Can Berry Break One?

Pitt junior Aaron Berry is rated among the top cornerbacks in the Big East, solid in coverage, a sure tackler and strong in run support.

His rating as a punt-returner, not so much. Aaron Berry averages 3.9 yards per punt return through three games this season for Pittsburgh (2-1), with a long runback for 12 yards among his seven returns and the appearance that he's not really close to breaking one anytime soon. Berry remains hopeful.

"We're really still settling in as a unit, and I'm just working hard on catching the ball,'' Berry said. "And my teammates are working hard to try to give me a chance to return a punt. So, hopefully, we'll be able to break one soon and get a little more yardage.

"Coach Wannstedt's doing a good job putting people in the right places, but we just haven't been able to break one loose yet. Against Iowa, you can't really blame it on not blocking the flyers, because their punter really was putting them up there (with good hang time). He forced me to fair catch a lot of them.''

Punt-returning might appear to be easy to some, but Berry respectfully disagreed and asked the fans to hang in there.

"I really believe we just have to stay patient, and I have to concentrate on catching the ball first,'' Berry said. "That way, I won't drop one like I did (against Iowa). So, I just have to stay focused and be patient.

"I don't think anybody's getting frustrated about it. It's just going to take time. We have a new special teams coach and mostly new players, so it's going to take more than a couple games. It's not that easy to do, you know.

"Hopefully, time will be on our side,'' Berry added. "It's pretty difficult looking up into the sun, finding the ball and catching it while the other team is bearing down on you. You have to check that out, too, so you have to stay focused. And it's definitely pretty hard to do, so I'm just going to keep working at it.''

Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt is the special teams coordinator this year, and linebackers coach Joe Tumpkin also works with the punt-returners. All those involved believe that Berry and the return unit are close to breaking loose like it did last season when Berry's 53-yard runback against Syracuse set up a LeSean McCoy touchdown. He believed the same could happen again this season, as Pitt visits the Orange Saturday at noon at the Carrier Dome.

But some improvements have to occur first, according to Wannstedt.

"We have to do a better job, we have to work on holding people up better,'' Wannstedt said. "Aaron Berry really hasn't had much of a chance. It's not like he's catching the ball and has nothing but field in front of him. He has people coming at him too fast, so we have to work on our hold-ups.''

Berry exonerated that aspect of the return game, however, noting that the Iowa punter had a lot to do with Pitt's failings. His hang time was spectacular on several occasions. Wannstedt agreed and added that the Panthers also had blocks called several times to throw him off, and that doesn't aid a returner.

"We called blocks three times on their (eight) punts, and that's a lot,'' Wannstedt said. "Generally, one a game is a lot. ... On two of those, the guy hit a short kick. And on the other, we got it. Andrew Taglianetti partially blocked it. So, we at least got hurries when we didn't block it, and that's good.

"That's like it is with a quarterback. From watching the tape on them, when teams pressured them, their center wasn't as exact on getting the ball back to the punter. So, we pressured for that reason. The center has to block somebody in their scheme, so that makes it more difficult on him.''

Wannstedt also noted that Pitt's specialists, punter Dave Brytus and place-kicker Conor Lee are having solid seasons so far, and the kickoffs with Lucas Briggs are better than ever during his tenure. Kickoff returners Aundre Wright and LaRod Stephens-Howling appear to be close to breaking off a long run. The coverage units also were better than previous seasons.

And the punt-return game, well, Wannstedt's comments were predictable.

"To me the most important thing is having somebody back there to field the ball,'' Wannstedt said. "That's the No. 1 thing, to catch the ball. There might be a lot of guys who are faster than Aaron or maybe do more things with the ball in their hands, but LaRod Stephens can't catch punts.

"I'd love to have LaRod back there, but he's never returned punts. That's the other side of the coin. And Aaron can catch the ball better than anyone.''

And he's an emerging star in the secondary for the Panthers.

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