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August 12, 2012

First scrimmage proves to be balancing act

College coaches love healthy competition this time of year. Not just at individual positions, but on each side of the football.

It can be an ominous sign for the offense to continuously go up and down the field on the defense, or for the defense to repeatedly stonewall the offense. That kind of camp can lead to a lop-sided team, either struggling to score points or allowing too many to manage.

However, the offensive and defensive units of Pitt battled back and forth Saturday during the first scrimmage of training camp. The Panthers worked in a number situations including normal drive, red zone, inside run, short yardage and goal-line.

Both sides had their moments with neither unit completely dominating the other.

"I think it was pretty good back and forth," defensive end Tyrone Ezell said. "The offensive had a lot of explosive plays, but we had some good push up front against the offensive line. It went both ways, but as a defensive player, I just felt like the defense played pretty well."

Ezell and the defense stood tall on the first series. After a quick first down, the redshirt junior defensive end batted down two Tino Sunseri passes over the next three plays to end the drive.

However, the second team bounced back, marching straight down the field with freshman running back Rushel Shell powering across the goal-line from three yards out. But the attack couldn't do much over the next four drives with a pair of three-and-outs and scoring just one field goal.

"I think we did pretty good," Ezell said, "being the first week of camp as a unit and everything. Like the coaches always say, we have a long way to go."

The first-team offense - and Sunseri - had its best drive of the scrimmage on the next series. Starting from the 50, Sunseri found tight end Hubie Graham wide-open downfield for a 22-yard gain. Then, the redshirt senior threw a strike across the middle to Devin Street for another 22 yards. Sunseri scored a play later on a quarterback draw, scampering for a 5-yard touchdown.

The first-team offense also took advantage of the ball in enemy territory. It scored a touchdown on three of its four red-zone possessions. Isaac Bennett was responsible for all three scores, two on the ground and one on a shifty, shovel pass.

"The thing I like the most is the competition between offense and defense," Sunseri said. "They're your teammates and you don't want to take any cheap shots, but you want to make sure you get the most out of a practice and scrimmage you possibly can.

"Guys are competing their tails off, and whenever you compete your tails off, you're going to make mistakes obviously. But you're also going to do things right. Whenever you're competing make sure you can go full out, then go up in the tape room and correct it."

Now, let's not get ahead of ourselves. While the competition was solid, there's still room for enormous improvement on both sides of the ball.

The offense needs more of a killer instinct to finish drives with touchdowns rather than settling for field goals. Sunseri, though more accurate today, is still struggling with the inconsistencies that have plagued his career while the offensive line is still a work in progress.

Pitt's young defense is still striving for consistency from every player, every down. The defensive line shined, making a number of big plays in the backfield. However, it also allowed a number of trapped runners to escape for positive yards while too many plays went down field for big gains.

One thing that stood out above all else was the physicality of this Pitt team as a whole. Switching from zone-reads to power football has made the pads pop a bit louder this fall and the collisions a bit more bond-jarring.

And that's a welcome return for the Panthers.

"We're going to be going at it all camp and neither side wants to lose," said Graham, who's bulked up 20 pounds in the off season to play more traditional tight end. "It's going to be back and forth, and that's good because we're a bunch of competitors out there. That's really what Coach Chryst is trying to instill is competition, and I think it's going really well...

"We want to instill that toughness. We want to get Pitt back to where it used to be. No one in the country has a tough, hard-nosed, run-the-ball football team. So that's what we're really trying to work on, and I think we're doing a good job."

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