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September 16, 2013

The Monday Notebook

Finally, after all the hoopla of the Monday night season opener against Florida State and the unconventional 12-day layoff between Game One and Game Two, the Pitt football team can settle into a regular game week as the Panthers prepare for their trip to Durham, N.C., for a 12:30 matchup with Duke this Saturday.

"We're looking forward to this week, a normal game week of preparation, getting back into ACC play, going on the road for the first time," Pitt coach Paul Chryst said during his weekly press conference Monday. "We're looking forward to this week, certainly."

Chryst was typically nonplussed about the notion that the start of "regular" weeks - Pitt's only other unconventional game is the finale against Miami on Black Friday - will allow his team to get into a rhythm of sorts.

"You hope so. I think with all of [the weeks], things are laid out and you embrace it and you sell it and it's the greatest thing for this team. But it is good to get in a rhythm. I hope."

Youth show

Pitt has used 12 freshmen through the first two games of the 2013 season, which is a high number by any measure. Given the option, Chryst would probably prefer to redshirt most freshmen, but in this situation, the Panthers need the contributions they've been getting from the likes of James Conner and Tyler Boyd.

"Obviously, there are a lot of variables: who's here already and who are the freshmen?" Chryst said. "It's your job as a coach to make sure that your best players can play, and whatever that means. I know, at times, I've been at places where it was harder for a freshman to play because of what we asked all of our players to do.

"I'm glad right now we have a group that can help us."

Chryst added that he didn't think any more freshmen will see the field this season beyond the group of 12, which includes Conner, Boyd, fullback Jaymar Parrish, tight end Scott Orndoff, offensive tackle Dorian Johnson, running back Rachid Ibrahim, defensive end Shakir Soto, defensive tackle Tyrique Jarrett, linebacker Matt Galambos, cornerback Titus Howard, safety Terrish Webb and kicker Chris Blewitt.

Another redshirt gone

The newest addition to that group of 12 is Johnson, a five-star tackle prospect from Belle Vernon who opened the season as the backup right tackle. Johnson saw his first action of the season on Saturday when he took the field on the third play of Pitt's second possession.

On that snap and another snap three plays later, Johnson lined up outside right tackle T.J. Clemmings, giving Pitt an unbalanced line (the Panthers produced gains of three yards and one yard on the two plays from that formation).

Johnson then lined up at right tackle when the second-team offensive line took the field in the fourth quarter. That unit worked on the final two possessions of the game for a total of eight plays, giving Johnson 10 reps in the game.

"Right now we just think that Dorian's a guy that is certainly ready to be able to contribute, and we think there are ways we can use him," Chryst said. "It may differ game to game, but certainly when we play a guy we want to make sure that we're committed enough to make it a worthwhile year for the young man. So we'll have some things for Dorian.

"I think there are some other ways we might look at using him."

Thomas' return

The other notable personnel move in the New Mexico game was the return of redshirt junior linebacker Todd Thomas to the starting lineup at weak-side linebacker. Thomas started seven games last season and was the team's fourth-leading tackler despite playing just nine games overall, but he opened training camp in August on the second team.

Thomas did not respond well to the apparent demotion and left the team but returned several days later and has spent the time since working his way back up the depth chart. It all came together on Saturday and Thomas recorded 10 tackles - tied for the team high - and two tackles for loss in the win.

"We've loved his approach," Chryst said. "Obviously, Todd has ability and he's had a great approach and put himself in position. We certainly needed him and I thought he played well. I think it's just how he has gone about the day-to-day that helped give him a chance to have the chance on Saturday and he took advantage of that chance. So he gets another chance."

A rule in action

Pitt saw a unique penalty get called on New Mexico Saturday when officials flagged a defensive Lobo 15 yards for continuing to play after his helmet came off. The same penalty was called later in the afternoon on a Texas A&M defender in the Aggies' loss to No. 1 Alabama.

The premise of the penalty is safety, but the expectation is that a defender who loses his helmet will take himself out of the play rather than continue to engage a blocker or pursue the ball.

"You're basically a dead player," redshirt senior safety Jason Hendricks said Monday. "It's a safety issue, you know? It's smarter to stay away from contact without a helmet; you need a helmet to tackle because your head is involved in a lot of places. So for the risk of injury, they just blow a person dead."

Hendricks said the coaches have discussed the rule with the players, but he admitted that it would be difficult to make that decision in the heat of the game.

"Me? I would love to go chase the ball down. But according to the rules, you're not allowed to do that once you lose your helmet."

Keep throwing

Pitt quarterback Tom Savage has thrown four interceptions in two games this season, but he said after the New Mexico game - a contest that saw him get picked off twice - that he didn't intend to pull back on his instinct for getting the ball downfield.

On Monday, Chryst endorsed his quarterback's confidence.

"That's part of playing the game. You want guys to go out and feel like they're confident, and then they've got to trust themselves and turn it loose. I think you always play to win. You compete. There are always going to be corrections that can be made.

"You want guys to go out and play and turn it loose, and we don't want our quarterback any different than that."

Chryst added that Savage has been improving in his reads and working through his progressions.

"I think he's working through things when he's got time. I think he's progressing. And I love his approach; it's important to him and he wants to learn and takes ownership of it. Those are fun guys to coach."

Virginia time announced

The ACC announced on Monday that Pitt's Homecoming game against Virginia on Saturday, Sept. 28, will kick off at 12:30 pm. The game will be broadcast locally on Root Sports.

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