Pitt makes Heinz Field debut

By Zack Chakan

The Pitt football team made its Heinz Field debut Thursday night in front of thousands of empty,… The Pitt football team made its Heinz Field debut Thursday night in front of thousands of empty, yellow seats. It wasn’t exactly opening day, but a kickoff nonetheless. Nine days before the season opener at home against Bowling Green, the Panthers took the field for their annual FanFest, which gives students the opportunity to check the team out for the first time. Players signed autographs starting at 6:30 p.m. and continued to do so for an hour. While the signings drew a hefty crowd, the longest line belonged to sophomore running back LeSean McCoy, whose fans had quite a long wait to meet the Heisman hopeful. Following the autograph session, the Panthers warmed up on the field in shorts and pads to prepare for an open practice. The practice lasted for a little more than an hour with several drills taking place but had limited contact to reduce the all-too-worrisome injury risk. Pitt’s players got a feel for the impressive Heinz Field turf, which was in better condition than it was at any time last season. It didn’t help during special teams drills, though, with usually steady kicker Conor Lee missing three of his four field goal attempts. After a set of special teams work, Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt directed a seven-on-seven drill without the lines on each side of the ball. The offensive and defensive linemen worked on individual blocking. The practice wrapped up with a two-minute drill with the starters and then two subsequent reserve units. Tight end Nate Byham provided the highlight of the night. During the second team’s two-minute drill, Byham reached up high with one hand and pulled down a pass from quarterback Kevan Smith. Despite the atypical practice routine, Wannstedt was pleased with the work his team put out in front of the fans. ‘It’s not ideal conditions to practice,’ said Wannstedt. ‘Our guys are down there signing autographs, and the mindset is not what it should be. [But] I thought we got some decent work done, particularly at the end with the two-minute drill.’ ‘Everybody got a little taste of it, nobody got hurt, and now we move on.’ Linebacker Shane Murray, who has been out with a knee injury for the past week, did not practice at the FanFest and was walking with crutches. Fifth-year senior Austin Ransom took all of the first-team reps in place of Murray. ‘We’re trying to force-feed [Ransom] a little bit, see where he’s at mentally,’ said Wannstedt. ‘It’ll be him and Tristan [Roberts]. Ransom was moved back to linebacker last week after starting camp at wide receiver. He played defensive back last season and has been a regular at special teams in the past. Wannstedt said Murray is day-to-day. It appears that Lee is the front-runner to handle the kickoffs, ahead of sophomore Luke Briggs. Wannstedt said Lee’s consistency placed him above Briggs, punter Dave Brytus and Dan Hutchins.

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