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Pitt struggling to fill hole at center

| Friday, March 28, 2003

The Pitt football program has produced a long line of exceptional centers. It started with the first All-American in school history (Robert Peck, 1914) and has stretched all the way to the most recent players to man the position, Jeff McCurley and Chad Reed.

"We've been spoiled," offensive line coach Tom Freeman said.

Now, Pitt is challenged.

Reed's departure left a gaping hole in the middle of a potentially potent offense, and neither of the top candidates to fill it -- Justin Belarski and Rob Frederick -- has staked a claim. The two redshirt juniors are sharing snaps at spring practice.

"We have to hope one of them emerges," Freeman said. "If not, we'll juggle the line and see if we can find somebody who can hold down the position for us right now. It's a major concern."

Coach Walt Harris sounded no less concerned when he was asked if Belarski and Frederick are indeed the leading candidates for the position.

"I couldn't say that right now," Harris said. "We're a long ways away from having what we want at that position. We have two candidates, and we might have some more. We might have to move some other guys around. We'll see how it goes."

Frederick is a 6-foot-3, 295-pound graduate of Southmoreland High School. He began his college career at Tulsa but transferred to Pitt after his sophomore year. He sat out last season.

A coaching change at Tulsa and a longing for home prompted Frederick to transfer.

"I get to see my family all the time now, and I get to play for one of the best football programs in the nation, at a school with great academics," he said. "It's fantastic."

Pitt's offense presents a different challenge than Tulsa's, Frederick explained, because the center has to make more calls at the line of scrimmage.

"You're essentially the quarterback of the offensive line," he said. "It's tough, but in the fall, when I had to sit out (with a broken foot), I made my best strides learning the offense."

Belarski, 6-3, 290 pounds, backed up Reed last season and played the second half of a blowout victory at Syracuse. He is a two-year letter winner. Like Frederick, he enjoys the fact that Reed is helping Freeman coach the offensive line this spring.

"Chad's the best," Belarski said. "Like (Frederick) said, it's going to be hard shoes to fill. Pitt has a great tradition of centers. If we can keep it going, that'd be great."

Belarski and Frederick are friends away from the field.

"The competition aspect is very good," Frederick said. "It pushes us both to get better. In the long run, it will help us both."

The way Freeman sees it, nothing helps more than going against defensive tackles Vince Crochunis and Charles Spencer in practice. Those two can help Pitt's centers get ready for what should be some stiff competition in the Big East.

"Gosh knows what we have in the middle linebacker department and the nose tackle department in this conference," Freeman said. "They don't put some rum-dum in there."

Harris hopes to have a pretty good idea of what his depth chart will look like when spring practice is finished. But, as Freeman knows, center is one spot that Harris might as well leave blank for now.

"Thank God we have another eight days of spring practice," Freeman said, "because the good lord knows, we need it."

  • Notes: Quarterback Rod Rutherford was held out of practice yesterday, Harris said, because he "failed to execute an academic requirement." Harris added, "We don't think it will be a recurring problem." Asked if Rutherford would be back at practice today, Harris, "Yeah. ... Potentially, he'll be back." ... Running back Raymond Kirkley sat out practice because of quadriceps injury that was aggravated away from the field. "He was getting ready to practice Tuesday, and I think he had some kind of mishap on campus, so he's hurt again," Harris said. "I don't know what happened. I really don't." ... Unlike in some previous springs, Harris is allowing defensive players to hit his quarterback. "I think it's been hurting us not letting them get hit," he said, explaining that backup quarterbacks Tyler Palko and Luke Getsy need the work and that, when the quarterbacks can't be hit, "the offensive linemen are dreaming." Harris added, "It is a risk, but hopefully we'll be intelligent from the defensive side." ... Harris said he likely won't decide whether to redshirt Palko until the week leading up the first regular-season game.

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