, both pressured the quarterback on two different plays to force fumbles, as the line had a tough afternoon. ... Frosh CB Aaron Smith dove to knock down a pass intended for TE Nate Byham. ... Stull later hooked up with Byham for the biggest pass play of the day. ... Turner beat CB Kennard Cox on a nice inside route, but lost the ball after making the catch. Scott McKillop and Cox combined to force the fumble.


The defense is still far ahead of the offense for the Panthers this spring. ... The offensive line, despite strong play from tackles Otah and sophomore Jason Pinkston at times, is still the team's weakest link. There still is limited to no depth. ... Berry and Chappel will play a lot in the secondary with one starting and the other a nickel back. But their size, or lack of it, could be a problem. That's why Cox (6-1, 195) will play even though the other two are faster and better cover corners. ... Cox makes up for his limited ball skills with sure tackling, while the others go for big hits. ... On the D-line, Mustakas already is a force in practice and should be a Big East all-star undoubtedly this season. If the team is successful, he could garner national attention as well. ... If whomever wins the starting quarterback job can manage the games, not turn the ball over too often, the offense will be all right. If the O-line stays healthy, it should improve. The running backs are solid, and the tight ends and wideouts are good. ... With two practices left, including the spring game, Pitt's goal should be to not get any more players injured. Then, get back in the weight room and let Morris work them over. That will benefit them as much as anything going into summer camp.

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