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March 22, 2012

Spring Camp Insider (Interviews, Photo Galleries and More)

Pitt Spring Drills -- Day 5 Practice Notebook & Quote Sheet

Five Workouts in the Books: Pitt practiced outdoors this morning under blue sunny skies and temperatures reaching into the 70s. It was practice No. 5 for the Panthers, who donned full gear for the 2-hour, 15-minute workout.

Spring Game Plans: Pitt coach Paul Chryst announced his plans to take the annual Spring Football Festival and Blue-Gold Scrimmage to North Hills High School on April 14.

"I may be new to Pittsburgh, but I've respected and known about the traditions of Western Pennsylvania high school football for a long time," Chryst said. "As a first-year coaching staff, we feel it is important to get out and engage the people and communities who have built that tradition. The spring game is a perfect opportunity to do this and we're really looking forward to visiting North Hills in April."

"Pitt football is opening a new and exciting era under Coach Chryst and we're honored to be part of the program's first spring game under his leadership," North Hills High athletic director Dan Cardone said. "This is another stellar example of how Pittsburgh's highest-profile football teams, the Panthers and the Steelers, are invested in the communities of Western Pennsylvania. It is a winning equation for everyone involved and we're excited about hosting Pitt next month."

Welcome Back, Desmond: Desmond Robinson is enjoying his first set of spring drills at Pitt since the days of Dan Marino. Robinson's appointment as Pitt running backs coach in February not only gave him the opportunity to come back to his alma mater - where he was a defensive end/linebacker from 1974-78 - but also marked a return to the place where he first broke into college coaching.

Robinson was a rookie coaching assistant under Jackie Sherrill in 1981 when the Panthers - behind such all-time talent as Marino, Jim Covert, Bill Fralic, Sal Sunseri and Bill Maas - went 11-1 and finished No. 2 in the country. When Foge Fazio took over as head coach in early 1982, Robinson stayed on at Pitt through spring drills before securing his first full-time position at Connecticut.

"It has been really exciting to be back at Pitt," Robinson said. "There is something special about coaching at a school that has meant so much to your life and that you are emotionally invested in. I love working with these kids and this coaching staff. I'm a big believer in what Coach Chryst is doing here and it is a privilege to be part of that plan."

Cut to the Chase: Sophomore Isaac Bennett says Desmond Robinson has a no-nonsense approach to teaching the finer points of running back play.

"I love his old-school way of coaching," said Bennett. "He is a `one cut and go' guy. He doesn't like a lot of dancing by his running backs. He is a smart man and I'm enjoying learning from him."

Has Robinson regaled the running back meeting room with stories about his former Pitt teammate, Hall-of-Famer Tony Dorsett?

"He hasn't really talked much to us about his past history yet, but I'm looking forward to hearing the stories."

Backfield Committee: Desmond Robinson has four scholarship tailbacks under his watch this spring, and that group doesn't yet include highly regarded incoming freshman Rushel Shell of Hopewell High. Robinson appreciates the depth but said carries will go to the most productive performers. 

"I would love to have four or five guys who can play but my philosophy is if a horse is running good you don't stop riding it," Robinson said.

Comeback Trail: One of the more remarkable stories playing out this spring is junior linebacker Dan Mason's continued recovery from a serious knee injury in 2010. Mason did not play in any games last season as he was focused on his rehabilitation process. Through five practices this spring he has opened a lot of eyes with his energetic and active play.

"I'm out here moving around, getting a lot better," Mason said. "I feel about 90%. I don't feel like my old self yet but I'm getting closer every day. They (the medical staff) said if it feels like it is hurting then just stop, but it hasn't since I've been out there so I don't even think about it.

"I'm just working. It's all I can do. I love it out here."

Can Do Cameron: Senior wide receiver Cameron Saddler was highly productive during the two 11-on-11 periods to close today's practice. Saddler hauled in seven catches, including an impressive diving effort for a first down and, later, a 60-yard touchdown on a fly route.

Saddler is showing healthy form after having his 2011 season cut short due to a fractured sternum. He suffered the injury after a 40-yard catch-and-run against Connecticut last October. In eight games last year he had 19 catches for 207 yards and a TD.

Visiting VIPs: Among the special guests at practice were two former Pitt quarterbacks who now coach area high school football teams, Dave Havern (Shady Side Academy) and Bill Daniels (Our Lady of Sacred Heart). Havern is best remembered for engineering Pitt's improbable 36-35 comeback victory over West Virginia in 1970, while Daniels was the Panthers' leading passer in 1973 and 1974. Bethel Park head coach Jeff Metheny also visited today.

Coach Paul Chryst additionally welcomed longtime Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley to the Pitt practice facility. Chryst and Bradley annually matched strategic wits when both were working in the Big Ten. 

Next Up: Pitt will hold its sixth spring practice on Saturday, March 24, at Heinz Field.


Pitt Spring Football Media Quote Sheet 

Quoting Head Coach Paul Chryst

Observations on today's practice:

"Practice I thought was good. There were some up and down moments. It looked sluggish at times but there was some good energy. We have to keep grinding away. You see guys making some progress and that's key."

On comparing the offense and defense:

"On both sides there were moments that were positive. I talked to the guys afterward and the little things really make a big difference. Anytime you go against each other there is some positive and a lot of times there is not so much negatives but a teachable moment there. I think both sides had their moments."

On installing new things:

"Defensively we put in some new stuff today. Offensively not as much. You could say the load of the learning probably the defense had more on it today. On Saturday there won't be a whole lot of installation. We will kind of get a feel where guys are at now. I think there is a fine line of just putting in plays to get plays in, which is important, (but) you also want them to learn the plays, the nuances and the little things about it. We will just keep trying to find a balance, but for the first few days we threw a lot in. We actually cut back on Tuesday and that's when we put in more defensively. We are trying to balance it all."

On whether Saturday's practice at Heinz Field will have any 11-on-11 work:

"We will do some scrimmaging Saturday."

On playing more physical:

"We have a long ways to go. I think guys are trying, though. I don't think that part is not there. A lot of being physical is knowing what you're doing then doing it with the proper technique and the willingness. It's not that they're not willing to be physical but when you play with high pad level it's hard to be physical. When you have bad footwork it's hard to be physical. It goes hand-in-hand."


Quoting Running Backs Coach Desmond Robinson

On Ray Graham:

"I've watched him (Ray Graham) on film, but I have not had a chance to evaluate him like I have had the chance to evaluate some of the other guys. He's working hard on the mental part of the game because he can't do the physical part. I'm excited because I like his work ethic even though he's not in pads."

On the running back competition without Ray Graham this spring:

"I think the mentality we're trying to develop is they're not competing against Ray (Graham). They're competing to be the best they can be. The benchmark has to be set higher so you don't want to base it on somebody else but you want to excel and be better than that. I'm trying to get them in the mindset to compete to be the best they can be. I'm not going to say that's going to be better than Ray, but if you have a chance to set a higher goal than the guy before you, the only way you're going to do it is have your benchmark a little bit higher."


Quoting Linebacker Dan Mason

On goals for his recovery and the limitations he still feels:

"It's just getting back to my old self basically, and getting better than my old self. Sometimes coming out of my break I hesitate a little bit when I'm back. That's all going to come back with reps. It has been a long time since I've played in a football game and getting used to the speed and everything again too. It's going to come in time."


Spring Practice Insider: Day 5

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