Pitt Panthers: Graham's plans call for heavy use of 6 to 8 in rotation

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When it comes to Pitt's passing attack, coach Todd Graham is spoiled. Having three experienced, game-ready wide receivers is not enough for him. He wants six to eight capable catchers.

Fortunately, he has a healthy crop of young receivers that have shown promise in the first week of camp.

Juniors Mike Shanahan and Cameron Saddler and sophomore Devin Street are firmly entrenched starters at the three wide-receiver positions in the Panthers' new offense, and rightfully so.

Shanahan was second on the team in catches behind the departed Jonathan Baldwin with Saddler, who missed much of last season because of injury, getting seven receptions and Street getting 25 in 2010.

But newcomers and younger players, highlighted by redshirt freshman Salath Williams and true freshman Ronald Jones, are part of the list of players that could see playing time this season.

And not just to give the starters a rest.

"If they can't play a substantial amount, then they won't," Graham said. "But all of them are competing right now to play."

While it is obviously a good thing to have a lot of extra bodies, the diversity of skills among the young receivers allows coaches to groom players at each wide-receiver position. That reduces the drop-off in talent when a backup enters the game.

For example, Williams has the ideal talents for Shanahan's wide-out position that requires a combination of running tough routes across the middle and being a deep threat.

"You have to be a home run threat, a physical guy that can get in there and block against linebackers, and be able to understand zone coverages and when to sit down in windows. It's really one of our most versatile positions," wide receivers coach Mike Norvell said.

Nearly a week into the preseason, Williams thinks he is "coming together really well" as a result of spending time with Shanahan.

"Mike Shanahan takes me under his wing and shows me all I should do. Everything he does, I try to imitate it," said Williams.

Jones has spent time with the first team in Saddler's position, which also calls for receivers to carry the ball out of the backfield.

He is learning the position quickly and has drawn the attention of the coaching staff because he was a quarterback in high school.

"He is a joy to coach. He's a sponge," Norvell said.

"You talk about lighting in a bottle, he is extremely quick, very elusive with the ball in his hands."

In addition to Jones and Williams, Graham had high praises for a number of other players after a Saturday morning practice.

Among his list of players to watch were freshmen Darius Patton, Justin Jackson and Joshua Brinson.

The Panthers will hold a closed scrimmage today, which will be a major arena for player evaluations. While the players have specific things (for Williams, it is blocking better) they want to prove they are capable of executing, Norvell is mainly focusing on consistency from his players in live situations. This means clean routes, clean adjustments to those routes and an overall focus on "finishing plays."

With an experienced quarterback in Tino Sunseri leading a system that fits Pitt's receivers well, the potential for progress seemingly is limitless.

And, as the opener against Buffalo draws closer, Graham said he is happy with his receivers' talent and work ethic.

"We have not been disappointed with one receiver we've recruited," Graham said.

"We've been very pleased."

Charlie Magovern: 412-263-1422 or cmagovern@post-gazette.com . Follow him on Twitter@cmagovern.


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