Sun Bowl/Pitt Football: Wannstedt working overtime for seniors

Coach showcases Panthers for the NFL

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EL PASO, Texas -- Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt wanted to clarify some statements he had made late last week about senior tailback LaRod Stephens-Howling's role in returning punts in the Sun Bowl against Oregon State tomorrow at Sun Bowl Stadium.


The game

Game: Pitt (9-3) vs. Oregon State (8-4).

When: 2 p.m. Wednesday.

Where: El Paso, Texas.

TV: KDKA.

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"LaRod will be on the punt return team," Wannstedt said yesterday after the Panthers' final practice of the week. "If I said returning punts, then I said it wrong; he is going to be on the punt return team [for the first time]. He actually won't be catching punts, but he is going to be doing some things on the punt return team that he hasn't done before."

And while it is an important distinction, the larger picture remains the same as it did when Wannstedt first said he would be putting Stephens-Howling on all four special-teams units -- that Wannstedt wants to showcase Stephens-Howling for NFL teams who might be interested in taking a shot at him.

He then elaborated on his philosophy of doing everything in his power to try to get every one of his players as long of a look in as many different positions as possible.

"People will get a chance to evaluate [Stephens-Howling] then and say, 'This is another aspect of the game that the guy can do,' " Wannstedt said. "I always try to keep all the seniors on at least two special teams if we can for that basic reason. I know in those draft meetings they are going to say, 'Here is Player A and Player B, they are similar, what separates them?'

"And the more value that you can bring to the table, the more you offer, the better opportunity you have for someone to pick you and then you have a chance to make it. That's my thinking on that."

Wannstedt's desire and commitment to making sure his players get drafted or get an opportunity to play in the NFL is genuine, and it is one reason he has had so much success as a recruiter. His first priority is obviously to put players in position to succeed and help the team, but he takes very seriously his role in helping them achieve their dreams, be it as an NFL player or in any other walk of life.

That's why he spends so much time talking with people around the NFL, and it is also why he spends so much time trying to get as many of his seniors as possible invited to play in all-star games. He works so hard to find ways to get players such as Stephens-Howling into games as well as opportunities to carry the ball.

So far the Panthers have four seniors who have been invited to all-star games -- middle linebacker Scott McKillop and long snapper Mark Estermyer are headed to the Senior Bowl and Conredge Collins and center C.J. Davis were invited to play in the Texas vs. Nation All-Star game.

"We are working like crazy now on Rashaad Duncan, Derek Kinder, Eric Thatcher and Conor Lee," Wannstedt said. "The problem is, there are only three all-star games and there used to be five. So those things have gotten far more competitive. I call the people who run those teams and we want to do anything we can to get our guys in those games."

Wannstedt's name obviously carries plenty of weight with personnel people around the NFL given his background as an NFL coach, but his effort and his ability to go the extra mile for his players has not gone unnoticed.

"That is really what separates him from other coaches, it is sort of like the icing on the cake," Estermyer said. "He is a great coach and that is what he brings to Pitt, but he also can help everyone of us out after we are done playing because he obviously knows a lot of people around the NFL. That's really a benefit to having a coach like him.

"There will be 32 teams looking at me at the Senior Bowl, so it is essentially like a tryout for me and it is incredible honor for me just to be in that game, and Coach had a hand in making it happen."

McKillop added: "Coach is a great asset to Pitt and to all of us players because he is going to use every resource he has to try and get anyone who is leaving here an opportunity to play at the next level, and he has the contacts that a lot of other coaches don't have. And to play for someone like that is special."


Paul Zeise can be reached at pzeise@post-gazette.com .


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