Wannstedt On Big East Teleconference

After some three months, the Pitt football team takes a practice break this week, as the Panthers have a bye from their regular-season schedule.

The three-week training camp was among the most rugged ever for Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt, and then the Panthers went right into game-week preparation. That continued for eight straight weeks, but now the players and coaches can finally take a break.

"We have a bye week, so we'll get some rest,'' Wannstedt said Monday during the weekly Big East teleconference. "We probably have 8-10 players who are banged up and hurt a little bit. Also, we want to keep our momentum up, so we'll work three days this week and then take more time off before getting started on our work for Syracuse.''

Wannstedt noted that the Panthers went through conditioning work, primarily running, Sunday night after they watched the South Florida tape. They were off Monday, a normal off day, and return for practice Tuesday through Thursday.

"It will be split up where half the practice will be Pitt versus Pitt, full-speed against each other in certain situations,'' Wannstedt said. "Then, we'll take two segments and introduce Syracuse and start talking about those guys.

"We don't have a finalized game plan just yet, but we will start addressing some things that Syracuse does well and take advantage of the time to get some things cleaned up. Then, we'll take a couple days off and return Sunday to begin our regular game-week preparation for Syracuse.''

The coaching staff also hit the recruiting trail Monday with Wannstedt and assistant head coach-defensive line coach Greg Gattuso traversing through the WPIAL for a while.

"I think we've hit our fourth school at this point already (11:20 a.m. Monday),'' Wannstedt said. "Everybody's on the road today, and some of the coaches will be out tomorrow. But everybody will be back for practice (Tuesday afternoon) before going out on the road again Thursday night.''

One thing that might get some work this week is Pitt's special pass-defense package where redshirt junior safety Elijah Fields replaces redshirt sophomore strong-side linebacker Greg Williams, while redshirt freshman Jarred Holley taking Fields' spot in the secondary. Fields played the entire game against South Florida, and so did Holley with his third straight start.

"Elijah will be back at safety this week, and it'll be a week-to-week thing,'' Wannstedt said, referring to a decision to use Fields basically at a linebacker position. "But anytime we'll be facing 3-4 receivers, we'll try to get the best coverage people on the field as we can.

"And Elijah can cover for a big guy, he's as athletic as we've got, but he also is physical enough to come up and make tackles from the nickel linebacker position. So, to be honest with you, I could foresee us using that package as much as we need to in the next four weeks.''

With at least three spread teams among the remaining four on Pitt's schedule, there's a good chance the Panthers will use Fields in the coverage role for Williams. However, Wannstedt confirmed that when the base defense is used, Fields will be at safety, Williams will be the strong-side linebacker and Holley will be a backup at safety and play in passing situations.

Wannstedt believed that Pitt played its best game this past Saturday against South Florida when the Panthers scored on their first five possessions with three straight touchdown drives. But that's not enough for Wannstedt.

"You can always play better, but ... we definitely played better this past week than we've played all year and than we played the previous week,'' Wannstedt said. "However, there were several tackles that we missed. We gave up a long pass play. Two or three times we had quarterback sacks and didn't get them.

"(And) we did miss a couple throws. I could go through every position and point out several things, to show that we need to be a lot better in some specific areas. (But), yes, we improved. And we're better than the previous week, and that's what we're looking to do.''

Still, the bottom line is that Pitt still controls its own destiny, and with wins in the final four games the Panthers can capture the Big East title, the Conference BCS bowl bid and earn a top-10 national ranking.

"I think everybody was looking forward to the break when we turned them loose (Sunday),'' Wannstedt said. "We've got to get some academic stuff cleaned up this week and get some people healthy, and we've got to work on some of the things that we weren't good enough at this past week.

"But the process won't change. ... Our mindset and how we approach it won't change. Our senior leaders are well-grounded, and they haven't really gotten too high or too low this year, and I like that about our team.''

Finally, Wannstedt was asked if he thought freshman tailback Dion Lewis should be mentioned as a candidate for the Heisman trophy. Wannstedt responded with this comment:

"I think the numbers speak for themselves, and nobody's been more productive for their team than he's been,'' Wannstedt said. "And he's done it against good competition, but I've always been one to let the people voting, vote. All we can do is coach and let him play, and all that other stuff will take care of itself.''

For Wannstedt, Lewis and the Panthers, the trick now will be to keep it up.

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