Dave Borbely said before the season started that he wanted to play his five best linemen this season — regardless of position.
Well, he’s down two of his top five four games into the season now. It was announced that Ryan Jacoby suffered a season-ending injury during camp, and Pat Narduzzi announced Monday at his weekly news conference that Matt Goncalves had surgery Monday and will miss the rest of the 2023 season.
“Obviously disappointed for our football team, but more importantly disappointed for him, but captain Matt Goncalves will be out for the year,” Narduzzi said.
“I’m sad for him, sad for his family. They’ll be at every game anyway because they’re so blue and gold and ‘Let’s go Pitt’ and all that. It’s nothing you expect. He’s in such good shape and such a tough dude and captain again. It’s a hit to our offense.”
It’s certainly a hit. Goncalves, aside from being voted a team captain before the season, started the first three games to begin the season at left tackle. And as his linemates struggled around him, he provided a steadying presence at the most important spot on the line.
Pitt got its first look at an offensive line without Goncalves against No. 15 North Carolina over the weekend, and while it wasn’t perfect, it actually was an improvement that has now been two weeks in the making.
“Again, it’s not going to be a snap your fingers and get perfect one day, but with the young guys we had inside and Terrence Moore holding and snapping the ball every play, I was really happy with that inside part of our offensive line,” Narduzzi said.
“Moore, Jason Collier and Blake Zubovic played really well, especially the first time being together a bunch and Terrence making all the calls up front.”
According to PFF, Phil Jurkovec faced pressure on just 35.3% of his 17 dropbacks in the first half against UNC — down from 39.1% against WVU and 45% against Cincinnati. And Veilleux was pressured on just 30% of his dropbacks.
Moore made his first career start at center against UNC, filling in for Jake Kradel (who also did not dress against the Tar Heels after Narduzzi said he didn’t feel right following Tuesday’s practice), and Moore spearheaded an interior trio that didn’t allow a single quarterback hit or sack. It was a welcomed sight following two weeks of unstable play against Cincinnati and West Virginia.
The two sacks allowed against UNC came from the edge, with Ryan Baer (who made his first career start at right tackle) and Branson Taylor (who slid from right to left tackle in place of Goncalves) allowing three pressures and a sack each against a good UNC edge rushing duo.
It’s that offensive line configuration — the starting unit against UNC — that Pitt will likely roll out for the foreseeable future.
Offensive Snaps in 2023
Blake Zubovic — 243 snaps (190 LG, 53 RG)
Branson Taylor — 225 snaps (61 LT, 164 RT)
Jake Kradel — 181 snaps (181 C)
Jason Collier Jr. — 166 snaps (53 LG, 111 RG)
Matt Goncalves — 165 snaps (165 LT)
Ryan Baer — 116 snaps (37 LT, 79 RT)
Terrence Moore — 82 snaps (82 C)
BJ Williams — 99 snaps (99 RG)
Moore played well enough against UNC that I think it’s worth taking a look at how he’ll fare with increased snaps this season. He is the future center after all. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Kradel — if he’s healthy — is slotted back in either.
Or, maybe the coaching staff doesn’t feel good about Collier or Williams at right guard. Kradel has history there, too.
I think Taylor and Baer are pretty locked in at left and right tackle now. It’s about time Baer gets some reps. He hasn’t been great in the games he’s played this season, but he’s a first-time starter who will get more comfortable as his snap count increases.
“I don’t know what (Baer’s) grade was, but I think — and I may be wrong here, guys,” Narduzzi said. “I think even on the play where Christian (Veilleux) gets whacked on the one play that we got outside help, it’s a habit to kick slide, but he kicked slid from where we got beat inside too quickly, and that’s a young guy’s mistake. It’s like that motor memory of always kick sliding, like you’re blocking like you don’t have help all the time, but when you have help there, that should never happen.”
Narduzzi said that Pitt gave both Baer and Taylor extra help against UNC, and he said the offense didn’t take advantage of it. It comes down now to just doing it again and again and again and again until it’s second nature. Narduzzi liked the run blocking, the pass protection not so much.
“But I think Ryan Baer is only going to get better, and Branson Taylor same thing,” Narduzzi said.
Zubovic, who Pitt used as a safe, veteran voice following the UNC loss, seems pretty locked in at one of the guard spots, too. He can play either, but it depends upon what Pitt wants to do with Collier and Williams (and maybe Kradel) at the other spot.
The new-look offensive line will get its first test against a Virginia Tech defense that is middle of the pack in getting after opposing quarterbacks.
And, just as a quick ending point, Pat Narduzzi does not know if Goncalves will use a medical redshirt to return for one more season at Pitt at this point. But he has the ability to do so.
“That’s something him and his family have to decide,” Narduzzi said. “That’s up to him. Find out where he is, how he felt he played in two and a half games, and it’s too hard to say. Again, as I’ve talked to the family, it’s a matter of him just taking — he’s got time. First thing is just get healthy first and then worry about where you are there.
“But if he’s a first- or second-rounder probably should go, just like I would recommend to everybody. If he’s going to be a third or fourth, if the NFL comes back and says, stay in school, he probably should listen to that. So it’s all something they’ve got to make a decision.”
Potential New Look 2023 Offensive Line
LT — Branson Taylor — Jackson Brown
LG — Blake Zubovic — Dorien Ford
C — Terrence Moore OR Jake Kradel
RG — Jason Collier Jr. OR BJ Williams
RT — Ryan Baer — Terrence Enos Jr.