It’s up to Pitt redshirt freshman offensive lineman Ryan Baer now to show his offensive line coach Dave Borbely that he’s too good to be taken off the field when Sept. 2 rolls around, the season opener against Wofford.
Baer will likely be remembered for his time at Pitt as a left tackle if everything goes according to plan, but when it comes to this season, it’s about getting the five best linemen on the field at the same time. Even if it means adding some flexibility.
“I feel pretty good about (Baer) being able to play tackle,” Borbely said Wednesday. “But if he’s one of my best five, I don’t want him to be the backup left tackle. If he’s really, truly one of my best five linemen. And I always tell the kids, regardless of position, I want to get the best five guys on the field. And that’s the objective right now. I know you’re a good left tackle, let’s see if you can be one of the best five and play at guard.”
Baer is firmly in the mix when it comes to battles on the left side of the line. The right side, with a Blake Zubovic-Matt Goncalves guard-tackle duo, is pretty locked in. Jake Kradel is the starting center — and maybe a captain.
It’s the left side of the line that will be determined throughout camp this summer.
“Baer will get work at both left guard and left tackle,” Pat Narduzzi said Wednesday. “(Ryan) Jacoby will get work at both left guard and left tackle and see how it shakes down. We’re going to find the best people there.”
When it comes to left tackle, it was Branson Taylor who stepped in when Carter Warren went down with a torn meniscus early last season. He’s a big, physical tackle who played 419 snaps in 11 appearances last season. And, as it is with young linemen, it was up and down. Borbely watched his confidence grow as he played more.
“(Taylor’s) physical ability has always been very solid,” Borbely said. “I thought as he started to play, his confidence grew each week, playing against good competition and then better competition. You saw him become a more confident guy, you saw him become a more physical guy and I think he proved to himself that he belonged. Because he does.”
It falls on Taylor himself to now continue that development, not just going out and fulfilling his assignment as expected but taking that step forward to be a difference-maker at perhaps the most important position on the offensive line.
Baer is in an interesting position at this point due to the fact that Borbely trusts his ability at tackle. But he still wants to see what he can do inside — competing with Jacoby, who played 204 snaps, largely at inline tight end. But also with Taylor outside.
“As a lineman, (Baer’s) an excellent athlete,” Borbely said. “Is he nifty enough to be a guard? That’s what I gotta find out.”
It’s not just Zubovic, Jacoby and Baer alone on the interior either. It appears that Kradel will be backed up by Terrence Moore. Baer, Jacoby and Dorien Ford are competing at left guard, and Zubovic, Jason Collier and BJ Williams are competing on the right side. Borbely has no doubt that both spots know the competition is tight.
Kradel, who is entering his fifth season as a starter on the line, having played center and guard now, is looking forward to helping bring his fellow interior linemen — especially the underclassmen — along with him.
“I feel like it’s just kinda lead by example, show them the way, show them how to do it, show them how to watch film, and if they have any questions, they usually come to me and Z,” Kradel said Wednesday. “Ask us, ‘Hey, what’s something — how would you do this technique?’ Just whatever they need.”
Pitt’s vaunted, veteran offensive line returned last season for one last chance to play together. It didn’t work out as injuries and inconsistent play plagued the unit. Kradel is the only one to return from that unit. And he’s joined by a mix of veteran leadership and youthful optimism. It should, once again, be a very solid offensive line.
It’s about figuring out which five offensive linemen will trot out onto the field at Wofford on Sept. 2 now.