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March 24, 2012

Spring Camp Insider (Interviews, Photo Galleries and More)

Pitt Spring Drills -- Day 6 Practice Notebook & Quote Sheet

Scrimmage Day: Originally scheduled to practice at Heinz Field on Saturday morning, the Pitt football team instead went indoors at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex due to inclement weather. The Panthers practiced for more than two hours with the majority of time spent in scrimmage situations.

Bennett Burst: Sophomore running back Isaac Bennett ran impressively during today's scrimmage. He provided the offensive highlight of the day when he burst around left end and ran 70 yards for a touchdown. He punctuated the final 15 yards by a nice start-and-stop move that shook the last defender.

Hit and Run: The defensive highlight came courtesy of two defensive backs. Sophomore safety Ray Vinopal made a jarring hit on a running play (with a big initial assist from junior linebacker Shane Gordon), popping the football loose. Sophomore cornerback Lloyd Carrington scooped up the ball and ran 60 yards for a TD, flashing impressive speed down the left sideline.

Steve Showing His Stuff: Steve Williams, who originally joined Pitt as a running back prospect last year, is working at safety this spring. Williams made the day's lone interception when he ran down a deep pass to the middle of the field. A decorated offensive player at Georgia's Calvary Day School, secondary play isn't completely foreign to the redshirt freshman. The 6-foot-2 Williams was also utilized as a shutdown cornerback in passing situations during his high school career. 

Pitts at Pitt: Redshirt freshman Lafayette Pitts is competing for time at cornerback this spring. A product of Woodland Hills High, Pitts displayed excellent coverage skills when he blanketed Brendon Felder on a deep pass down the right sideline and slapped the ball away at the last second.

The Biletnikoff Lives Here: Pitt can claim two winners of the prestigious Biletnikoff Award, which is annually given to the country's top wide receiver. Larry Fitzgerald (2003) and Antonio Bryant (2000) both earned the honor with the Panthers before moving on to careers in the National Football League.

A third winner of the Biletnikoff Award was added to the Pitt family when Bobby Engram joined Paul Chryst's staff as wide receivers coach. As a collegian at Penn State, Engram was honored in 1994 after catching 52 passes for 1,029 yards (19.8 avg.). He went on to a 14-year NFL career, compiling nearly 8,000 receiving yards.

After spending last year as an offensive assistant with the San Francisco 49ers, Engram says he is enjoying being back in a collegiate environment.

"It has been really energizing being around college football again," Engram said. "The guys have been enthusiastic each and every practice. They are willing to work hard and that is an important first step. We look at every practice as an opportunity to get better as individuals and as a team. That's been our emphasis in the receiver room."

Just Do It: Bobby Engram was recently asked if his receivers are challenged in practice by taking passes from both a right-handed quarterback (senior Tino Sunseri) and a left-hander (sophomore Mark Myers). While acknowledging that southpaws "spin it a little bit differently," Engram dispenses advice he received as a young player.

"A coach once told me, `Doesn't matter who's throwing it to you, son. Whether they are a lefty or righty, just catch it.'"

Instant Credibility: Pitt's receivers are well aware of Bobby Engram's NFL and collegiate background. Senior Cameron Saddler says they also appreciate his coaching style.

"Coach Engram doesn't over-coach," Saddler said. "He is all about doing it the way you do it, as long as you get the job done. That's good playing receiver. We get a lot of freedom but at the same time he's not going to let you play randomly. I enjoy his personality. He's really laid back but at the same time he knows his stuff. He has a lot of credibility. He's been playing since I wasn't even born."

Gateway Gators at Pitt: Sophomore Brendon Felder and senior Cameron Saddler are both products of Gateway High School. When Felder transferred to Pitt from North Carolina last year, he says he had an instant friend in the locker room.

"Right when I came here, he (Saddler) was the first person to embrace me," Felder said. "Being from Gateway that's just the type of love you have. It's instilled in your body. If I'm down at practice, I already know who's getting me up, it's Cam."

Felder sat out the 2011 season due to NCAA transfer rules. According to Saddler, the inactive season benefited his teammate.

"I feel like sitting out that year he learned a lot," Saddler said. "He's starting to recognize what's going on and what the defense is doing. Brendon is fast. I don't know if you guys noticed that but Brendon can straight fly. Brendon's a Gateway kid. I know he only went there for a year, but he's got that Gateway attitude."

Felder agreed that the year off was a benefit, even if he didn't realize it at first.

"It's really difficult," Felder said. "I think it's more mental. That year you have to sit out is more mental but it's good for you as a man and a football player. It's a great deal of adversity but there's an upside to that too. When I'm sitting out I get to see everything on the field from the sidelines and you get to critique your game. It's easy being around the group of guys that we've got. I feel like I got better that year just sitting out and being behind those guys. Every day they would tell me, `You can't slack. Even though you're sitting out you can't slack.' You have to push your game every day."

And when he finally runs out of that tunnel at Heinz Field on game day?

"You just love this game so much you can't wait to get out there," Felder said. "It might be the best day of my life, my first game."

Enthusiasm is Contagious: Safety Ray Vinopal noted after Saturday's practice that the new coaching staff's enthusiasm is having a trickle-down effect on the rest of the team.

"The whole coaching staff, they know their stuff," Vinopal said. "They really inspire us because they put in a lot of hours and they're really enthusiastic and passionate about what they do. It transfers over to the team. We've noticed a lot of people coming in more often on their own, getting in extra work and wanting to be here. That's what you need to build a program."

Pitt's No. 1 Fan: Chancellor Mark Nordenberg was on hand to watch Pitt's scrimmage this morning.

Future Panthers: Four incoming freshmen attended Saturday's practice: offensive lineman Adam Bisnowaty (Cheswick, Pa., Fox Chapel), tight end J.P. Holtz (Pittsburgh, Pa., Shaler), linebacker Devon Porchia (Parkville, Md., Gilman School) and safety Deaysean Rippy (McKees Rocks, Pa./Sto-Rox).

WPIAL Flavor: Area high school coaches were once again well represented at the Pitt practice facility on Saturday. Attendees included Muzzy Colosimo (Greensburg Central Catholic), Aaron Krepps (Belle Vernon Area), Jim Render (Upper St. Clair), Rod Steele (Steel Valley) and Terry Totten (Pittsburgh Central Catholic). Former Plum head coach Bill Rometo was also on hand.

Alumni Pride: A large contingent of former Pitt players also attended Saturday's scrimmage, including Eric Thatcher, Mark Ponko, Matt Morgan, Kody Miller, Craig Bokor, Ralph Jelic, Gordon Oliver, Charles Palla, Chaz Palla and Don Smith (who is a member of the Gateway High coaching staff). 

Next Up: Pitt will hold its seventh spring practice on Sunday, March 25, at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex.


Pitt Spring Football Media Quote Sheet 

Quoting Head Coach Paul Chryst

Observations on today's practice:

"Today was a good day to play a lot of football.  Anytime you do that there are a lot of things you can build on, positives. And things that are negative, you can coach off of those. This was practice six of 15. For the most part we had pretty good energy and good things show. Then there are things you have to work to clean up."

On whether the goals for today were achieved:

"You want to go out and play and you want to make it look like football. You want to see guys be able to carry over teaching into a more competitive playing situation. You want to come out injury free. There are a lot of things. I'm not going to sit here and tell you we just had two things and that was it. It's part of the process and some guys made strides today to get better.

"There were good plays. I saw Ryan Turnley do a good job with a block. I saw safeties being where they should be. I saw a finish by Aaron Donald. I saw a finish by Tyrone Ezell. You see constantly good things done and then you see a lot of things you just need to clean up."

On whether quarterbacks Tino Sunseri and Mark Myers have met his expectations or surprised him in any way:

"We have been pretty good with coming in and working with them. I don't know if the expectations were one way or the other. It's funny because when you talk about the group it applies directly to the quarterbacks as well. I think there were a couple of things that were good. The thing that is fun about scrimmages is you are truly competing. When you hold onto the ball it's a sack. When you take a sack on a second-and-three or four, then you're back to third-and-10 and that's not real good. Its good learning but it's not good quarterback play. If you go down the line there are a lot of things in every position that you have to get better at."

On safety Ray Vinopal, who was a Wisconsin recruiting prospect in high school:

"He's a good player. He was the same guy you see now but he is a more mature guy. He's a good athlete. You can tell he's a football player and that he liked football. I think he's a good player by the way he works and his athletic ability. He had good high school film (at Youngstown's Cardinal Mooney)."

On Ray Vinopal being a physical safety:

"A lot of being physical is knowing what you're doing so you're not second guessing yourself and you can play faster. He (Ray) is certainly tough. We're lucky to have him. We just need to make sure he keeps working and I don't see why he wouldn't so he can be the best he can."

On cornerback Cullen Christian:

"There's a guy who spent a tremendous amount of time trying to learn and football is important to him. The more guys like that you can get, you can't help but be better in the long run." 

On running back Isaac Bennett:

"He's got a lot of chances (to contribute to the first unit). He had a big hit here and then he does some things that just kill you by not picking up a linebacker in the backfield. It's day six of 15 and he's like a lot of them. When he comes out he's into it and giving effort. That is really what you ask for and then is it `Can we learn?' Are we going to repeat the same mistakes or are we going to be able to learn from them?"

On whether Isaac Bennett's touchdown run was exciting from a coaching standpoint:

"It depends which side you want to look at (smiles). You like to see guys have success. Obviously guys were fired up on the fumble return for the touchdown. It's also interesting to see guys' reactions to those plays. It's an emotional game but you've got to keep that edge no matter what's happening. You need to bring a focus and an edge to the next step. How are you going to deal with success and how are you going to deal with failure? There are great things to see, to teach from and try and build on."


Quoting Receivers Coach Bobby Engram

On wide receiver Brendon Felder:

"So far all the guys are working really hard, Brendon in particular. He's shown a lot of suddenness, quickness and some speed. I'm asking him to learn a couple different positions so I'm asking a lot of him early on but I think he's showing the will to come in, work hard and prepare to do that."

On wide receiver Cameron Saddler:

"Cam enjoys the game. He's enthusiastic and is a veteran guy who's been around and you like to see some of the leadership qualities he's displaying. He's shown some quickness and some speed. He's catching the ball well and that's what you expect of the upperclassmen."


Quoting Receiver Cameron Saddler

On the new system:

"I know this is only the sixth practice but this one (system) is for the better. Everyone on the field can tell this change is for the better and everybody's embracing it. Everyone seems to be bought in and Coach Chryst makes it easy. He makes it fun to come out here. I'm waking up at six in the morning and I'm not dreading coming over here."


Quoting running back Isaac Bennett

On getting support from senior running back Ray Graham:

"He (Ray) is a really encouraging guy. He's cool all around, on and off the field. He's telling me things I should be focused on and really helping me along with the process until he gets back."

On whether playing last year will help him compete for time this season:

"I think it will help me. I don't really say `competing' because we are working together. All the running backs work together to make the team better.

"I'm not really focused on it (fall competition) right now. I'm just trying to get through spring and make myself a better player and pick up everything Ray (Graham) tells me."


Quoting quarterback Tino Sunseri

On running back Isaac Bennett:

"He's doing good. Isaac's one of those guys that's a young guy and he has to make sure he is obviously improving and keep growing in the running back scheme. As a running back you have to be able to be a pass protector, you have to make sure you get out on your routes and it's a total combination. The best thing he has is Ray (Graham). He's (Graham) a guy who has been able to go in there and have a lot of success. That's a guy you can look up to and make sure you're a sponge off of him and learn everything you can from somebody like Ray."

On spring practice up until this point:

"It's a new system so it's a third system for us. That's not an excuse and you have to be able to go out and execute. It's going to take some time and it's going to take a learning curve. You have to go out here and do something and make your mistakes, then go into the film room and be able to adjust and make corrections." 



Spring Practice Insider: Day 6

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