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Gold team rules: Rosters set for Saturday’s spring game

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Gold team general manager/cornerback Avonte Maddox makes a selection for the upcoming Pitt football Blue-Gold game. Matt Hawley | Staff Photographer

Gold team general manager/cornerback Avonte Maddox makes a selection for the upcoming Pitt football Blue-Gold game. Matt Hawley | Staff Photographer

Gold team general manager/cornerback Avonte Maddox makes a selection for the upcoming Pitt football Blue-Gold game. Matt Hawley | Staff Photographer

By Steve Rotstein | Sports Editor

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The Pitt football team’s players and coaching staff gathered in the team room Wednesday morning at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on the South Side for some very important business: picking teams for Saturday’s Blue-Gold game.

Linebackers coach Rob Harley will coach the Blue team, while running backs and special teams coordinator Andre Powell mans the sideline for the Gold squad. Harley and Powell split up the 14 seniors among the two teams, who were then tasked with drafting up their rosters.

Here’s a position-by-position breakdown of how the two squads will match up Saturday at Heinz Field, and where things could get ugly quick for the Blue team.

Blue team quarterbacks: Max Browne, Thomas MacVittie

Gold team quarterbacks: Ben DiNucci, Kenny Pickett, Jake Zilinskas

Quarterback is the most important position on the field, and the Blue team came away from the draft with the top three quarterbacks on the depth chart.

The coaches assigned USC graduate transfer Max Browne to the Blue team when dividing up the seniors, making Browne the team’s general manager. Ben DiNucci — Browne’s top competition for the starting job — was the first quarterback off the board, and, to the surprise of head coach Pat Narduzzi, it was Browne waving him over to the Blue squad.

But, after the draft was complete, Narduzzi tweeted out an announcement of a trade: the Gold team had addressed the quarterback issue by trading away defensive tackle Keyshon Camp and cornerback Phillipie Motley for DiNucci, middle linebacker Chase Pine and cornerback Rob Boatright.

DiNucci completed 3-of-9 passes with two interceptions in his first game action in the 2016 Pinstripe Bowl against Northwestern. He will likely get the start for the Gold team, with true freshman Kenny Pickett serving as his primary backup.

Browne started the first three games for USC last season before losing his starting spot, while Thomas MacVittie is a redshirt freshman who has yet to play a snap.

Advantage: Blue

Blue team inside linebackers: Quintin Wirginis

Gold team inside linebacker: Chase Pine, Jim Medure

Quintin Wirginis is best known for coming off the edge and pressuring the quarterback, but he’s moving inside to take over for Matt Galambos as the team’s primary Mike linebacker this year. Chase Pine redshirted last season as a highly touted prospect, while Jim Medure joined the team as a walk-on in 2015. Pine has potential, but Wirginis is the only proven player in the group.

Advantage: Blue

Blue team strong safeties: Dennis Briggs, Henry Miller

Gold team strong safeties: Phil Campbell, Rimoni Dorsey

Aside from quarterback and inside linebacker, strong safety is the only position where the Blue team came out on top. Dennis Briggs is the only strong safety with game experience, while cornerback-turned-safety Henry Miller is a giant for the position with immense potential.

Advantage: Blue

Gold team general manager/cornerback Avonte Maddox makes a call to tell a player he’s been drafted. Matt Hawley | Staff Photographer

Blue team fullback: Erik Sellers

Gold team fullback: George Aston

The Gold team drafted George Aston with their second pick, and it’s no surprise as the bruising fullback is adept at blocking, rushing and receiving and coming off a 10-touchdown season. Erik Sellers, meanwhile, has never played a snap at Pitt.

Advantage: Gold

Blue team wide receivers: Tre Tipton, Maurice Ffrench (CB/WR), Ruben Flowers, Rafael Araujo-Lopes, Michael Vardzel

Gold team wide receivers: Jester Weah, Quadree Henderson, Aaron Mathews, Mark Bernsdorff, Kellen McAlone

Pitt is the only team in the country with three returning players who scored at least 10 touchdowns last season, and the Gold team scooped up all three with wide receivers Jester Weah and Quadree Henderson to go along with Aston. Aaron Mathews is also a solid candidate to emerge as the Panthers’ starting wideout opposite Weah, with Henderson playing in the slot.

Tre Tipton will be in competition with Mathews for the starting spot and should be the go-to receiver for the Blue team. Maurice Ffrench will provide blazing speed and versatility playing in the slot receiver role.

Advantage: Gold

Blue team offensive tackles: Jaryd Jones-Smith, Tony Pilato

Gold team offensive tackles: Brian O’Neill, Jerry Drake

Gold team general manager Avonte Maddox made Brian O’Neill the number one overall pick for the second year in a row, and it’s easy to see why. O’Neill was one of the top-rated tackles in the country as a sophomore and also showed the speed to pull off a pair of touchdowns and bring home SB Nation’s coveted Piesman Trophy.

Jaryd Jones-Smith has experience as well and is expected to start this year, but he missed the 2015-16 season with an injury and played as a reserve last year.

Advantage: Gold

Blue team offensive guards: Justin Morgan, Bryce Hargrove, Brandon Ford

Gold team offensive guards: Alex Officer, Alex Bookser

There are two starters in this group, and the Gold team snagged both of them in Alex Officer and Alex Bookser. Last year’s starting center, Officer, is moving over to left guard this year, while Bookser will remain in his spot at right guard.

Advantage: Gold

Blue team defensive tackles: Mike Herndon, Shane Roy, Rashad Weaver, Keyshon Camp

Gold team defensive tackles: Jeremiah Taleni, Amir Watts, Julian Desire

Redshirt senior Jeremiah Taleni will be the team leader on the interior of the defensive line. Amir Watts also played well in limited snaps as a true freshman last year and has a great chance to earn a starting role alongside Taleni in 2017-18.

Advantage: Gold

Blue team outside linebackers: Jalen Williams, Peyton Deri, Anthony McKee

Gold team outside linebackers: Oluwaseun Idowu, Saleem Brightwell, Brian Popp

Again, the Gold team snatched up the only two players with legitimate game experience at the outside linebacker position. Oluwaseun Idowu has evolved from a walk-on into a firmly entrenched starter and Saleem Brightwell showed his potential on a 70-yard interception return in the fourth quarter of Pitt’s 43-42 win against eventual national champion Clemson last year.

Advantage: Gold

Blue team cornerbacks: Dane Jackson, Maurice Ffrench (CB/WR), Phillipie Motley

Gold team cornerbacks: Avonte Maddox, Therran Coleman

Dane Jackson and Ffrench are sophomores with legitimate game experience, and redshirt junior Motley might be the early favorite to line up opposite Maddox as the team’s No. 2 cornerback.

Maddox is the only guaranteed starter at corner this year, and, by all accounts, he has enjoyed a tremendous spring of practices. Narduzzi has also spoken highly of Therran Coleman’s progression heading into his second year, and Maddox’s playmaking ability and wealth of experience — 39 games played and 32 starts — push the Gold team over the top.

Advantage: Gold

Blue team free safety: Jay Stocker

Gold team free safeties: Jordan Whitehead, Bricen Garner

Not only did the Gold team pick up two of the three free safeties, they added arguably the most dynamic and talented player on the Panthers’ defense, junior Jordan Whitehead. After breaking his arm in Pitt’s win over Clemson last year and missing the team’s final three games, the 2016 ACC Rookie of the Year is primed for a big season in 2017-18.

Advantage: Gold

Blue team kicker: Ian Troost

Gold team kicker: Alex Kessman

After losing all-time scoring leader Chris Blewitt to graduation, the starting kicker spot is up for grabs next season. Alex Kessman appears to have the inside track to the job, but 6-foot-6 walk-on Ian Troost will have his best chance yet to make an impression on the coaches in Saturday’s spring game.

Advantage: Gold

Blue team punter: Kirk Christodoulou

Gold team punter: Ryan Winslow

Narduzzi and Powell brought in Kirk Christodoulou from the Prokick Australia program in hopes of making him their punter of the future, but Ryan Winslow is the present. A three-year starter, Winslow brings stability to the position and should have his best year yet as a senior.

Advantage: Gold

Too close to call

That makes 10 positions where the Gold team has a distinct edge, compared to only three for the Blue team. There are also five position groups without a clear advantage on either team: the running backs, tight ends, centers, defensive ends and long snappers. Here’s how those positions stack up:

Blue team running backs: Chawntez Moss, Kyle Vreen

Gold team running backs: Qadree Ollison, Shawn Wood

Blue team tight ends: Allen Edwards, Nathan Bossory

Gold team tight end: Deandre Schifino

Blue team center: Connor Dintino

Gold team center: Jimmy Morrissey

Blue team defensive ends: Allen Edwards, James Folston, Patrick Jones, Deslin Alexandre

Gold team defensive ends: Rori Blair, Rashad Weaver, Kaezon Pugh, Dom Cuono

Blue team long snapper: Nathan Bossory

Gold team long snapper: Conrad Brake

Summary: Looking over the rosters, it’s hard to believe Maddox and company didn’t rig the draft with the way they made out. After the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Brian Batko informed him that he had somehow secured all 11 of the Panthers’ returning starters, Maddox couldn’t contain his laughter.

“They were playing checkers, I was playing chess. I was thinking ahead of the game while they were just planning the next move,” Maddox said about his Blue team counterparts.

Now, the only thing to do is see if the Blue team has what it takes to pull off a miracle of an upset.

Prediction: Gold team 27, Blue team 14

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Gold team rules: Rosters set for Saturday’s spring game