Thursday's Spring Practice

While Pitt football coach Dave Wannstedt would like his team to play at a high level every practice, that's not always the case.

That's especially true in the spring when there is no anticipation for an upcoming game, so Wannstedt and the Pittsburgh coaches had to deal with a less than stellar effort from the team earlier this week.

The Panthers picked up the intensity a bit Thursday, but that previous performance was not lost on Wannstedt.

"They were progressing, but the (Tuesday) practice was the first one we had that was really not up to the standard that we expect from an energy standpoint and a performance standpoint,'' Wannstedt said. "This is a critical time for us that we don't fall into that (situation where) we're just out here practicing because we're halfway through spring ball.

"It's important every day that we renew our minds and we get focused and understand what we're trying to get done here every day. So, we had a good meeting on the front end of practice (Thursday) and talked about those things. And this is where the leadership comes in.''

Wannstedt noted that players like John Malecki and Adam Gunn, among others, are gone. And a new set of leaders must take charge of the team and pull it through, especially during tough times like this.

"This is a new team with new leaders, and we'll find out who's going to step up and take control of this,'' Wannstedt said, also noting that the Panthers could be looking ahead to Saturday's scrimmage. "(And) that's no excuse. We don't open up the season Saturday.''

Pitt will attempt to conduct a full-contact scrimmage Saturday with at least 80 plays (and maybe more) with the first-, second- and third-team units clearly defined. The Panthers also will work extensively on their return game.

"That's an area we can get a lot better at,'' Wannstedt said. "One area where we did improve last year was that we protected the ball in our return game.

"Now, we need to take the next step and become the best return team. That has as much to do with the blocking up front as it does with the returners. So, it's a point of emphasis, and we are spending time with it in this camp.''

Wannstedt noted that while Cam Saddler, Aaron Smith and Aundre Wright are Pitt's most-experienced returners, the field is wide-open for punt- and kickoff-return specialists. He said that Jason Douglas and Ray Graham have been worked out with both return teams, while receivers Devin Street and Ed Tinker also are in the mix.

"It's an open competition right now, and we won't make that decision until about a week before the season-opener,'' Wannstedt said.

While there have been additions to the offensive and defensive formations, Pitt's overall goals have not changed from the outset.

"We try to always go out every day and try to improve our fundamentals,'' Wannstedt said. "I always believed that in training camp, you're counting down to the season, so the spring is the only time when you're not worried about a game. And that gives you an opportunity to make fundamentals, blocking and tackling, an emphasis.''

The biggest hit at Thursday's practice was an open-field shot on Douglas by middle linebacker Shane Gordon. Douglas took a dump-off from quarterback Pat Bostick in the flat and appeared ready to break into the open field when Gordon closed and nailed him for a short gain.

The top offensive players were turned in by running back Dion Lewis, who has turned in on the past few practices. On one play, Lewis ran a sweep right and cut back toward midfield after he got around the end. Cornerback Antwuan Reed appeared to have an angle, but one quick juke had Reed grabbling at the air and Lewis turning a two-yard gain into a 20-yard gallop.

Another offensive player making more plays lately is fifth-year senior wideout Greg Cross. Sure, his catches are not as acrobatic as Jon Baldwin's and far downfield as Devin Street's or as dynamic as Saddler's. However, Cross has been solid with precise routes and good hands, and that's what it takes to move the sticks.

Bostick and fellow signal-caller Tino Sunseri both were fairly sharp Thursday, but they weren't really pressured a lot since there is a scrimmage Saturday. It isn't known if they'll be live during it, with the defense allowed to put them on the ground, but they certainly will be pressured more often.

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