Jake Kradel was the only non-senior on Pitt’s offensive line this season, so the task of having to replace not only a veteran unit but a conference-leading unit loomed large for Pitt this offseason.
That’s not going to be an issue for head coach Pat Narduzzi and his staff this offseason anymore.
The entire Pitt offensive line will return next season, including the senior foursome of Carter Warren, Marcus Minor, Gabe Houy and Owen Drexel, to give the Panthers’ offense another season of one of the best offensive lines in college football — with yet another offseason to continue to gel.
“We all had our own situations to look at, everybody has their own lives, own personalities … but bottom line, we did talk to each other about it,” Minor said. “We do think as an O-line, having a year playing with one another, having the chemistry, it would be great for us to come back in — if we were to come back — to do it together. And we were able to talk about it after we made our decisions and felt like it was a great thing to do.”
With COVID-19 offering an added year of eligibility to all college football players, the senior foursome decided to make the most of the ability to return to Pitt, and the decision is one that will have a major impact on Pitt’s offensive and team performance in 2022-23.
With Kenny Pickett leaving for the NFL, and USC transfer Kedon Slovis entering the program, the quarterback position will undergo some renovation — with Slovis not just walking into the starting spot either. But if Slovis is able to replicate and build upon the consistency of his freshman season with the Trojans, Pitt will be in good hands.
With the running back trio of Israel Abanikanda, Vincent Davis and Rodney Hammond Jr. all returning and adding further experience, Biletnikoff Award-winner Jordan Addison headlining a talented receiving corps that returns Jared Wayne, Jaylon Barden and possibly Akron transfer Konata Mumpfield and freshman All-American Gavin Bartholomew taking over as the starting tight end, Pitt has an embarrassment of riches to support whoever is under center.
But the foundation of Pitt’s offense, as was the case with Pickett’s offense this season, will be established by the big men up front. The return of Pitt’s entire offensive line is just as important — if not more so — than replacing Pickett.
So, while the decision to return for one last season for the offensive line was a collective one, and particularly tough for someone like Warren who has received NFL Draft hype and a Senior Bowl invite this season, the stars aligned for one last ride.
“It’s big,” Narduzzi said. “I mean, that’s big. As big as they are, that’s how big it is. … That’s a big thing. And those guys made that decision, that was not twisting arms, I’m not a guy – these kids gotta make decisions. I’m not gonna be the one. But they made business decisions, they took their time, and they were ready to do that today.”
When Minor transferred into the program from Maryland last season, he expected to stay for just a year because that was his best option at the time. After a season spent at Pitt — excelling at Pitt — with his boys, he wanted to do it all over again.
“I feel like we just gotta worry about what we can do, just like we did this year,” Minor said. “We’re always focused on getting better in our own standpoint, technique, ability to be able to watch we did this season and fix it for next season — and from there, be able to dominate and provide even more than we did this season.”
With that relationship already established between all five guys on the line, Minor said they’ll be able to work together at an even higher level — knowing each other’s positives, negatives and just being able to coach each other if tough love is needed.
“Not afraid to curse each other out,” Drexel added, drawing some laughs from his linemates at Pitt’s media day on Wednesday.
Drexel said he was the first to make his decision, taking credit for the chain reaction, but he said it wouldn’t have been possible if their collective bond hadn’t already reached the level of brothers. Drexel looks at his linemates as family, and even with Minor arriving late, he’s been a brother since the day he walked through the doors.
“I think it’s huge (being back),” Houy said. “I think personally for me and Marcus especially. He’s dealt with a similar situation as I have, dealing with injuries early on, and just being able to progress another year is huge for us — and just being able to do it with our best friends is even bigger.”
While the bonds have been built and the foundation has been established, the room for improvement is clear. Pitt’s offensive line, the starting five, allowed just 10 sacks and only 87 hurries this season. It’s a veteran, talented group that wants to be better. Without Pickett next season, Drexel said Pitt will have something to prove.
“Every year kind of starts fresh,” Drexel said. “We’re gonna have a lot to prove, especially with that No. 8 guy not being in the building, but I think we’re gonna have the same mentality as this year. We’re still gonna have that underdog mentality like Pittsburgh is in general.”
The excitement is palpable, and Drexel said the unit is excited to block for whoever drops back as the quarterback and whoever takes the handoffs at running back.
With Warren turning down the lure of the NFL next season largely coming down to running it back with his boys, Pitt as a whole was another key factor in the return.
“This program is amazing,” Warren said. “Coach Duzz, everything he’s done for us, as well as (offensive line) coach (Borbely), what he’s taught us — it’s everything.”
It was like Christmas morning for Borbely Wednesday morning, and Panther Nation felt the same way.