Pitt Camp Position Battles

While there has been much focus on the quarterback position on the Pitt football team so far during training camp, there are a handful of other spots where jobs are open.

According to Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt, here are the top battles at the midpoint in camp where a starting position is up for grabs:

Left Offensive Guard Redshirt sophomore Chris Jacobson and senior Joe Thomas

"We've got real good competition going on at left guard,'' Wannstedt said. "Joe Thomas had a very good scrimmage. He's in a battle with Chris Jacobson, so that's a spot right now with a lot of competition.''

While Thomas is a three-year starter at both right guard and right tackle with 27 total in his career, scholastic All-American Jacobson has been running with the first team more often than not since camp began. What initially might have been looked at as a way to motivate Thomas, who has responded pretty well, Jacobson has continued to improve and has a good chance to stay there.

Free Safety Sophomore Andrew Taglianetti and redshirt junior Elijah Fields

"In the secondary, Elijah Fields has not been able to practice, so Andrew Taglianetti has been with the first team,'' Wannstedt said. "And every chance that he has to get on the field gives him an opportunity to better himself. So, we've got some competition going on at safety.''

Fields had a contusion on his right foot that swelled, so he has missed a couple practice days, including the scrimmage. He did individual work without pads Wednesday and then went in to rehab. Wannstedt believed he could return Thursday, but Taglianetti has been solid after being the surprise player from last season.

Taglianetti has a nose for the ball, and he's extremely heady. He also has a knack for blocking kicks on special teams. Fields has been an enigma since he arrived at Pitt. A supreme athlete, his football career has not blossomed due to off- as well as on-field issues. This was expected to be his season (again), but Taglinanetti has been the front-runner at free safety so far. Both could play, though, as the Panthers like to use five- and six-DB packages.

Field-goal kicker Redshirt freshman Kevin Harper and redshirt junior Dan Hutchins

"Both kickers kicked well (Tuesday),'' Wannstedt said. "That's a good thing. We're trying to put those guys into as many pressure situations as we can. That's why we kicked them during the scrimmage.''

Both have had solid camps, and they made one field goal and one extra point each during the scrimmage. Hutchins hit a 30-yarder, while Harper made one from 36 yards. Hutchins already has secured Pitt's starting punting job, and had a couple nice punts to pin the offense inside the 10 in the scrimmage, but the coaches would rather have Harper win the FG duties to keep them separate. Harper also is battling incumbent kickoff specialist Lucas Briggs.

Running back Freshmen Dion Lewis and Ray Graham, redshirt freshman Chris Burns and redshirt sophomore Shariff Harris

Wannstedt noted that Lewis was the most consistent after watching the scrimmage and after breaking down the video from it his opinion didn't change. Wannstedt liked what Lewis did in his reads and blocking, as well as running.

Burns has played better lately, but he hasn't flashed much. Harris has had limited opportunities and missed the scrimmage due to an injury. He returned to practice Wednesday and got a few more reps to get back into it. Graham could be the most exciting of the group, and he has picked up the pace the past few days since Pitt went to full pads. However, he also has fumbled now five times, adding another miscue during Wednesday's practice to his list. So, for now, Lewis is clearly running ahead of the back in this group.

Wannstedt also pointed out that just because a starting position isn't open, that doesn't mean there isn't heavy competition for backup roles. Players like redshirt freshmen Jarred Holley in the secondary and Manny Williams at outside linebacker are two examples.

"Jarred Holley is playing extremely well,'' Wannstedt said. "We're playing him at corner and safety. He's got a real feel for making plays. He's going to be a heckuva player for us, but he's working in some of our Bandit packages to try to get him on the field. But Aaron Berry and Jovani Chappel aren't just competing. They're making things happen.

"And at weak-side linebacker, Max Gruder has come along but he's a little inconsistent right now. Shane Murray has the most experience there, and Manny Williams might be the best athlete of the group. He's really come on since last year when he basically was battling back from knee surgery.''

Also at running back, Jason Douglas will get a look. His speed and elusiveness will be difficult to keep off the field. He was carried off the field late in the scrimmage, but Wannstedt said he should be OK. Redshirt sophomore Tristan Roberts, who made some plays in the scrimmage (his best performance since he arrive, according to defensive coordinator Phil Bennett), is trailing the group. He suffered a left shoulder injury Wednesday, so his status is unknown.

If something happens to either left tackle Jason Pinkston or right tackle Lucas Nix, redshirt sophomore Greg Gaskins or Thomas are the likely replacements. Gaskins is still a little raw, but his athleticism has him ahead of some others.

Wannstedt also gave unsolicited comments on several others:

"Dom DeCicco is a different player,''Wannstedt said. "This guy has really come on and made strides. From this time last year to where he is now, he's become one of our defensive leaders. He's running the show back there. So, I'm very pleased with his progress.''

"Gus Mustakas, he's back, I think, to where he was two years ago before the knee surgery,'' Wannstedt said. "I think last year, we got him through after the knee surgery, but he's had a full season to rehab. And I'm very pleased with where he's at.''

"From an offensive standpoint, Jason Pinkston showed up and played well,'' Wannstedt said. "He graded out very well. He's getting back into shape and getting to where he was before the (shoulder) injury last year. So, that was very encouraging to see.''

Pitt has two practices Thursday and one Friday before the Saturday scrimmage from 10:15 to noon.

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