It's never good for a football team to have its two top players at a given position sitting out of practices. But, for the Pitt Panthers, it might not be the worst thing right now.
Wide receivers Mike Shanahan and Devin Street, Pitt's top two receivers a year ago, have been out or, at best, seen limited duty in practice this week. Their absences, however, have provided extended first-team work for players who may not have gotten it otherwise.
"Ronald [Jones has] done a heck of a job, stepped up and done really well, and Josh [Brinson] has done some real nice things," Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. "He now knows multiple spots, which is invaluable, you need guys like that.
"Those guys are taking advantage of their opportunities right now."
Fifth-year senior Cameron Saddler is the most experienced healthy receiver on the field right now, but even he is looking to make up for a season cut short by injury last year. In the first eight games, he had 19 catches for 207 yards and a touchdown.
On pace for a breakout season, Saddler fractured his sternum Oct. 26 against Connecticut and missed the rest of the season.
Beyond him, Jones is just a sophomore and Brinson, a senior, caught one pass last season. Walk-on freshman Chris Wuestner also has been seeing plenty of first-team reps this week.
"You just try and make sure they know what they're doing when they break the huddle and, if they don't, I try to get to the line and let them know," Saddler said.
Jones appears to have developed a strong rapport with quarterback Tino Sunseri. The two have connected for several passes in 11-on-11 sessions, and Jones is showing his value beyond being a slot receiver.
Jones said he knows that this is his chance to show coaches he deserves extended playing time this fall.
"My mindset is every single play is the most important play," he said. "I try to make the perfect block, the perfect routes and everything."
As Rudolph noted, Brinson's best asset could be his versatility. The senior has lined up at both wideout positions, as well as slot receiver.
"Josh has been playing all three positions, which is actually kind of cool," Saddler said. "He's the only guy doing that, so that adds to his value."
As for Saddler, he has tried to take more of a leadership role in his fifth year at Pitt.
Sometimes, that means telling young receivers where to line up or which routes to run. Other times, it just means being the lead jokester in the locker room. Given Saddler's gregarious personality, that isn't a tough task.
"I feel like I do a good job of keeping the team together," he said. "I try to incorporate everybody in the jokes, I don't just pick on certain people.
"I pick on everybody, from the quarterback to the linemen to the wide receivers to the corners.
"As long as we're having fun and bonding in the locker room, things are going to work themselves out on the field."
NOTES -- Pitt men's basketball coach Jamie Dixon spoke to the players after practice Friday. "He was addressing how we've got a good administration behind us, so much support," defensive lineman Tyrone Ezell said. "We should just go out here and not take this for granted. This is a privilege." ... Senior running back Ray Graham sat out his fourth consecutive practice. Graham is still recovering from knee ligament surgery last season. "We're just trying to make sure we're not setting him back," Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. "He'll be day to day just like everyone else."
Sam Werner: email@example.com or on Twitter @SWernerPG. First Published August 18, 2012 4:00 AM