Pitt sophomore Elijah Fields appears to be inching closer to earning a starting position at strong safety next week against Iowa.
Fields, a 6-foot-2, 220-pounder from Duquesne High School, did not start against Buffalo but played 38 snaps. Dom DeCicco, the starter the first two games, played 32 snaps.
Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said Fields will be the starter for the Iowa game "as of now." But he also said DeCicco will continue to see playing time.
"I thought it was an improvement for us at that position," Bennett said. "It gave Dom time to look at things. And I thought [Fields] did some pretty good things."
Bennett believes Fields' superior athleticism has allowed him to earn more playing time. Pitt middle linebacker Scott McKillop yesterday called Fields a "freak" and "a playmaker."
"When we needed to get an out in the game [against Buffalo], they ran a seam route, and he made a great, athletic play," Bennett said. "He didn't get great help from the outside linebacker on the route, and he made a nice breakup. He was not involved in as many tackles. But that was by design."
Coach Dave Wannstedt was impressed with the way Fields played in his first game against Buffalo.
"I was very pleased," Wannstedt said. "From a mental standpoint, he got the guys lined up. When he had opportunities to make plays, he did in both the run and the pass game. As he gets more playing time he'll get better."
But he stopped short of naming him the starter.
"We have three or four positions where we have multiple starters," Wannstedt said. "I was quoted last week saying we had three starters at safety. They've been alternating in practice no differently than they have been all along.
"It's not fair to say who's going to start. We still have a week and a half. They're all working hard. We'll make that decision come game time. They're both going to play."
Bennett is eagerly awaiting the return of junior outside linebacker Shane Murray, who missed the first two games with a knee injury. Bennett said Murray is "70 percent" right now, but Bennett is hoping he can return to the lineup in some capacity against the Hawkeyes.
"We need to get Shane Murray back," Bennett said. "It would give us a flexibility that we haven't had the first two games."
Cross to get a look
Reserve quarterback Greg Cross, a junior-college transfer who has the potential to be a running threat for the Panthers, might get some playing time.
Offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh indicated yesterday that Cross will have a role in the offense.
"At some point, we will [use him]," Cavanaugh said. "To be honest with you, now that the first two games are done, we didn't think we'd need him. In hindsight, we probably could have used him as a changeup. He's been getting some reps. We do have a little package we'll introduce."
Cavanaugh said it's a matter of finding the right time and situation to implement the Cross package.
"Are you putting him in there just to get him on the field or do you really need him?" Cavanaugh said. "Either one could be correct. If we're struggling and we need a change of pace, maybe he's the guy we go to. If things are going well and you still want a change of pace, he's still the guy you go to.
"We weren't so comfortable with what we were doing [the first two weeks] that we could throw him in as a changeup. Looking back at the first game, maybe he would have been a good changeup. We'll try to get him on the field."
Cavanaugh also said freshman receiver Jonathan Baldwin is closer to earning more playing time. Baldwin, one of Pitt's prized recruits, has no receptions through two games.
"We'll rotate him in more," Cavanaugh said. "He's learning the offense more. He's getting more comfortable and we're getting more comfortable with him."
Ray Fittipaldo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1230.