The only problem with Ryan Jacoby and Jason Collier Jr. being listed as co-starters on the initial two-deep depth chart is that Jacoby will not be able to play a single down of football this season.
Pat Narduzzi announced at his season-opening press conference Monday afternoon that Jacoby suffered an injury that will leave him sidelined for the entirety of the 2023 season. So, what does that mean?
Collier is in position for a true breakout this season — something he had hoped was in the cards over the next two seasons.
“Again, those two (Jacoby and Collier) were battling it out, and Jason was having a good camp, as well,” Narduzzi said. “But Jason has been here for a long time. He knows the system. He’s smart. He’s played right guard. He’s played left guard.”
Collier, a fifth-year guard out of West Deptford, New Jersey, has bided his time as he’s grown within the Pitt system. He’s played in 24 games over the last two seasons, but it’s come primarily as a special teamer. He took 17 offensive snaps last season, 36 the season before and now finds himself in position for many, many more snaps.
There isn’t a direct comparison between Collier and Matt Goncalves, who also bided his time before stepping into the starting lineup last season and working his way to captain hood and the starting left tackle spot this season, but there are parallels.
“Like we always say across the board, next man up,” Collier said earlier this month. “Matt was the next man up when Gabe (Houy) went down, and Matt blew it out the water, was a starter and did great. I’m hoping I can be that next man up and hoping next year I can do the same thing. But Matt’s a dawg on the field, Matt does not get beat often. Matt is a strong force to be reckoned with.”
Goncalves is Pitt’s top tackle, moving into that starting left tackle role entering the 2023 season, and coincidentally, Collier was now lineup directly beside him.
Collier had previously hoped that he could parlay a year spent as Pitt’s top swing lineman into a starting spot anywhere across the line, but as is the case in college athletics, he’s found himself as the next man up. It helps that he’s worked hard to cross-train himself, but it’s his availability that has opened the door.
“He just naturally fit into that spot,” Narduzzi said. “Again, he’s been playing guard for a long time.
“We always talk about our older guys playing their best football right now, and Jason is playing his best football right now.”
At 6-foot-6, 330 pounds, Collier is a large human being. And he’s a large human being who has spent more than a couple of seasons growing in the Pitt system. It also helps that he’s spent two seasons in Frank Cignetti Jr.’s offense, too. It’s a complicated offensive scheme, but Collier feels good about where the offense stands.
“Camp’s going good, coach Cig has definitely helped us out in the summertime, getting us prepared for this year,” Collier said. “The offense is looking great, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens.”
The summer session, which was basically the entire month of August, was spent down-packing in order to prepare for the fall. It will not be the same offense as last season, not with Phil Jurkovec and a much deeper wide receiving corps, but Pitt’s surprisingly experienced offensive line is well-equipped to both pass protect and run block.
Collier had been working on the left and ride side throughout camp, hoping to establish himself as a swing guy to help where needed, to serve as the next guy, and it was all in the pursuit of helping the team in a way that he was able. But that was all before he had the opportunity to establish himself as a starting guard.
“He’s going to have the opportunity,” Narduzzi said. “We’ve got a lot of faith in what he’s doing, and it’s going to be fun to watch Jason Collier go play, a former recruited tight end out of high school, big athlete, got bigger than I thought he would be.
“He’s about 240 pounds, I think. I took his dessert away the other day and said, ‘Slow down.’ Took his brownie away when he was playing corn hole. He was mad.”
Collier was indeed a big-bodied tight end out of high school, even spending a season at Pitt as a tight end, but the Pitt coaching staff redirected his efforts toward being a mauler at the forefront of the offense, and it’s paying off now as Collier enters his fifth season at Pitt with the aspirations of being the next Goncalves — the next Pitt lineman to rise to the challenge when called upon.
The second season of Cignetti’s offense has allowed for the offense as a whole to really grow into itself, and that certainly includes the offensive line as it pass protects for Jurkovec and run blocks for Rodney Hammond Jr. There’s an expectation that the 2023 Pitt offense to be miles ahead of where it was last season — and that now will be made possible by Collier’s efforts.
“Ever since spring ball ended, we already started watching film, kinda started going over plays,” Collier said. “Every day after lift, we’ll come out here and do extra work as an O-line, the wide receivers will be out here with the quarterbacks, the DBs will be out here doing 1-on-1 drills, stuff like that across the whole team.”
Collier will play alongside Goncalves on the left side of the line this season, and Jake Kradel, Blake Zubovic and Branson Taylor will fill out the right side of the line.