01 August 2011
Every summer, it's the same. The July storms slowly meld away to become hot, dry Augusts. The WalMart/Target trips begin for those fortunate enough to still be in college in preparation for their return. And Pitt fans wake up in the middle of the night in cold sweats worrying about the offensive line.
But this year seems different. For the first time in I don't know how long, I'm not particularly worried about the offensive line. Sure, there are issues that will have to be worked out. And like most college line, they're a twisted knee away from complete disaster. But really, this is the best I've felt about the offensive line in quite a few years.
Maybe it's the belief that the success of Todd Graham's offense will be much less dependant on the line opening holes or holding blocks than Dave Wannstedt's. That's probably a big part of it. The running lanes should already be partially openned by virtue of running a "don't call it a spread" spread and "High Octane" requires the quarterback to make a decision and get rid of the ball quickly. That the tackles and center are a solid mix of experienced and talented is another. There will be issues, I'm sure, but I'm confident that this group will get the job done along the line (that feels as weird to type as it does to read, trust me).
RT: Lucas Nix (RS Senior)
RG: Zenel Demhasaj (Junior)
C: Chris Jacobson (RS Senior)
LG: Ryan Turnley (RS Junior)
LT: Jordan Gibbs (RS Senior)
There's three returning starters there, but all three will be playing at a new spot from where they were at the BBVA Compass Bowl. Lucas Nix played all of 2009 at right tackle and started 2010 there, but then slid inside to replace the ineffective Greg Gaskins; Jordan Gibbs became the starter at right tackle last season after Nix, but will now anchor the left side; and Chris Jacobson is the new center after manning a guard spot since the Car Care Bowl in Charlotte two seasons ago. Both tackles should be solid and Nix should have the chance to play himself into an early round in the NFL draft. Jacobson will be the concern, although reportedly he improved his snapping quite a bit since the beginning of spring. Still, until the games start, worries will persist:
Learning how to snap the ball isn't all that's facing Jacobson. He's also in command of an offensive line that will be sprinting to line up after each play. He won't have much time to gain his bearings.
"People don't realize how hard it is," he says. "Because with this fast offense, you have to come up to the line, identify the defense, point out the linebackers, make the call for the whole offensive line and see and hear what's going on. And then if there's a guy like Myles Caragein or Aaron Donald lined up right off the ball, sometimes you're like 'Oh, man.' You have to get all of that down in 15 seconds, and sometimes your head is spinning."
Jacobson has always had the physical ability to play on Pitt's line, but it was the mental stuff holding him back. Now he has to worry about not just himself, but the rest of the line. But Jacobson has now been on a college team for four years. He's played in 29 college football games. He's started 14 times. He should be get this.
As for the new guys, well there's a lot more to like among these fresh faces than what we had at this time last season. Zenel Demhasaj is a junior college transfer with just enormous size. At 6'7" and 330 pounds, Demhasaj will easily be Pitt's largest lineman. He had a fairly impressive JUCO career before he missed 2010 with a torn ACL. He's expected to be back to 100% by the season and is expected to man the right guard spot for the foreseeable future.
Ryan Turnley has been a career backup to this point and is perhaps the biggest question mark going into this season. He played some last season as the staff scrambled to find someone better than Greg Gaskins at guard. That he couldn't beat out a struggling Gaskins should be concerning. Turnley could get some competition from redshirt sophomore Cory King, who might even come into camp as the starter.
The reserves include the loser of the Turnley/King battle, aforementioned ineffective Greg Gaskins, tight-end convert Justin Virbitsky, redshirt sophomores Juantez Hollins and Ryan Schlieper and redshirt freshmen Shane Johnson and Arthur Doakes. Artie Rowell is the only true freshman.
What could be the most concerning issue with the line is recruiting. Pitt brought in just one lineman last season and currently only has one verbal commit (Brandyn Cook) at the beginning of August. Many of the top lineman in Pennsylvania and Ohio are already gone. Offensive linemen take a long time to develop so this might be a problem that develops down the road with no quick solution.