August 28, 2007

The tight ends are in the mix

With much of the talk this camp surrounding the question of who will take over as the Panthers' go-to receiver, the tight end position cannot be forgotten either.

While players like Marcel Pestano and Oderick Turner have stepped up their efforts, the Panthers return three tight ends in Darrell Strong, Nate Byham and John Pelusi. Redshirt sophomore Dustin Walters, a walk-on, also adds depth to the position.

Strong is having a great camp, arguably the best since he's been a Panther. He set a career-high with three touchdown receptions last season, but missed two games due to a suspension. Byham looks to be an even bigger contributor on offense, and Pelusi looks recovered from a knee injury that forced him to miss the 2006 season. Byham only caught two passes as a true freshman last season, but he did play a significant number of downs. One of those was a 23-yard touchdown pass against West Virginia.

On paper, the tight ends don't put up receiver-like numbers, but the ones on this roster have made plays when it counts, and should make its fair share in 2007. Head Coach Dave Wannstedt compares this group of tight ends to the defensive line, in terms of the talent of its depth.

"The tight ends are kind of like the defensive line," Wannstedt said. "I think we have three guys who are starters, in Byham, Strong and Pelusi."

On Wednesday's scrimmage, Strong caught a 20-yard touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone. He led all Panther receivers with 40 yards on three catches. Byham had one catch for 17 yards, and Walters had two catches for 23 yards.

Though he knows he is competing with Strong and Pelusi, Byham feels that each one of them brings something different to the team, but also feels that the team needs all three to perform well.

"We work on the same things," Byham said of the tight ends. "We work on our run-blocking skills as much as we work on our pass catching skills, in individual (drills). John is a great blocker. Darrell is a great receiver. I feel like I'm kind of in between both. I don't feel great at either, but I feel I'm pretty good, and I feel I keep progressing."

Nothing official has been set in terms of depth, but Byham has been taking a majority of the snaps with the first-team. Strong has too, while he and Pelusi split second-team reps. It's tough competition, and Byham feels all three will get their share of reps, something he doesn't mind sharing.

"Scheme wise, I feel we're pretty good," Byham said. "For the most part, we're all veterans, and we know the plays. We're doing a good job on our intensity and effort. We know everyone looks at us as one of the deeper positions on offense. We're just going out there and working hard on offense, because we know if we mess up, it's on us."

On top of Byham's good camp, Strong is poised for a great senior season, hopefully bouncing back from a pair of personal setbacks. One, was of course the obscene gesture at South Florida last year, and the other was an incident involving his girlfriend over the summer. Through it all, Strong has put the past aside, and had a great camp.

"Darrell Strong has had a fantastic training camp," Wannstedt added. "I couldn't be happier for how he has worked. He has done everything we asked. He has come out and improved on his blocking, and is in good shape."

Wannstedt even backed his senior tight end, saying he knew Darrell would put aside his past problems to come out and have a great senior year.

"If I thought Darrell was a bad guy, he wouldn't be on my team," Wannstedt said. "He has done some immature things that he regrets and some foolish things, but he's not a bad person. He's a good person. I like Darrell so that is why I've stuck with him. I think he has realized that too. I think when you stick with these kids and try to give them another opportunity, providing the circumstances allow them, I think the other players see that as well."

At 6-5, 255 pounds, Strong has made plays in his career. He was a key contributor on Pitt's Fiesta Bowl team of 2004. He caught the first touchdown pass of the season in 2006, a one-yarder from Tyler Palko, and he also threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to LaRod Stephens-Howling against The Citadel.

"This year was definitely my most electrifying camp," Strong said, after Wednesday's scrimmage. "I came in good shape. I came in with high hopes of having a good camp, and things came out good. Buddy (Morris) came in, and got me stronger and quicker."

Strong said he feels in the best shape of his life. When it comes to assessing the tight ends as a group, he has a similar view to Byham.

"You can pretty much say anything about our tight ends," Strong added. "We can all get the job done. We're definitely strong at tight end. It's got to be one of the strongest positions on the team."

Much like the way the receivers have stepped up, the tight ends may challenge the receivers for some of Bill Stull's passes this season. For a team that wants to improve running the football, it still has a lot of passing options when it comes to receivers, and in this case, tight ends.

"We have a new quarterback coming in," Byham said. "(Bill Stull) has a lot of good options, and shouldn't have anyone he should doubt when he's throwing the ball."

Tony Greco can be contacted at pittpath@hotmail.com..










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