On Thursday afternoon at Pittsburgh's South Side practice facility, the Panther receivers continued to improve. Early on in the session, redshirt sophomore-to-be Kevan Smith unloaded a bomb, connecting with Mo Williams down the right sideline for what may have been Pitt's longest passing play of spring practice.
The offensive line protected Smith just long enough, giving him time to step up in the pocket and deliver a strong throw right on target. Smith, now taking increased reps with the second team offense, was accurate throughout the practice, but was then intercepted late by linebacker Tristan Roberts in the middle of the field.
Wannstedt said making those plays down the field will be critical to the team's success on the offensive side once the season begins.
"I think were going to have to make some plays down the field if we're going to score enough points to beat most teams we play," Wannstedt said. "It's something that we're working on, and I like the competition that we have there. We've got four or five guys that are competing for a couple [wide receiver] spots. I think maybe they're pressing a little bit."
Cedric McGee has emerged as one of the top targets for all the quarterbacks the past couple weeks, and he continued to play well on Thursday. McGee caught balls at the sideline, in the middle and out of the backfield. With a few minutes left in practice during the 11-on-11 drills, McGee caught a pass from Bill Stull on a screen and broke through the secondary to score.
"He's running well, his intensity is outstanding," receivers coach Bryan Bossard said. "I'm excited about where he is."
But Bossard said while he is happy with the direction the receivers are heading, he doesn't see them as a non-stop deep-ball threat – at least not yet.
"You've got to have a guy that can stretch the field," Bossard said. "We have very good receivers but we don't have any burners. I think we can get on top of guys [in different situations], but as far as running past people every snap, that's not our DNA."
Something that could take the pressure off the receivers and quarterbacks and bring the safeties and linebackers in is a solid running game – something Pitt displayed last year and has continued to do well this spring.
Tailbacks LeSean McCoy and LaRod Stephens-Howling had good practices, finding holes and catching balls out of the backfield. Although it wasn't on a consistent basis, more holes opened up at the line of scrimmage, giving some extra running room for the players in the backfield.
If McCoy and Stephens-Howling can build on that success during the season, the passing game could really open up.
Malecki, who played the past two years on the interior defensive line, is transitioning to guard this spring to add depth to the offensive line.
"I thought he took a big step forward on Tuesday," Wannstedt said of Malecki. "John is one of the smarter players on our team. The learning part is coming quicker than most. The first two weeks he was out here just trying to out-effort guys, he really wasn't sure of his steps or where to put his hands. I think [now] it's starting to come together for him."
Wannstedt added that although he's happy with what Houser has done at the center position, he's still not comfortable with a backup center. He said he'd continue to experiment with different players and find someone who fits in well.
"I'm not sure [who it will be]," he said. "We'll see how it unfolds."
Pitt resumes practice tomorrow and then scrimmages again on Saturday.