PITTSBURGH — Pitt’s starting offensive line is a pretty experienced group. The Panthers feature Alex Officer, who has started 34 consecutive games, fellow returning starters Alex Bookser and Brian O’Neill and redshirt senior Jaryd Jones-Smith, who has four career starts and 21 games played.
Joining that experienced group has been center Connor Dintino, who played 23 games as a defensive tackle, fullback and on the field goal package in his first two seasons with Pitt.
Beyond them, there’s nothing to speak of when it comes to experience, which means that one of the top priorities for offensive line coach John Peterson this spring is discovering which of his depth players are most ready to step in should he miss a starter for a period of time.
In Thursday’s work, that second group featured Tony Pilato, Brandon Ford, Jimmy Morrissey, Justin Morgan and Jerry Drake, with Morgan and Morrissey getting some time with the first team due to an injury.
Morrissey is a particular interesting candidate for more playing time. The redshirt freshman turned down multiple scholarship offers to walk on to Pitt when he left La Salle College High school in Montgomery County, just outside of Philadelphia.
“I knew I was going to have to work hard coming here or wherever I was going to go,” Morrissey said Thursday. “One of the reasons I came here was when I met with Coach [Pat] Narduzzi my senior year. He told me I was going to have to a fair shot of competing. That’s all I really wanted when I came here.”
With two players headed to the NFL and another four leaving the team without finishing their eligibility, that’s created an opening for a younger, less-heralded player to grab some playing time. It seems that Morrissey has made the most of that opportunity.
“He is a good football player, a great walk-on that’s going to earn a scholarship here someday on the offensive line,” Narduzzi said. “We are very encouraged by him. I saw it last year on our scout team that he is probably one of the best scout team offensive linemen that we have had. He led that group and he has done a tremendous job. We are happy to have him.”
“Jimmy Morrissey is a football player,” offensive line coach John Peterson said. “He’s a student of the game. He takes his craft very seriously on and off the field. He prepares and he has taken advantage of every opportunity he has.”
Drake is another player that’s taken advantage of the opportunity. The true freshman early enrollee has secured a spot as the second team right tackle in his first few weeks as a member of the team.
“He is such a mature kid, and we kind of knew that in the recruiting process that he was mature and very serious,” Narduzzi said. “I think that is why he came here and came mid-year. He’s got an agenda and he has continued to work hard. He’s still making freshman mistakes; he’s a high school player still, but he has done really well. He’s been running with the twos and he continues to get better every day.”
A year ago, the team leaned on Jones-Smith and John Guy as the top backups at tackle and guard. This year, it’s unclear who’s going to man those roles, and this spring will go a long to way to sorting out which lineman have earned it.
“Our job is to develop every position, certainly with that second offensive line group,” Narduzzi said. “Pilato has shown some spurts in there, Morrissey has done some good things, Justin Morgan has done some good things and he is a load in there. When he puts his hands on you, you are going down. It’s the inconsistency. There is a good play and then you are going, ‘Ah, we have to fix that.’ It’s never a form of beauty out there. It’s a work in progress, and there are good things but also fundamentals we have to work on.”
“I’ll let you know probably in September,” Peterson said. “That’s what spring ball and summer workouts are for, to create and find out those things.”