April 17, 2007

Spring wrap-up: Receivers and tight ends

When a football team is looking to usher in a first-year starter at quarterback, there are several elements that can make for a smooth transition. A vanilla, over-simplified offense, for instance, can ensure a low rate of mistakes, although that approach can leave something to be desired in the way of scoring points. A solid offensive line can also help make the quarterback transition, but the line is one of the areas that are difficult to fully evaluate in spring practice.

One of the best ways to transition into a first-year starter at quarterback, at least during spring ball, is to allow that player to have a wealth of targets, as one would have to think that the young quarterback's confidence grows with every completed pass. With that being said, the road was a bit smoother for Bill Stull and Kevan Smith this spring, since they had a corps of receivers and tight ends that almost any quarterback would love to have.

The receivers and tight ends entered spring practice as a relatively known commodity: experienced, talented, and more than capable of making plays. By the end of the 15 spring sessions, it's entirely possible that the coaching staff's confidence in the receivers and tight ends has grown, as the group excelled over the past month.

Here's a breakdown of the receivers and tight ends, ranked according to their performance in spring camp 2007:

Wide Receivers

1. Marcel Pestano
Spring scrimmage stats: 14 receptions, 201 yards, 2 touchdowns
Redshirt junior

Prior to the 2006 season, Pestano was one of the players who head coach Dave Wannstedt had questions about. Among those questions: would Pestano ever become a contributor at Pitt? Could he fully commit to the team and focus on helping the Panthers win? And, most importantly, would Pestano (and the Panthers) be better served if he finished his collegiate career elsewhere? Last season, Pestano put some of those questions to bed, ably filling the third receiver role and often turning short receptions into medium-length gains with tough running and impressive elusiveness. Pestano finished the 2006 season with 28 catches for 424 yards. He only recorded 2 touchdowns, but his 15.1 yard per catch average was the best on the team among players who made more than two catches. Many a third down was converted by Pestano, and he figured to fill the same role in 2007.

But Marcel Pestano came to spring practice ready to play more frequently than a third receiver would play. As camp rolled on, Pestano continued to impress onlookers, his teammates, and, most importantly, the coaching staff, and by mid-camp he was working with the first team. For the second half of camp, Pestano split his reps between the first and second team, but the second receiver spot opposite Derek Kinder will be wide open for the taking in August, and Pestano figures to be a top contender for the position.

2. TJ Porter
Spring scrimmage stats: 13 receptions, 177 yards

If Pestano was the veteran receiver who finally started to realize his potential in spring practice, then Porter was the freshman who grew up. No one will ever forget Porter's on-again/off-again antics last August, when he "left the team" multiple times, but his performance this spring did a lot to erase some of those memories. A minimal contributor last season at receiver (just 3 catches for 18 yards), most of Porter's on-field damage was done as a kickoff man, averaging 22.2 yards per return, including one run for 55 yards.

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