Pitt will separate freshmen at camp

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NEWPORT, R.I. -- Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt expects contributions from a number of players in his incoming freshman class, and immediate playing time was one of his sales pitches to those recruits.

But that presents a problem: How does he accurately and fairly evaluate the freshmen during training camp while still giving the returning veterans the opportunity to prove they deserve to keep their spots, or move up, on the depth chart?


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The answer? It's surprisingly simple but could be a stroke of brilliance -- separate camps for the first week.

"It isn't fair to ask freshmen to compete with upperclassmen when they don't even know the plays," Wannstedt said yesterday during Big East football media day.

"And it isn't fair to ask upperclassmen who have been busting it for our program for two or three years to take a backseat while we evaluate younger kids trying to take their jobs."

For the first five days of training camp, the veterans and those returning players among the two-deep depth chart will practice in the morning; freshmen, redshirt freshmen and some veterans further down on the depth chart will practice in the afternoon.

"By NCAA rules you can only have one practice per day during the first five days, but as long as it is within the time restraints and as long as the players are only out there once, you can split the practice up," Wannstedt said.

"And I just think that given where we are as a football program, it is important for us to have the two different groups work separately for the first week because it will give every player on our team an opportunity to get a lot of work in."

Wannstedt said this format should give the coaching staff the best chance to put the top 22 players on the field when the Panthers open the season Sept. 2 at Heinz Field against Virginia.

"It will give the varsity player who is battling for a spot a chance to prove to the coaches he is the guy, and it will give the freshman kids and younger players a chance to prove what they can do as well as get a lot of reps in and learn the system."

At least 10, but perhaps as many as 14 or 15, of the incoming freshmen are being counted on to contribute this season, and a number of them might break into the starting lineup. But the toughest part for a freshman is learning the system, Wannstedt said, because there isn't enough time in training camp to get every player a lot of reps.

But this year, the freshmen will get as many reps as the starters for the first five days of camp.

"You look at a case like [tight end] Nate Byham," Wannstedt said. "He is going to have to play a lot this year for us. But if he came to camp, because we have two experienced tight ends ahead of him, he might get, at the most, five reps out of 20 plays, which is not enough. Now, he'll get maybe as many as 15 plays out of 20 and that will speed up his learning curve. We also have a number of freshmen like Elijah Fields, Dorin Dickerson and Aaron Berry, who we need to find out quickly what position they can help us the most, where they fit the best."

Wannstedt said the Panthers are at least two strong recruiting classes from having the quality depth that would enable him to redshirt incoming freshmen.

"This will put a lot of pressure on the coaches and it is a lot more time for us, but in the long run it is what is best for Pitt football," he said of his double camp setup. "The goal is in the next year or two to get to the point to where we don't need to use freshmen. ... But right now, we have no depth, so everybody better come to camp ready to play."

The amount of work each player should get the first five days should give everyone a fair opportunity to prove what he can do.

"I want to eliminate the guy in the back of the line, the third- or fourth-teamer or freshman guy who says 'I got it,' " Wannstedt said. "No, I want to see on the field that you got it. I really think that by the end of the week, when we bring all these guys together we'll be able to say, 'This is our depth chart, this is how we stack them up, now let's go get ready for the season.' "

The Panthers possibly will be the least experienced team in the Big East, but Wannstedt will lean on what he believes is strong veteran leadership. The senior class is small -- there are only six who will head to camp as starters not counting kickers -- but it has stepped forward in the offseason.

"It seems like H.B. Blades and Tyler Palko have been the captains of this team for the past 10 years," Wannstedt said. "But this is their senior year, so this is finally their team. It is Steve Buches' team, it is Joe Villani's team -- all of our seniors are great leaders.

"I've been so impressed with the approach of our guys and how the leaders of this team have really kept things moving forward. This group is special, and the young kids will look up to them and follow them. So we will be fine, I'm confident of that."

Who's No. 1?

Defending champion West Virginia is an overwhelming choice to win the Big East in a poll of media members at Big East media day. Pitt is picked third.

Paul Zeise can be reached at pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720.


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