Pitt Special Teams Could Be The Difference

When assistant Charlie Partridge left the Pitt football program for Wisconsin, fourth-year head coach Dave Wannstedt took over the Panthers' special teams.

As No. 18 Pittsburgh (9-3) prepares for its final few practice sessions prior to facing No. 24 Oregon State (8-4) in the 75th Sun Bowl Wednesday at 2 p.m. in El Paso, Texas, the Panthers are much better for the move.

Sure, Pitt's punt returners average just eight yards on 26 returns and starter Aaron Berry eventually was replaced by T.J. Porter, but the opposition has just a 5.5-yard average on 18 run-backs. And on 52 kickoff returns, the Panthers average 20.4 yards per return, while the opposition is at 18.7. Unfortunately, Pitt allowed one touchdown on each unit, but didn't have any of its own.

"When I initially came here (in Dec., 2004), we didn't have a special teams coordinator,'' Wannstedt said. "I appointed Charlie Partridge, who did a great job, but the foundation for what we were doing was most of the stuff we were doing at the Dolphins. We try to carry over that philosophy.

"Last year at this time, we had nine coaches all equally as valuable, but when you lose your defensive coordinator, an offensive line coach, a special teams coordinator, Charlie did all that. And we lost obviously our receiver and secondary coach, so we lost five coaches.''

That meant Pitt's coaching staff basically was overhauled, so to minimize the changes needed as much as possible Wannstedt decided to handle special teams himself. And he instituted the spread kick on punts that has enhanced the coverage, as well as giving freshman Andrew Taglianetti a scholarship and starting him on special teams.

"Special teams, that's something that I've been doing since I started playing football, and I really like it,'' Taglianetti said. "I got to be pretty good at it in high school, covering kicks and blocking them, and I'm glad that I'm able to do it at Pitt. It's just another way for me to get on the field and help this team.''

Taglianetti is among the leaders for Pitt's block part this season. The Panthers have blocked a school-record and NCAA-best 10 blocks in 12 games. Punt-blocking is his speciality. Taglianetti has three of Pitt's four punt blocks, while walk-on Michael Toerper has the other.

The Panthers have stuffed three extra points, all by redshirt sophomore Greg Romeus, while junior Tommie Duhart, Berry and redshirt freshman Greg Williams blocked field goals. Pitt's previous record was eight blocks in 1987. Kansas is second nationally with nine blocks this season.

"You've got to have the players,'' Wannstedt said. "We changed up the schemes and did different things, but you've got to have players that can do that. And to block a kick, that's just amazing.''

Wannstedt recalled his time as a defensive coordinator for Jimmy Johnson at Miami, and Benny Blades -- former Pitt player H.B. Blades' father -- seemed to break free nearly every kick. But he rarely blocked one. Wannstedt decided to begin closely videotaping the special teams and made several determinations.

"We discovered that some guys close their eyes, and some guys have a knack for getting their hand on the ball, and some guys don't,'' Wannstedt said. "So, I think it's a combination of having the ability to get there and at the same time, you have to know what to do.''

Wannstedt also looked back to his days as defensive coordinator with the Dallas Cowboys, and in his first season there he coached Ed "Too Tall'' Jones. The 6-foot-9 defensive end could swat a quarterback's passing attempts with relative ease, but he believed it wasn't just because he was so tall.

"You see these guys rushing, and the quarterback is standing there throwing the ball, and they're putting their hands up,'' Wannstedt said. "(But) it's no different than playing volleyball. All Jones said he was doing was blocking the shot every time. So there was a technique to what he did, and I think that same thing carries over to blocking field goals.

"We spent a lot of time on where we're going to be positioned in addition to having the Romeuses (and) the guys that can get up and block it. We spend an awful lot of time on teaching the details of how much push to get, what angle we need to be at, to be in the best position to block it. And it's the same thing as blocking punts.''

And the best way to do that, Wannstedt believed, was try to take the ball right off the punter's foot. And Taglianetti does that better than anyone.

Notes: Pitt punter Dave Brytus was believed to be the only player to play in two Sun Bowls for two different teams, including this season and his freshman year in 2004 at Purdue, it's now been determined that is not the case. ... Donald Brown played for Oklahoma in the 1981 Sun Bowl and Maryland in the 1984 Sun Bowl. ... So, Brytus would be the first starter to play in the Sun Bowl for two different teams, if punters technically are considered to be starters.

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