Shane Murray was a heralded quarterback when he came to the Panthers two years ago from Central Catholic High School just down the street from Pitt's campus, but he lost a battle with fellow freshman Bill Stull to be a backup quarterback and was moved to safety. After redshirting that season, Murray played sparingly this past fall and has been moved to linebacker this spring.
And by all accounts, Murray is ahead of the curve that he used to ride. During Pitt's intrasquad scrimmage Saturday morning at the UPMC Sports Complex, Murray tallied a team-high 11 total tackles, including one for a loss, one pass breakup and an interception against Stull.
"Maybe next year I'll try D-end, but I'll have to gain a lot more weight,'' Murray joked. "(But) if that gets me on the field, that's OK with me. I'm a football player, not a specialist. So, I go in there and do what the coaches tell me, and it's a real privilege just to play anywhere at a D-I college. And if I can start here at linebacker, that would be great.''
While Murray might have fallen into the role as a starter, after some juggling by the coaching staff, he's earned his time there so far.
"Some guys just make plays, and some guys don't,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "He came up with that interception at a critical point in the scrimmage, and he made a couple big tackles. ... We wanted to move Nate Nix over to the strong side and Dorin Dickerson to the weak side, but the day we moved him he hurt his foot.''
Wannstedt expected Dickerson to return in a week, hopefully for the final spring practice week when the swelling goes down in his left ankle. Dickerson wore a protective boot on it and walked on crutches, but it'll be tough to push Murray out of his starting spot. Dickerson just hasn't had enough practice time. But at 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, he's a lot more physically imposing than the 6-1, 210-pound Murray.
"Coach Wannstedt said they trusted me,'' Murray said. "They know I'm accountable, and I hope the team does, too. I might not be 220 pounds, but I have the heart of a Panther. (And) it's not about how much you weigh, it's how well you can play football. And it's about being smart.
The hottest battle so far has been between right offensive tackle Jason Pinkston and left defensive end Greg Romeus. The two have squared off every day in practice, and they went at it again during the scrimmage.
Pinkston appears to have gotten the better of Romeus, for the most part, the past two weeks, but the defensive end did have a sack, a pass breakup and three tackles Saturday.
"For two freshmen, you'd like to have 22 freshmen like that with that type of ability and futures that they have,'' Wannstedt said. "They're both going to be great players for us here.
"So, the tough thing is that if Romeus makes one sack, which he did, it could look lopsided. But they both did some good things, and Jason Pinkston continues to improve. He's going to be a good player.''
Both players took different routes to their starting roles, but they both began on defense as frosh recruits last fall. Pinkston, though, was moved to offense and eventually had to be thrust into the lineup after several injuries.
He played in seven games and was the backup left tackle. He moved to the right side this spring and into a starting role when Mike McGlynn had shoulder surgery.
"I feel like I'm getting better, but I still have to work on some technique things,'' Pinkston said. "I'm starting to understand it as we're installing the entire offense again. I really didn't know much last year, but I'm picking it up now. I'm picking it up a lot easier now.
"So, things are going pretty well. ... I liked it that I played and got some game experience. Maybe I would have been better off to redshirt, but hopefully I'll play a lot this year. So, it's a good thing I got some experience last year to get ready for that.''
At 6-4 and about 300 pounds, the athletic Pinkston would appear to be able to handle anybody he faces coming off the edge, but he believed facing a stud like the 6-5, 250-pound Romeus every day is a huge advantage.
"I guess I did all right, but look at the frame on him,'' Pinkston said. "He's not a normal defensive end, so you have to give that little extra for him. But if I can do a good job against him, I should be able to do all right in our games. Going against him every day should help us both.''
Romeus readily agreed.
"Jason has helped me a lot,'' Romeus said. "He came from the D-line, so he's pretty athletic and moves his feet pretty well. I think he's a good player. When we play the games, I'll face guys like Jason all the time. So, going up against someone strong, quick and athletic like Jason will help me in the end.
"I learned a lot watching the other guys last year. I wasn't used to being on the sideline, so that was tough those first few games, but in the end it was a good learning experience for me. Watching those guys was inspirational and great preparation for this season.
Wannstedt believed the Panthers could have had a little more balanced scrimmage Saturday, as the offense dominated the first half and the defense tightened after that.
"I understand that somebody has to win or lose in a scrimmage, but our offense went up and down the field pretty much at will the first few series,'' Wannstedt said. "Then, our defense must have had enough of it because they go three or four series where it was three-and-out and three-and-out. So, consistency would be the word that we needed more of today.''
That could hold true for the kicking game as well. Conor Lee made a 37-yard field goal, but he missed from 40 and 47 yards. Backup Dan Hutchins also missed an extra point.
"I wanted to put them into situations where they're under the gun a bit,'' Wannstedt said. "Standing on the sideline getting yourself psyched out doesn't mean much, I guess, because the one Conor kicked the best was one he wasn't going to kick.
"I called Hutchins off and put Conor in, and he kicked it right down the middle. I don't even know if he had his kicking shoe on, but he made it.''
Come One, Come All
Pitt held its blue-chip recruiting day for the scrimmage and had about 90 in attendance along with their parents. There also were two busloads of students brought over from the campus, along with some alumni, so there was a nice crowd around the field at the UPMC Sports Complex.
"It was nice to see members of the Oakland Zoo out here today,'' Wannstedt said. "There were a lot of students, so ... it was a good day.
Wannstedt also cited the strong play from the tight ends with Darrell Strong, John Pelusi and Nate Byham all making contributions.
"Pelusi made two or three catches,'' Wannstedt said. "We know about his blocking ability. He's the best blocking tight end that we have, but today he showed up as a pass receiver. Nate Byham made some plays, and Darrell Strong made some plays. So, that's probably as strong a position as we have on this team, and we're deep there.''
Byham led the Panthers with four catches for 61 yards, while Pelusi added two for 20 and Strong had a 10-yard touchdown catch.
Wannstedt made a point to praise Elijah Fields for his hard work after getting back on the field this past week. Fields made six tackles, including four solo, and had an interception. ... The most negative aspect of the scrimmage, Wannstedt said, were several fumbled snaps between backup center and quarterback John Bachman and Kevan Smith. ... Wannstedt joked that if the two don't get the situation straightened out this spring Bachman will move back to tackle and Smith to tight end. ... Middle Linebacker Scott McKillop tied Murray for the team lead with 11 total tackles and two behind the line. ... Stull was 18-for-31 for 188 yards with two sacks and two interceptions. ... Smith completed 10 of 15 for 145 yards with two TDs and one sack. ... Austin Ransom caught a 53-yard scoring pass from Smith. ... T.J. Porter led Pitt with five catches for 53 yards, while Marcel Pestano had four for 57. ... The leading rushers were Shane Brooks and LaRod Stephens-Howling with 48 and 46 yards, respectively, and one touchdown each. ... Kevin Collier also had 45 yards rushing and a 15-yard scoring run. ... There are six spring practice sessions remaining with the annual Blue-Gold game ending the workouts April 14 at Heinz Field.