In third week of Pitt’s training camp, things remain unsettled as far as starting positions on the offensive line. All-ACC preseason first team and ESPN preseason All-America guard Dorian Johnson and second-team tackle Adam Bisnowaty will assuredly man the left side, but the other three places are up for grabs — and it seems like that may be the case for a while.
With just a handful of practices before the opener, head coach Pat Narduzzi hasn’t tipped his hand about a starting five, and said Tuesday that isn’t something that needs to be accomplished before next Saturday.
That means the camp battles are likely to carry over into regular-season battles. Narduzzi liberally used the “OR” designation on the depth chart to declare multiple players starters at some spots in 2015 and it seems that will be the case this year, as well.
In the interior, redshirt sophomore Alex Bookser, senior John Guy and redshirt junior Alex Officer are battling for two spots at center and right guard.
Officer started at right guard in 2015 and at center in 2014, but his offseason was spent recovering from an injury suffered it Pitt’s Military Bowl loss to Navy last December. In his stead, Bookser has took over the primary center duties in the spring and hasn’t relinquished them to this point.
It’s been a work in progress for Bookser, who started as a tackle before moving to guard and now center, but he’s improved snapping the ball and with his consistency.
“He’s been good,” said Johnson, who added that Bookser has been doing the majority of the snapping. “He’s fast with his calls. He’s working on his snaps, but he’s getting them back there. He’s getting extra work in with [quarterback Nate Peterman] after practice. I think he’s transitioning well.”
There has also been a good deal of maturation for the easygoing Bookser, at least, according to Narduzzi.
“As coaches, you see daily stuff,” Narduzzi said. “For example, even in the spring game, he misses a block and Rachid [Ibrahim] gets hit in the backfield three yards deep and he was—I don’t want to say this laughing—in the huddle like, ‘Sorry, that was my bad.’ I haven’t seen any of that this year. He’s been more serious. I think he understands how important it is. Even just from the spring game, I’ve already noticed that he’s matured a lot.”
All parties involved agree that Bookser is still a work in progress at center, but the amount of time he’s been given to hone his craft at the spot suggests that he’s going to be given every opportunity to win the job.
That made for something of an awkward start to camp for Officer. The two-year starter spent most of his time on the second team behind Bookser and Guy, even though the latter duo has started a combined two starts — and they were both by Bookser at tackle.
“He’s a versatile guy,” offensive line coach John Peterson said. “He’s played guard and center both. I expect him to be right in the mix competing as part of this line.”
Recently, though, Officer has been getting more work with the first unit. It seems likely that he’ll be a member of the starting five come Sept. 3.
WHAT MAKES A STARTER A STARTER?
The offensive line has five starters. Except when it doesn’t. With three seniors, three fourth-year juniors and nine returning lettermen, the Panther’s offensive line has plenty of experience.
It’s a good bet that no matter what group of guys take the first snap, at least seven players will get an opportunity to show their stuff at some point this season.
“I think when you have created a certain amount of depth and you get in certain situations, you hope to allow more than just five guys play in a starting role,” Peterson said. “I think the more starters we can have, the more it allows guys in their preparation and mindset to really know that they’re in critical situations. They need to know that they’re preparation is at a championship level. I don’t mind rotating guys. I think it allows competition in practice.”
The other things the Panthers have gained this summer is flexibility. They now have several starting caliber linemen that can play multiple positions.
“Bookser is taking some snaps at guard, Officer is taking guard and center, Jaryd [Jones-Smith] is taking reps at both tackles,” Narduzzi said. “We will continue to work those guys around. The more positions they know, the more valuable they become.”
That means in case of an injury, “there wouldn’t be a drop off,” according to Johnson. Even if there isn’t an injury, the ability to take a series off for something minor can be a boon over the course of a season.
“You get to Week 9, Week 10, your body gets a little beat up,” he said. “At one point my freshman year, we only had five linemen that could play. Just having the stability is huge.”
The other thing that experience has provided the Panthers this fall is the “ability to hone their craft” at a high level, Peterson said.
“The linemen have really invested an awful lot into taking their line play from that young offensive lineman to confident players that can make adjustments on the field, see things and have the confidence to make the calls, and then when that ball is snapped, get after it.”
ONE OF THE GUYS
Right tackle Brian O’Neill has fed off the sense of competition after being forced into a starting role due to injuries in 2015. It’s his first full camp with the line after moving over from tight end last fall, and he’s appreciating the experience.
“I’m definitely an offensive lineman this year, whereas last year, I was an athlete that was stuck in a role and had to make it work,” O’Neill said. “I’m feeling great. I’m ready to go to work.”
The sense of continuity from last fall to the spring and now to the summer has O’Neill at an all-time high as far as confidence in his abilities.
“This is the first camp I’ve gone into where I’m playing the same position in the same offense as I did the previous spring or summer,” he said. “That’s something I’m really looking forward. I no longer have to worry about learning the plays as much. I had all spring and summer to go through it. … I think a lot of it is just repetition over and over again. I sat down last week and watch the film from the Georgia Tech game last year and I was like, ‘Wow.’ There would be times last year I had to completely wing it because I had never seen that situation before or it was a technique that I hadn’t been asked to do until two weeks before the game.”
Guy, a former walk-on, has suddenly seen his participation increase in his senior season. Until this year, his contributions have been limited to field goal duties, but now, he’s spent an entire spring and summer playing with the top unit. Whether as a starter or a top backup and sub, the 6-foot-7 Guy figures to be a key cog for the Panthers tis season.
“John is just a steady, steady-Eddie, guy,” Narduzzi said. “He’s tough, he’s physical, and he just goes about his business in a professional way. That’s what you really like about John. He doesn’t say boo out there, he just gets the job done. He’s doing a god job of competing for that right guard position.”
“I like the opportunity,” Guy said in his distinctive Boston accent. “The coaches are having trust in me that I can go out there and play with the [first team]. I appreciate that.”
With the amount of experience at the top — and even with players that aren’t starters but have a lot of experience such as Carson Baker and Aaron Reese — there hasn’t been a lot of opportunity for freshmen Brandon Ford, Bryce Hargrove and Justin Morgan. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t gained a lot from their first camp.
“I’m very pleased with these young guys as offensive linemen,” Peterson said. “They’re very intent on learning. They’re not timid. They’re very focused in meetings and extra time. Whether it’s techniques or concepts, it takes quite a while to develop or compete at this level.”
With preseason accolades, a multitude of experienced players and a rare level of health, the line seems to be poised to be one of Pitt’s most productive units this season.
“This offensive line can be really good,” O’Neill said. “Nobody is shying away from that. Our work ethic day in and day out and the extra stuff off the field — extra film, taking care of our bodies — is what separates a good offensive line from a great offensive line. I think this group does a really good job of that.”