Pitt Practice Report 13

With just two practices left before Saturday's Blue and Gold game, Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said his team couldn't waste a moment on the field and had to focus hard on improving. And after struggling with the run during last Saturday's scrimmage, one of Pitt's major focuses was on the backfield.

"We just didn't make enough plays running the football to get ourselves out of long-yardage situations," Wannstedt said of the scrimmage. "Our run game is a major emphasis this week on offense."

With the running game under a microscope, tailback LaRod Stephens-Howling had one of the better practices of the spring.

Stephens-Howling, who rushed seven times for just two yards in Saturday's scrimmage, ran hard and made several nice catches out of the backfield.

During the 11-on-11 drills, he caught a short pass, wrestled away from linebacker Brandon Lindsey, then broke through the secondary and up the left side of the field for what would could have been a touchdown had the play not been blown dead. On the next play, Stephens-Howling again broke free, this time taking the ball up the right side.

But with Stephens-Howling and LeSean McCoy taking most of the reps at tailback, a competition for a spot as third-team back has quietly emerged the past few weeks.

Wannstedt said redshirt freshman Shariff Harris and redshirt sophomore Kevin Collier are battling for the spot.

"[He's] a very tough inside runner," said Wannstedt of Harris. "He's probably a little faster than what people give him credit for [and] he's having a very nice spring. We obviously know Shady and LaRod [as the top-two backs]. I know we have a serious battle going on for that third running back spot. He's definitely challenging Kevin Collier."

On Tuesday, neither Harris nor Collier took a lot of carries. With McCoy and Stephens-Howling getting most of the attention, the reps for the other running backs were down. But it was Harris who led Pitt on the ground during Saturday's scrimmage, rushing seven times for 29 yards. And whoever wins that third running back spot will likely get a decent amount of reps in the fall.

Another battle still going on is between the quarterbacks. Right now, there are still four players in the running.

"I'm not concerned about [picking the quarterback]," Wannstedt said. "The biggest concern is trying to be fair and get them all enough work. The first week we highlighted Billy Stull and [Pat] Bostick. Last week we gave Kevan Smith and Greg Cross some more work. I think we're all getting a better understanding of what each one of these kids can do."

But Wannstedt said while he's not yet worried about picking a quarterback, he and the coaching staff will have to narrow the race down to two by the time summer camp starts.

"Sooner or later, once we get into training camp, we're going to have to work two quarterbacks and the other two guys are going to get reps whenever they can," Wannstedt said. "We can't get ready for Bowling Green working four quarterbacks like we're doing now."

Cross is one of those players still fighting hard for a spot. The most mobile of the quarterbacks, Cross had a solid scrimmage on Saturday, completing 3 of 6 passes for 50 yards and a touchdown.

Wannstedt said Cross could give Pitt a chance to have success in the Wildcat formation, which the team tried last year but didn't run with great success.

"We're still evaluating [Cross] does best," Wannstedt said. "[But] the thing that ran us out of wildcat last year was after a couple of weeks when [opposing teams] knew we were incapable of throwing the ball. Greg gives us the opportunity to run it and throw it."

Cross was limited in practice today, with Stull, Bostick and Smith taking most of the reps. Stull had a solid day, connecting on a beautiful play early on to Dorin Dickerson on the right side of the field.

After completing his first pass to tight end Tyler Tkach, Stull dropped back, stepped up in the pocked and floated a pass over Dom DeCicco's outstretched arm, hitting Dickerson on the run for a gain of about 25 yards.

But after some success early, the Panther defense tightened up.

On one play, Buddy Jackson, in coverage of Aaron Smith, sniffed out a short route and laid a punishing hit on Tkach, forcing the incompletion.

Before practice, Wannstedt also addressed the issue at safety. Sherod Murdock was suspended over the weekend, bringing the depth at safety down a bit. Wannstedt declined to comment on the suspension specifically, but still spoke about the position itself.

"We moved Murdock there in the beginning to try to give us a little bit of depth," he said. "We'll see what happens there. Right now we feel like we've got three safeties that we can play with. A year ago, we had two. So we're better right now than what we have been in the past. I know that."

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