As the Pitt Panthers and the team’s fans count down the days to the 2018 Blue-Gold Game at Heinz Field, Pittsburgh Sports Now will break down the most important things to watch this Saturday.
PITTSBURGH — When he left Maryland and came to Pittsburgh this offseason, new Pitt offensive line coach Dave Borbely was excited to take the job and get back to working with linemen in the trenches after spending his last season in College Park as an off-the-field analyst.
Very quickly after making the move, he discovered exactly how much work in the trenches he was going to have to do. Over the winter, Pitt lost four of its top six linemen in terms of playing time from 2017.
Starting left guard Alex Officer, starting right tackle Jaryd Jones-Smith and top backup Brandon Hodges were all lost to graduation and starting left tackle Brian O’Neill decided to take his diploma and head to the NFL with one season of eligibility remaining.
“I didn’t know that until I met with them after I got hired,” Borbely said.
That left Borbely with redshirt sophomore center Jimmy Morrissey, right guard Alex Bookser and a whole bunch of question marks heading into his first spring at Pitt. It’s something of a blank canvas for Borbely to create an offensive line that looks the way he wants. But there’s not a lot of time in the spring for such a unit to gel.
“I guess I’ve got to paint pretty fast,” Borbely joked early in camp. “The room is so young in terms of age. There’s 17 of them, half of them are freshmen or redshirt freshmen, and then only an handful have played in games, so we’ve got to find some answers pretty quickly here, find out what our two-deep is and specifically, who our Top 8 guys are, and where the pieces plug in — who is going to play where.”
While Pitt doesn’t have a lot of experience — outside of Bookser and Morrissey, only Mike Herndon and Conor Dintino have significant game reps — they do have a lot of prospects with a chance to develop into something special, according to Borbely, and the fact that they haven’t played much yet isn’t a reason for concern.
“You can (develop) a lineman further than you can any other position,” Borbely said. “It’s a harder position to play. The closer you move to the football, the harder it is to play as a young player. There’s a mental maturity and certainly a physical maturity that’s got to take place with that position.”
When it comes to finding out the right mix for the five starting spots and eight men that will prepare as part of that main group for gamedays, it’s a versatile group. Bookser has played center, right guard and right tackle in the past and has played some at left tackle this spring. Dintino can play center and guard. Herndon can play both guard spots. Younger players like Bryce Hargrove and Tony Pilato can flip between guard and tackle.
“I have guys playing inside who could play tackle, I think,” Borbely said. “That’s part of the challenge, for sure.”
The other challenge will be getting all of the linemen up to speed when it comes to the new techniques that Borbely is trying to install.
“Some of it’s the same,” Borbely said. “There’s a good chunk of it’s the same, but there’s a little bit that’s different from a technique standpoint, in particular. So, that’s really the piece we’re working on. I think the pass protection piece for them is a little different than what they’re used to and what they did a year ago.”
In that regard, it’s been a long spring for the Pitt offensive line, as the defense has had the upper hand, particularly on passing downs.
“I though the defense was a little bit ahead with all the pressure they bring,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said on Tuesday, but he’s also happy with the progress. “Our pass protection, right now, looks like it’s better than last year’s. … I’ve really been impressed with protection and they’re doing a nice job.”
FINDING A SPOT
Bookser is going to start, that much has been abundantly clear. But where he starts is more of an open question. Bookser played mostly right guard in 2017, with a bit of right tackle in the mix. He’s also worked at center in the past, but that seems like Pitt’s deepest position with Morrissey and Dintino possessing experience there.
“He’s been great about that,” Borbely said. “He’s like, ‘Wherever you want me to play, I’ll play. I know he can play guard. I want to see if he can play tackle.”
Narduzzi was more definitive when asked what the best spot for Bookser is.
“Tackle,” Narduzzi said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be left tackle, right tackle. But we definitely need him as an offensive tackle. He’s doing a great job. Coach Borbely’s doing a great job coaching. I think he’s liking what’s going on right now.”
Narduzzi said over the winter that he expects Kent State graduate transfer Stefano Millin, who won’t join the team until the summer, to start at one spot. With Bookser at the other, that means the team is still looking for a third tackle to put in that top group.
“A lot of the young guys are competing for that, whether it’s Carter Warren or Gabe Houy,” Narduzzi said. “Tony Pilato is working at it. Then we’ve got Stefano coming in, and we’re looking for big things out of him as well.”
Redshirt freshman Jerry Drake has also earned playing time with the first group at tackle, making for a deep group of candidates for that final spot.
MAN IN THE MIDDLE
The one constant seems to be Morrissey, a surprise starter last year as a redshirt freshman and former walk-on. In just one year, he’s gone from a player that barely anyone knew to something of a constant on Pitt’s offensive line.
With so many players shuffling in and out of different positions and players moving around, having Morrissey in the middle as a traffic cop has allowed him to be a more vocal leader of the unit, in the traditional mold of a center.
“It’s definitely different than last year,” Morrissey said. “Last year, I had two seniors and two juniors that pretty much all helped me find my way and now I’m the only guy that’s returning in my position. Even Bookser, the other returning starter, has to go to tackle now and learn every more. I’m just doing whatever I can do to help the guys. It’s definitely hectic.”
With a year starting under his belt, Morrissey feels that he can be a better player than he was in 2017, as well.
“Not everything happens out on the field,” he said. “A lot of it happens in the film room. … I have higher goals that I want to reach. My next goal is to help the younger guys come along.”
VALUE OF EXPERIENCE
With it looking like Bookser and Millin will man the tackle spots, the best place for a younger player to step up and take a spot will be at guard, but it won’t be easy, because the two most experienced returning backups are currently manning those spots in redshirt seniors Dintino and Herndon.
Dintino started his Pitt career as a center, then moved to defensive tackle, fullback and back to center. Now, he’s landed at guard, which is a new spot for him, but because of the moving around he’s done, he’s gotten a ton of reps over his four-year career.
The same can be said for Herndon, who has bounced back and forth between the offensive and defensive line so many times, it’s hard to count. He played both in the same game at times last year.
“Dintino has been really solid in there,” Narduzzi said. “We got him playing center and we have him playing guard right now. He’s doing a great job and is very consistent in what we’re getting every day out of him. … Both those guys are developing well and Jimmy Morrissey.”
Pilato and Bryce Hargrove seem to be the two players most likely to unseat one of the veterans at guard. But just because they’re younger doesn’t mean they won’t be given an opportunity. The versatility of Dintino and Herndon as players that can play multiple positions on the offensive line and other positions on the team means that they will still be valuable players for Pitt, even if they don’t lock down a starting role.
“It’s that extra drive, that extra push,” Hargrove said. “It’s right there. You’ve got to go get it. You’ve got to go take it.”
Even if they don’t end up carving out a starting role, the team’s plethora of talented young linemen should set things up nicely for the future once they gain experience.
“Once you start to mature, you get that patience and you understand what it takes to become the player the team needs,” Hargrove said.
Regardless of the eventual mix, with four seniors and a returning starter in Morrissey, Pitt’s offensive line should have a pretty solid foundation for success, and if some of the talented young players can step up and earn a job, the unit that has seen the most turnover could end up being one of the strengths of the team in 2018.