Dave Borbely feels like it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the entire Pitt starting offensive line to return in 2022, but he also recognizes that the entire second unit could’ve been starting this season. That’s not hyperbole.
Pitt returned four fifth-year seniors, and a true senior, for the 2022 season. That’s the chaos of college football at work.
With Carter Warren, Marcus Minor, Owen Drexel, Jake Kradel and Owen Houy coming back for one last ride together, that’s well over 100 career starts, actually nearing 150 career starts. It’s a strong unit that led Pitt to an ACC championship last season, but it’s also a unit that’s been heavily pushed by the second team unit.
“I’ve got a lot of depth,” Borbely said. “I’m rolling a lot of guys in with the first group, but there’s great understanding, they understand the tempo I want them to drill at, they understand the tempo I want them to go against the defense — whether it’s a thud period or live period.
“Really, when you think about it, my second group should be my starters this year,” Borbely said. “And I have a lot of confidence in that group and certainly by next year I’ll have even more because many of them will have played and been in the system for another year. They’re doing a fantastic job.”
For reference, it’s not just the second unit. There’s the aforementioned unit, there’s an entire second unit — that doesn’t include positional battles — and even more depth in the pipeline. The offensive line room led by Borbely is stacked. If you want a big, strong veteran, you’ve got seven guys. If you want a big, strong young guy, you’ve got six. If you want a big, technically sound player with potential, there’re five more.
If push came to shove, Pitt could roll out three starting offensive line units. 15 players. It’s that deep. And while the starting unit has stolen the headlines, for obvious reasons, the second team unit is a key factor this season and beyond.
When the entire starting offensive line decided to return after last season, four guys deciding to use the extra Covid season, Borbely wasn’t surprised. He spoke individually with each player, and even laid out why it would be in their best interest, but he didn’t promise a return to their starting spot.
“As I told them, ‘If you come back, the competition is wide open.’ And it is,” Borbely said. “The guys in this second group, they’re really pressing, they’re pushing some of these starters to up their game. And one thing I told them, once they did come back, I should say, (I said), ‘We can’t be the same players we were last year because it won’t be good enough. We got sixth-year guys, you gotta be better players. We have to improve.'”
When it comes to the second team unit, in Borbely’s eyes, Ryan Baer is doing very well as a rookie — a true freshman. Branson Taylor is playing great. Ryan Jacoby has probably made the most improvement since last season. Terrence Moore is playing great football this summer. And that doesn’t even account for the position battles.
Kradel is battling every day with Blake Zubovic for that right guard spot, and with Gabe Houy limited this summer, there’s absolutely zero concern with Matt Goncalves stepping back into the right tackle spot.
Goncalves, who said he entered Pitt as a “skinny, little guy” at 290 pounds, stands at 6-foot-6, 315 pounds. He’s started three games as a left tackle in 2020 and five games as a right tackle in 2021. He’s worked hard to put on those 25 pounds since arriving, and he’s excelled on the field. With a new offense in 2022, he’s excited to run the ball more, but he’s also excited to just run it back with the guys he’s come to know.
One of the new guys, a true freshman in Baer, has actually established a strong bond with Goncalves. Baer has made an impact, but he’s become a close friend of Goncalves’.
“He’s right next to my locker, and we really bonded throughout the summer,” Goncalves said. “So, I try to help him out, he helps me out. I think he’s doing well so far. I think he’s doing really well for a freshman, getting in there, getting reps, being aggressive.”
To say that Baer is doing well so far would be an understatement. The 6-foot-7, 335-pound true freshman arrived in January, impressed during the spring practices and has only gotten better this summer. He’s been so good on the field that he’s stepped into the second team left tackle spot behind Warren, but he’s also been voted onto Pitt’s Eagles group — a unit of leaders.
When Pitt broke down Friday’s practice, following stretches, it was Baer who stood in the middle of the huddle. He wouldn’t be able to replicate what he said, but his words rang out over the Monongahela River Friday morning, echoing along the water. As one of just two true freshmen on the Eagles group (a group that is voted upon by the team) — along with Samuel Okunlola — it was an experience that won’t soon be forgotten.
“I’m not a big talker,” Baer said Friday. “So, it was a little nervous, I was pretty nervous. I spent all day in meetings just thinking about what I was going to say. I got voted in by everyone on the team, which I’m very grateful for that, but talking is not my favorite thing.”
When it comes to why Baer has been named to such an exclusive Eagles group, he pointed to his maturity, his seriousness and his likeability. He wants to come into practice every day and learn. If he can get better in any area every single day, that’s a good day. There’s a lot he has to work on, he recognizes that, but he has some incredible teammates to learn from. And he recognizes that too.
“Baer is a big, strong guy,” Borbely said. “He’s extremely smart. In the spring, he was kind of measuring things. He wasn’t quite sure, but he’s not measuring blocks anymore. He’s going after people, and really the other day, I told him, ‘You need to play with more of an edge.’ He did that. He’s done that for the last two days.”
With Baer’s size and strength, Borbely feels like he can play either tackle spot. But he’s also smart enough with enough technical ability, that Borbely feels like he could mold Baer to either guard spot too. Suffice to say, Baer has impressed. And he’s not alone.
“That second group has a bunch of great players on it,” Minor said Friday. “Branson (Taylor), Terrence Moore, plenty of people coming up on the second group working their tails off. I’m excited to see how they grow, and things continue throughout the season.”
Taylor has emerged out of the spring practices as a player who didn’t see the field to a legit contender at right tackle. If there’s any duo to look forward to, it’s Baer and Taylor at the tackle spots in the years ahead. However, he’s grown this summer. Moore has grown this summer, falling into the spot behind Drexel. Ryan Jacoby has made immense strides this offseason.
It helps to work under a veteran leader like Borbely, and players like Warren — who Baer said he’s learning how to use his hands in different sets and run blocking as a whole.
However, the depth in Pitt’s offensive line room cannot be overstated. In the offseason, especially during the summer, Borbely is looking for consistency in both pass and run blocking. He wants clean execution and clean football as a whole.
It’s not hard to see the potential in a unit such as Warren, Minor, Drexel, Kradel and Houy, but it’s clear that the unit of Baer, Jacoby, Moore, Zubovic and Branson is pushing the starting unit now. That’s good news for this season but especially in the seasons to come.