Dave Wannstedt said he feels good about the way Pittsburgh's wideouts, tight ends and secondary players have developed during workouts at the UPMC Sports Complex the past month. But one area, in particular, has been a sore spot.
"The most disappointing position has probably been linebacker,'' Wannstedt said. "Loheyde has been banged up back and forth from his (knee) surgery a year ago. Dorin Dickerson has been hurt. Webster's been sick.
"That's three (young) guys that should be lined up in the two-deep somewhere. So, that makes it tough to build some depth and have some continuity at the linebacker position.''
Dan Loheyde suffered a knee injury the first day at camp last summer and redshirted his freshman season. He has struggled to come back from that. Dickerson moved to linebacker from wideout this spring and has been out two weeks with a sprained left ankle. Greg Webster has Crohn's Disease, a chronic, episodic, inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract.
"We're hoping that Dorin can get back next week,'' Wannstedt said. "The swelling is almost down, and he's doing everything that he can to get back. Loheyde's working hard, and our doctors seem to have Webster's problems under control now.''
The Panthers have four more Spring practice sessions remaining, including an intrasquad scrimmage Saturday at 10 a.m. at the indoor complex, if the weather doesn't improve, and the annual Blue-Gold scrimmage April 14 at 1 p.m. at Heinz Field.
On a positive note, Wannstedt praised redshirt junior Marcel Pestano and sophomore T.J. Porter for pushing last year's starting receivers, senior Derek Kinder and redshirt sophomore Oderick Turner. Pestano and Porter have been splitting time with Turner on the first team.
The tight ends have been a strength since redshirt sophomore John Pelusi has bounced back from his knee surgery last year, Wannstedt said. Senior Darrell Strong has had a good spring, and sophomore Nate Byham appears to be a superstar in training. This clearly is the deepest position.
The secondary is the most experienced with safeties Mike Phillips and Eric Thatcher and cornerback Kennard Cox all with starts on their resumes. Sophomores Aaron Berry and Jovani Chappel are rotating with the first team at the other corner spot, and sophomore Elijah Fields has shown steady improvement. He also played some Thursday with the first team.
Wannstedt likes to rotate linemen, in particular on both sides of the ball, but the lack of depth at either position has caused problems. That isn't the case now, however, as eight players on both sides should play.
"In the past, some of the rotating people have come out of necessity and not because we want to,'' Wannstedt said.
But players like Shane Murray, who likely would have contributed as a nickel defensive back from his safety spot, has been a starting outside linebacker. And sophomore Jason Pinkston, who was moved to offensive tackle from defense last fall, stepped in as a backup and is starting this spring due to an injury to Mike McGlynn at right tackle.
"By the end of the spring we're going to feel good about Jason being a starter somewhere,'' Wannstedt said. "And Greg Romeus, because of an injury to (DE Doug) Fulmer, has been alternating in with the first unit some. So, he has an opportunity. You'd hate to see that happen due to injuries. You'd rather see players rotating in because of competition.''
Wannstedt added, however, that when McGlynn returns it will be at his customary starting spot at right offensive tackle.
The Early Birds
After a perceived lack of overall effort by the offense Tuesday and post-practice running as punishment, according to Wannstedt, that unit came out early Thursday for additional work.
That must have paid off, because Pitt's offense had a solid workout Thursday, including a brief scrimmage session, and the defense ended up staying after for a little punishment. The group went through a series of bear crawls, for the most part, while players with shoulder problems rolled the prescribed distance. Junior DT Rashaad Duncan should have rolled, because he struggled doing the bear crawls.
Thatcher also performed some up-downs before his crawls.
The offense opened the scrimmage with a big run by LaRod Stephens-Howling, and QB Bill Stull connected with Pestano for a long pass on a fly patter. He beat Cox down the sideline. ... Stephens-Howling had another long run later in the scrimmage. He broke through the line and outran the remaining defenders. Pinkston sprung him on the play. ... Pestano got deep again a bit later. He got behind Chappel and in front of Fields for the big play. ... Phillips made a nice tackle on Kinder in the open field during a two-minute drill to save a touchdown. ... QB Kevan Smith had a rough practice, but came through in the two-minute finale with big passes to Cedric McGee and Byham for a touchdown. ... Stephens-Howling ran for a score, and Smith hit Porter for a touchdown, too. ... However, Smith also was picked off in the end zone by Fields on a badly overthrown pass. Fields also tackled Pelusi short of the end zone. ... Murray had the hit of the day on a sideline run.