Sophomore Dom DeCicco, who played some last season and was a backup to fifth-year senior Eric Thatcher at free safety, opened the spring as the starting strong safety with Elijah Fields as the backup. As Pittsburgh completed its third practice with pads Tuesday, Fields got more time with the starters.
"It feels good to be going with the ones, taking reps there, and even going with the twos,'' Fields said. "Anything I can do to get back into it mentally, but it feels good. Me and Dom have a very good competition this spring.
Also, this gives me a big chance to get a starting spot so I can help the team out to have a better season this year. This time, I have a chance to play for a reason. I've got something to look forward to, so I want to do the right things to help my teammates out. That's the main thing.''
There was another change in the team portion at practice. Junior Robb Houser was the starting center, while redshirt junior John Bachman spent time at left guard. Bachman worked out with the centers during the individual session, but made the switch for the contact drills.
The only muffled center-quarterback exchange was by the third team with redshirt sophomore center Jared Martin and junior quarterback Greg Cross misconnecting on one occasion. Martin has never played center before moving there this spring, and Cross has taken limited snaps so far.
"John Bachman is too smart and too good an athlete not to be able to do it, so we've got to spend extra time,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "And he's got to do it. Robb Houser's doing an outstanding job, but we've got to get some competition there. And we don't have anyone else who has really played.''
Wannstedt also noted that with basically six former starters out after surgeries, that's better than 27 percent of the lineup out this spring. That group includes senior wideout Derek Kinder (knee), senior left guard C.J. Davis (hamstring), redshirt sophomore right tackle Jason Pinkston (shoulder), junior tight end Nate Byham (knee), redshirt junior tight end John Pelusi (shoulder) and redshirt junior defensive tackle Gus Mustakas (knee). Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Myles Caragein (right ankle sprain), the only spring injury, said his X-rays came back negative, and he hoped to return to practice before the Blue-Gold game.
"Nate's running now,'' Wannstedt said. "He'll be doing some running. He and Pelusi are doing outstanding. Kinder's getting better. All our surgery guys, they're all where they need to be. But they're not able to be out here full-speed with the pads on. So, it takes a little bit away. ... But they're coming along and should be ready to go 100 percent for training camp.''
With Mustakas out nearly all last season, redshirt junior Mick Williams and senior Rashaad Duncan stepped into starting roles and stepped up their games.
"Right now, we know Gus is a great player and a great person,'' Wannstedt said, "but the way Mick Williams is playing ... if I was going to give an MVP after two days of pads, I would give it to the Monessen Greyhound, Mick Williams. He's had an unbelievable spring practice thus far.''
Williams and Duncan have been a formidable duo so far in the spring, and the two penetrated into the backfield on several occasions during the 11-on-11 session. Williams even was especially tough to move during the inside running drills, although LeSean McCoy had a big run around the left end as well as a burst up the middle in the early going.
The big play of the practice was a long bomb from quarterback Bill Stull to redshirt junior Oderick Turner that covered 50 yards for the touchdown. Junior cornerback Jovani Chappel had excellent man coverage on Turner, but Stull put it out front where only Turner could get it, and the 6-foot-3, 200-pounder stretched out for the diving catch.
Big plays in the passing game weren't relegated to just Turner. Sophomore wideout Mo Williams made several spectacular catches. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Kevan Smith underthrew Williams on one play, but he adjusted and came back to make the catch along the left sideline. Williams also caught a rocket down the sideline from Bostick. He beat Ricky Gary for the score.
Junior wideout T.J. Porter also had a big run around the left end with a reverse for 20 yards. ... Smith fired downfield to redshirt sophomore tight end Tyler Tkach, but he and Fields deflected the ball downfield. Redshirt freshman wideout Aundre Wright maintained his post pattern and hauled it in for a touchdown. ... Cross had about a 20-yard run on a bootleg around the left end.
Pitt's defense has been gang-tackling, a trait that provided success last season, and that was clearly evident when quarterback Pat Bostick tossed a flair pass to redshirt freshman fullback Henry Hynoski. DeCicco, redshirt sophomore cornerback Ricky Gary and redshirt freshman outside linebacker Greg Williams converged on Hynoski in the flat to and combined to knock him out of bounds.
It rained heavily for a short time Tuesday, as practice was held outside for the first time this spring. The sun came out later to warm things up, but it remained windy throughout the practice.
Pitt continues spring drills Thursday at 2:45 p.m. at the UPMC Sports Complex.
Pitt Practice Report Five
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