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U. of Pittsburgh
Panthers try spread to offset lack of proven runners

Sunday, August 12, 2001

By Shelly Anderson, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

In his first four seasons at Pitt, Coach Walt Harris has tinkered with his West Coast offense, adding a little option here, giving the quarterback a few extra choices there.

Now that the offensive scheme has matured, Harris and his staff are ready to try something else.

Call it the middle-aged spread.

The Panthers are not abandoning the West Coast, but they have added a spread formation, with the backs spread out behind the line of scrimmage. The Panthers lined up in that formation frequently yesterday during the opening day of training camp at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex on the South Side.

"We're trying to learn from some other people who are doing a good job putting pressure on the defense," Harris said.

The Panthers took a look at the formation last spring, then got serious about it. Members of the staff at Northwestern, which uses it, visited at Pitt's invitation and offered tips.

Other teams that have begun to use a spread formation are Clemson and South Carolina. West Virginia -- which hired new Coach Rich Rodriguez from Clemson -- is expected to use it extensively.

"I think that is the trend right now," Harris said.

It also makes sense for Pitt, which has a lot more depth and proven talent in its passing game than its running game.

The Panthers have no experienced tailbacks, but have a senior quarterback, David Priestley, and a stable of receivers led by All-American and Heisman Trophy candidate Antonio Bryant.

"We know that we have the threat of our receivers and our passing game, and that will affect how people play us," Harris said. "We think [the spread formation] allows you to be a more effective running team because of the mental pressure and physical pressure put on their opponents. We're always looking for a way to improve ourselves, so we're giving it a look."

Harris figures Bryant will be double-teamed regularly, helping to create even more of an advantage for Pitt's ballcarriers.

"We feel like No. 80 will at least attract two," Harris said. "Now, there's nine other guys [on defense], and we've got 10 other guys out there."

Even if the Panthers abandon the formation before their Sept. 1 opener against East Tennessee State, working on the spread will be a benefit.

"This also helps our defense," Harris said. "We're preparing our defense to face West Virginia and whatever other teams might use it."

Walker healthy at last

Rumors surfaced in May that free safety Ramon Walker was so hobbled that Pitt was considering holding him out this season.

After the first couple of practices yesterday, Walker just smiled and shook his head. They would have to drag him kicking and screaming to keep him out.

"Everybody's real anxious, and we have real high expectations," he said. "We feel like we've got one of the best defenses in the country."

Walker, considered the hardest hitter on the team, could be headed for a big junior season -- if he stays healthy.

As a redshirt freshman, he started every game, led the Panthers with 131 tackles and was named All-Big East. Last year, he missed two games because of a suspension and two more because of a knee injury.

He also has had shoulder problems. A sprained ankle limited his running in summer conditioning.

At times, Pitt has limited his contact in practice to allow him to heal because he hits so hard in games.

Walker said he is as healthy as he has been since the start of his freshman year (1998), when he redshirted. He also is bigger than ever.

"I'm trying to put on a little more muscle and I'm at 198 pounds," said Walker, who is 6 feet. "I'm hoping to get to 200 before the season starts."

Quick kicks

Sophomore fullback Dustin Picciotti left about midway through the final practice. Harris said Picciotti "got his bell rung."He missed some of training camp and the first three games last season because of concussion-like symptoms. "We're going to try to really protect him and take it slow and easy," Harris said. ... As expected, the Panthers held their two morning practices indoors, then used the outdoor grass fields in the afternoon.

... Pitt's two preseason scrimmages, Saturday and Aug. 22, will be on the South Side. The Panthers will not be able to work out at Heinz Field until their opener. The scrimmages -- and all training camp practices -- are closed to the public.

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