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The Battle for Pitt’s Starting Center Job



PITTSBURGH — One of the very few position battles that’s still going strong in the third week of Pitt’s training camp is the one at center between redshirt junior Connor Dintino and redshirt freshman Jimmy Morrissey.

It’s an unlikely battle for more than one reason.

Dintino was recruited to Pitt as a center, but spent his first two seasons as a reserve defensive lineman. When he finally got some playing time, it was mostly at fullback in 2015 before moving permanently back to the offensive line in 2016. But he comes into the battle with more reps as a guard on the field goal unit and as a fullback than he does at center.

Morrissey is an even less likely option, coming to Pitt as a walk-on from La Salle College High School in Montgomery County, Pa. He had offers to lower-level schools such as Bucknell, Harvard and Lehigh, but Morrissey chose to come to Pitt without a scholarship and try to earn his way.

After just one season, it seems that he’s turned enough heads to get a real shot at cracking the starting lineup as a redshirt freshman. That’s a long way from Lehigh.

“We had him in camp (as a recruit) and he did an exceptional job in the drills,” offensive line coach John Peterson said. “Recruiting took its course and at the end of the day, recruiting isn’t a perfect science. (There are) young guys who have dreams and have the confidence that Jimmy has, comes out, works hard and competes every day.

Pitt has an extra scholarship to work with this fall and Morrissey is probably in pretty good shape to claim it by the end of training camp. But that’s not at the front of anyone’s mind right now as he battles for a starting spot.

“We really don’t talk about whether he’s a walk-on or he’s a scholarship player,” Peterson said. “We just say, ‘Who are the best guys and what are the intangibles and details that are making them?’ At the end of the day, it’s about a football player.”

Of course, finding the best guys might go beyond just Dintino and Morrissey. Pitt has plenty of other options as the Panthers try to find the top five. Alex Officer has been playing left guard and the sense is that’s where the team wants him to be, but he has plenty of experience in the middle, starting most of the 2016 season there.

“AO is the man. AO has really helped me a lot,” Morrissey said. “During the spring, he helped me so much. Every time I have a question, he’s the first one I go to.”

Alex Bookser also took reps at center during the spring and has again this fall, while graduate transfer Brandon Hodges has played right tackle and right guard. It adds up to seven players for five spots, and it may end up that neither Dintino or Morrissey is in the final mix. Or it could be a veteran that is on the outside looking in.

“(Hodges has) helped create a little competition on the offensive line,” Officer said. “Competition is always great. It makes guys better at the end of the day. When you know you already have a job, you get complacent. That’s what Coach Narduzzi doesn’t want. It ramps up the level. Guys have to step up and play a higher level.”

One of the other things that it’s done is put an increased emphasis on versatility. With so many players that can play multiple positions, a player that loses a battle at one spot might end up unseating someone at another by the end of the year. It also helps each player grow a bit in their primary spot.

“Anytime you physically experience an understand what the tackles are doing or what the guards are doing or what the center is doing, it helps you at your place,” Peterson said. “That’s the goal, to work from your little 2-yard box to make it a 4-yard box and see outside that. The goal is to get them clearer lenses so that they see clearly what’s going on. That takes repetition and when you put a guy at a different position, he sees from different eyes.”

So Pitt’s offensive line remains as unsettled as it’s been at this stage in camp in several years, but it doesn’t seem to be a result of a lack of options.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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