Transition to next phase begins for Pitt football

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The opening kickoff for Pitt's 2014 season is more than four months away, and there's still summer conditioning and a long training camp standing between the Panthers and their first game against Delaware.

In other words, there's a long way to go before we have any idea what the 2014 Panthers might look like.

But spring practices over the past month have provided a small snapshot into what Pitt will put on the field next season. Players and coaches walked off the field Tuesday from their final spring practice -- after a quick game of dodgeball -- knowing a little bit more about their team than they did when they started March 16.

"I'm kind of sad to see it end," coach Paul Chryst said. "I thought overall, spring, we got a lot accomplished. We just have to take this, the end of our second phase of the season, guys have to do a great job finishing up the rest of the school year, then come back and have a great summer."

On offense, the Panthers had to deal with a couple of key injuries to starters this spring. Along the offensive line, starting left tackle Adam Bisnowaty was limited for all of camp with a lingering back injury. Redshirt freshman Jaryd Jones-Smith stepped into his place and, though he might not be ready for prime-time action yet, relished his chance to play with the first team.

"Going with the ones, there's a lot of pressure on you to come in and be perfect," Jones-Smith said. "I'm a freshman, about to be a redshirt freshman, and having not really been in a game, that pressure was tough at first, but I've got it."

A more dire injury situation developed at running back later in camp when James Conner and Isaac Bennett -- the top two returning rushers -- went down with injuries. In stepped Rachid Ibrahim to take the lion's share of carries in the final few practices.

Running back is one position that should receive an injection of depth this offseason as incoming freshmen Chris James, Qadree Ollison and Dennis Briggs join the mix.

Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph, though, said that for the first time in his tenure at Pitt, the Panthers won't have to rely on any freshmen to plug holes in the depth chart next fall.

"You have a foundation and at least enough depth that you can work," he said. "If someone shines and pushes ahead, great. But you don't have to try to fix any holes."

On defense -- particularly along the line -- depth is still a bit of a concern, but interior linemen Darryl Render, Khaynin Mosley-Smith and Tyrique Jarrett solidified their positions with strong springs.

The back end of the defense will spend the summer continuing to adjust to new secondary coach Troy Douglas, who has preached a more aggressive, ball-hawking unit.

One thing that remains to be seen is who will win the starting cornerback job opposite returning starter Lafayette Pitts. Sophomore Titus Howard -- whom Douglas said was the best cornerback in camp -- seems to have an edge over redshirt sophomore Trenton Coles, but Coles would not concede anything.

"I just have to work, keep working," he said. "At the end of the day, I want to start. I want to be on the field with Titus and [safety] Terrish [Webb] and all of them. I want to make plays and just be great for the university."

The Panthers will now pivot into what Chryst refers to as the third phase of season preparation: summer conditioning. The coaches will be a bit more involved this year as new NCAA regulations allow for limited contact with players over the summer, but it will still be mostly on the players to improve leading into training camp in August.

"I do think that each guy has a good feel for what he can do; we kind of created a menu for each guy," Chryst said. "Now they've got to go do it."


NOTE -- Chryst announced that redshirt sophomore cornerback Jahmahl Pardner decided to leave the team. Chryst said Pardner was still enrolled at the university.

■ What: Pitt vs. Delaware in the 2014 season opener.

■ When: Aug. 30.

■ Where: Heinz Field.

Sam Werner: and Twitter @SWernerPG.

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