Pitt Football Notebook: Scrimmage 2
By: Andrew Stern
The Panthers held their seventh practice of the spring this morning. The practice started with individual drills, and then moved into a situational 3rd down drill (3rd and goal, 3rd and six, etc), before concluding with a scrimmage.
The media was able to see the first two portions of Saturday’s festivities, but not the scrimmage.
Despite not seeing any of the scrimmage, a couple of things stood out from the media sessions with Rob Harley, Pat Narduzzi, Rori Blair, and Chad Voytik.
By all accounts the defense was the better unit today. Pitt OC Jim Chaney even went as far as to say the defense “thumped” the offense, and that his unit “was a little bitt off.” If true, that’s certainly a change of pace, because the offense led by Chad Voytik has been the better unit so far.
Chaney also noted that the defense played with more energy than the offense did, and that the offense had too many negative plays, forcing them into long yardage situations.
Despite having a few good plays, Chaney felt the offense was unable to build up momentum, and didn’t have the proper attitude or enthusiasm.
Voytik despite struggling noted that while the offense didn’t move the ball, he feels the team will be able to learn from its mistakes today.
Third WR Battle:
It seems more and more likely that rising sophomore Zach Challingsworth will be the third wide receiver this fall. While it’s only late march, and a few recruits (Tipton, Henderson, Ivory, etc.) may make a move for it, by all accounts Zach has had an excellent spring.
During this morning’s final media period, we saw the South Fayette product make a beautiful catch on a 25-yard fade from incumbent starter Chad Voytik.
Freshman Elijah Zeise has also been mentioned a fair amount by the coaching staff. Today in the short time we were able to watch the scrimmage Zeise equated himself very well.
The former North Alleghany standout had two catches in three drives, including a six-yard td reception. The pass was a bullet thrown by 6-6 rising sophomore Adam Bertke.
The third competitor for the third receiver spot is Wisconsin native and former track star Jester Weah. Weah had an okay day from what the coaches have reported, with Narduzzi adding that at times Weah can make spectacular plays, but he still struggles with his consistency.
All Down Player:
James Conner clearly had a phenomenal year. The rising junior’s stats from the past year are well known. With that being said, there were two things that Conner didn’t do a lot last season.
The first is catching the ball out of the backfield. Conner had just five receptions all season, one of which went for 40 yards. The second is pass protection/blocking. Conner was subbed out a fair amount on obvious passing situations, in favor of strong blocker Isaac Bennett.
When asked about both of the things listed above, Chaney certainly had a lot to say. More specifically, when he was asked about the latter (pass protection), the offensive coordinator said that Conner not pass protecting was “one of Paul’s [Chryst] philosophies” and that he anticipates Conner staying on the field more on third down.
Movement along the chart:
There’s been a lot of talk the past few days about some depth chart re-shuffling. Former running back Jameel Poteat has moved from running back to linebacker, and seems to be excelling at his new position. Another former running back has also flipped to the defensive side of the ball.
Former Shady Side Academy standout Dennis Briggs is now listed as a defensive back. Narduzzi wasn’t shy about praising the former running back, saying that Briggs has “that wow factor.”
Both Narduzzi and coach Rob Harley noted that the depth chart is fluid, and changes practically daily. Harley took it a step further, saying that he calls practice “the Wild, Wild West” and that Pitt will field the best 11 players regardless of position.
High Energy, High Intensity:
Neither the players nor coaches have been timid about the expectations. This new regime demands focus, energy, and intensity- and by all accounts they’re getting all of those things pretty consistently.
Narduzzi today said that he was extremely pleased with the energy level, noting that there was a “buzz” among the players when they walked in early this morning.
During the opening portion of the drills, I was watching the d-line and coach Simms. The former Panthers was extremely hands on, imploring his guys to run the drills at game speed. The coach was also stressing the importance of getting your mind emotionally ready to play.
Despite only being a scrimmage, and not counting for much, the coaches treated today almost like a game.
Chris Blewitt had a nice day today. In the opening drills, the offense ran a third down situation drill, and was forced to kick four or five field goals. By my unofficial count, Blewitt made all four field goals, including one from 42 yards out. All of the kicks were pretty well struck.
Early Enrollee Standing Out:
True freshman Malik Henderson has been very impressive throughout the spring. The Florida native, committed to Pitt back in June of last year, and despite the coaching change decided to honor his commitment and enroll early.
The decision to enroll early seems to be paying off for Henderson. By enrolling early, Henderson has been able to compete in all of the Panthers spring workouts. Narduzzi noted that usually freshman start out strong, and decrease in productivity the more they learn. Henderson appears to be an exception, as he has been able to keep his play at a high level through the spring
It seems like former Wisconsin transfer Reggie Mitchell has secured one of the two safety spots in Pitts’ base defense. After moving from safety to corner last season, Mitchell is back at his natural safety spot.
The second safety spot is going to be an interesting battle. Last season one of the Panther’s most productive players was senior captain Ray Vinopal. Well Vinopal has graduated, leaving a hole in the secondary.
Coming into camp it was believed to be Patrick Amara’s job to lose. However, Amara has had an up and down spring opening the door for Lafayette Pitts’ cousin Jevonte. Jevonte played exclusively on special teams last season, appearing in 10 games. Despite not having the experience Amara has, Pitts is supposedly a really hard hitter. The coaching staff has noted that every guy had a clean slate coming into spring ball, and so far that looks to be true.
Rising sophomore Rori Blair is trying to get bigger as he looks to transfer into being a “three down” player from the traditional “five technique”. The Upper St. Clair product is currently listed at 230 pounds. That weight is a bit light for a defensive end, and Blair said he is looking to gain about 10 pounds. When asked how he is trying to gain weight, he mentioned eating more protein like chicken and steak, grains like rice, and more Chipotle.
Despite the lack of weight, Blair isn’t worried about playing small, because he has always played small. Blair is quick enough, and athletic enough to elude bulkier and slower linemen, despite giving up 50 to 80 pounds. Blair has been matched up with 335-pound tackle Jaryd Jones-Smith during spring ball.
Here Comes Caprara?
Rising junior Mike Caprara hasn’t seen the field much in his time at Pitt. Last season, Caprara had just five tackles (all against FCS opponent Delaware). Despite not having the experience of guys like Bam Bradley and Matt Galambos it seems Caprara may be playing himself into a job.
Linebackers coach Rob Harley and head coach Pat Narduzzi both noted that Caprara could play outside or at the “mike” linebacker spot, due to his speed and intelligence. Harley further noted that while someone like Bradley hasn’t necessarily regressed, other guys like Caprara have stepped up trying to win a spot. Harley said Caprara is “in the mix” for a starting spot in the fall.
As I have said before, the scrimmage (minus the first 10 minute period) was closed to the media. As a result, a bunch of guys were asked about some highlights.
While mum was the word amongst the players, head coach Pat Narduzzi was a little bit more forthcoming. The coach mentioned the defensive line, and in particular the way the team stopped the run.
This is of course note worthy, because the defense was matched up with ACC Player of the Year James Conner. Narduzzi did note that he felt Conner didn’t receive as many touches as he would have liked.
Outside of the defensive plays, the coach noted the Challingsworth touchdown that I mentioned above, and a few “circus” catches by Boyd.
Finally, Phillipie Motley had a really nice “pick-six” at the end of the opening drills. The ball was a decent throw by Bertke, but Motley tracked the ball the entire way, and under cut the route. The former track star showed off his speed, returning the interception for a touchdown.
Pitt will next practice on Tuesday. Due to having just two sessions this week, Thursday will be a bit of scrimmage. The Panthers have eight practice sessions remaining, including the spring game on Saturday April 18th.