Pitt searching for next kicker, punter
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One of Dave Wannstedt's primary concerns is finding a replacement for an All-Big East player who set seven school records and had an unforgettable performance in Pitt's most memorable win last season.
And we're not talking about LeSean McCoy.
Wannstedt has a keen interest in the training camp battle between redshirt freshman Kevin Harper and redshirt junior Dan Hutchins, who are trying to succeed Conor Lee as Pitt's placekicker.
"Conor Lee, we know by his production here at Pitt how valuable he was to the university," Wannstedt said of Lee, who set a school record with five field goals at Notre Dame, including the game winner of the 36-33 quadruple-overtime victory. "Now, the first time we go out to kick a field goal between Kevin Harper and (Hutchins), it's going to be the first time they're lining up and performing when it counts."
Where Harper was recruited as a scholarship player out of Mentor (Ohio), Hutchins followed Lee's path as a walk-on from Loyalsock Township in Williamsport. Hutchins served three years as Lee's understudy, traveling with the Panthers as the backup kicker and punter.
"I can't really vouch for myself and say, 'Hey, I'm ready.' Physically, I am ready, but I don't have the experience," Hutchins said.
"But, in my mind, I do because I have a great relationship with Conor and have been to all these stadiums, so I'm used to how the wind blows. I feel like I'm ready. Conor taught me it's not about the big kick, it's about every kick and being consistent."
That's what separates Hutchins from Harper at the moment. Harper has the stronger leg, as he set an Ohio high school record for longest field goal with a 61-yarder and considers anything within 65 yards in his range. But, Harper's accuracy has been inconsistent.
"In high school, I just kept trying to improve my strength, and that's what really impressed the coaches here," said Harper, who has worked to shorten his steps and change his approach on field goals and extra points. "I realized that it doesn't matter how far you kick it when it's not going in."
And that's what Wannstedt is watching for most. He said the Panthers are charting every kick in training camp and posting the results for the contestants to see, so as to take his "gut feeling" out of the equation.
"The biggest thing with field goals is consistency," Wannstedt said. "I'm not concerned with a guy that can kick a 60-yard field goal. Hopefully, we don't have to go for many of those. The guy that can consistently kick that 20- to 40-yarder• That's the guy."
What adds another twist to the competition is that the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Hutchins also is the leading candidate to replace Dave Brytus as Pitt's punter, which presents a potential conundrum. After having three specialists handle the kickoff, placekicking and punting duties, the Panthers could split the chores with a handful of players this season.
Redshirt junior Lucas Briggs was the kickoff specialist last season but will have to hold off Harper, who booted 80 percent of his kickoffs for touchbacks in high school. Hutchins is competing with freshmen punters Pat Costello of Greensburg Central Catholic, Aaron Hassett of Moon and Matt Yoklic of Pine-Richland to be the punter, and it possible Hutchins could handle the punting and kicking duties.
"I would rather him not, but if that be the case, it can be done and it would be done," Wannstedt said. "And I'll say this: They're both capable, both have the accuracy and leg to be outstanding kickers. We have guys. It's just a matter of getting through the bumps, getting situated and figuring out who's doing what."Additional Information:
Big shoe to fill
A look at the school records held by All-Big East kicker Conor Lee:
Game : 5 (vs. Notre Dame, 2008)
Season : 20, 2008
Career : 50, 2006-08
Career field-goal percentage: 83.3 (50 of 60)
Consecutive : 12*, 2007
Consecutive : 113, 2006-08
Game : 18 (vs. Notre Dame, 2008)
* -- tied with Chris Ferencik, 1995
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