A Leadership Collective: Pitt’s Surprisingly Veteran OL Ready to Show Progression
Jake Kradel’s been around for a while now, arriving at Pitt himself when early enrollee BJ Williams was still in middle school, and he couldn’t help but feel a bit sentimental.
Especially as he turned to Williams last Tuesday, on Pitt’s first day of spring ball, and realized just how far he’s come. “Man, I was in your spot five years ago,” Kradel told him, laughing. It’s the final spring of Kradel’s Pitt career, but he knows he has a lot left to accomplish in Pittsburgh still.
It’s a period of transition for Pitt’s offensive line, but it’s also not the complete rebuild that some expected when the entire ACC championship-winning offensive line decided to return for one last ride in 2022.
Kradel was the youngest of the group then, and he’s — one of the — oldest now. He feels like it’s a veteran unit. He’s started 38 games, Matt Goncalves has started 21 and Blake Zubovic has started 15. There’s plenty of on-field experience.
When it comes to approaching the void left by guys like Carter Warren and Marcus Minor, vocal guys who also led by example, the onus doesn’t fall on any one particular lineman. It’s truly an all-hands-on-deck approach.
“I think right now it’s really a collective because the starting five have all played a lot of games, and we’ve all kinda played with the Jimmy (Morrissey’s) and played with the guys like Marcus, Carter and Gabe (Houy) who carried that (leadership) along,” Zubovic said Thursday.
Kradel feels like it’s a group of vets still on the offensive line, even outside of himself, Goncalves and Zubovic — who combined for 2,367 offensive snaps last season.
Branson Taylor emerged as Pitt’s left tackle down the stretch, replacing Warren as he suffered his season-ending torn meniscus, and he seemed to grow stronger by the week. Ryan Jacoby didn’t really nail down a place in the lineup last season, serving as a sixth lineman and occasional tight end, but he’s slotting into the left guard opening.
|Position||2022 snaps||Career snaps|
|Jason Collier Jr.||RG||17||53|
|Terrence Enos Jr.||LG||5||5|
That’s a starting five that played a very solid amount last season. Even when you account for Jacoby’s relative inexperience in the starting lineup, he’s been in the system for two seasons now. He knows how Frank Cignetti Jr.’s offense operates, which is pivotal for the unit as a whole.
There’s no doubt that the adaption to Cignetti’s complex offense took time. For every unit. I don’t know if it was clear just how much time it took until spring ball rolled back around last week.
“We know the calls now, so we’re not guessing,” Kradel said. “We’re out there going full speed, not making, like, ‘Oh, is it this or that?’ We’re just going full steam ahead.
“It’s great to have that second year, I feel like that’s when you start hitting your stride. We started hitting our stride the last five games of the season last year, won all five of them and put up some points, so this year is gonna be great to see what we can do.”
There’s synergy on the right side of the line, with the Kradel-Zubovic-Goncalves trio working together for much of the season, and the spring session helps to set the foundation not just for growing under Cignetti and Dave Borbely but growing as a unit.
It’s knowing responsibilities, honing in on technique and just making sure that the little details that may go unnoticed by those outside the room actually are perfected to the standards set by Borbely. Of course, it helps that the line as a whole is more in tuned with Cignetti.
Goncalves said there’s a lot of confidence between Cignetti and the offensive line as a whole. He trusts them, they trust him, and there’s an understanding that Cignetti is going to do what it takes to put them into a good situation on Saturdays.
“He’ll come in the room and be like, ‘Alright, what do you guys think about this?’ He’ll ask us questions about stuff because we kind of understand the offense more,” Jacoby said Thursday. “He’ll ask what we feel comfortable with doing in certain situations, so it’s gotten a lot better because we now understand the offense.”
And it also helps that the new personnel — in the early returns — appears to be better suited to allow both the offensive line and Pitt’s offense to flourish.
Phil Jurkovec and Christian Veilluex are both, at worst, solid athletes. That’s added mobility from the quarterback’s room now. There’s also an emphasis to achieve balance. Rodney Hammond Jr., Derrick Davis and C’Bo Flemister are going to eat, but the wide receiver’s room — which also benefits from a second season under Cignetti — will have an additional emphasis.
So, a starting unit of Taylor-Jacoby-Kradel-Zubovic-Goncalves will be tasked with dropping back into pass protection and pushing forward as run blockers in 2023. And as was the case last season, depth will be utilized.
The young offensive linemen at Pitt may not have a ton of game experience, but Zubovic feels they’re further along than he was at their age — as they’ve embraced Borbely’s coaching and gone up against perhaps the best defensive line in college football every practice.
There are options with Terrence Moore in the middle, Jason Collier Jr. and Terrence Enos Jr. at the guard spots and Ryan Baer at either tackle spot — although he’s been playing left tackle.
Baer, at 6-foot-7, 335-pounds, is someone who has attracted a lot of attention — and praise — since arriving last winter. And Zubovic is able to see why he’s going to be able to make an impact sooner rather than later. “Ryan Baer takes what he’s taught by Borbs and applies it, he doesn’t make the same mistake twice.”
Regardless of whether it’s the top unit, or a surge of youth in the second unit, the offensive line is a closely-knit unit as a whole. It comes with the territory.
“It doesn’t matter if the whole right side of the offensive line gets their assignment perfect, one guy goes the wrong way and has the wrong idea on a ‘backer, the play’s over,” Zubovic said. “So, you kinda grow up playing offensive line and you understand that football really is a team game.”
Zubovic and Kradel have been nearly intertwined over the course of their Pitt careers, with Zubovic holding down Kradel’s right side, and their chemistry is apparent. It’s the last ride for both in 2023, and there’s plenty of unfinished business between them.
2023 Depth Chart:
LT: Branson Taylor — Ryan Baer
LG: Ryan Jacoby — Jason Collier Jr.
C: Jake Kradel — Terrence Moore
RG: Blake Zubovic — Terrence Enos Jr./Dorien Ford
RT: Matt Goncalves — Ryan Baer