This is the fourth of a longer POV series looking at the individual positions which need to be re-filled in 2017 and whether we will meet the PRODUCTION we had in those positions. We will not factor in true freshman at this point.
Football people talk about an offense revolving around the quarterback because he’s the first player to get the ball and decides what to do with it; that it is his talents with the ball that will make the play successful or not.
My thoughts are that if the offensive line isn’t doing its job correctly the QB is screwed any way you look at it. This year in particular that may be true and we’ll discuss that in more detail later in this article.
When we look at any college football team in its transition from year to year we first have to recognize what the unit was like the previous year and what players we lost from it. Aside from the singular person at QB our OL is, in my opinion, having to rebuild more than another unit.
You might say that the linebackers over on defense would be the unit doing that and that would be a valid point – but they had more in-game substitutions at those three positions than the OL did in it’s five so the LBs are re-loading with rather experienced players whereas the OL has to replace two positions completely.
That isn’t to say that we’ll have to have football virgins walk up and start playing for the first time – but we’ll see a big drop in how many starting games the OL has under its belt as compared to last season.
That in itself is worrying and opens up a lot of questions about the 2017 unit as a whole.
Here is who we saw on the OL at the beginning of last season. The two personnel losses that jump out at us right away are the departing left side tandem of All-American Dorian Johnson at Left Guard and All-ACC Adam Bisnowaty at the all important Left Tackle position.
Bisnowaty racked up awards during his career at Pitt:
2016 First Team All-ACC (Coaches)
2016 Second Team All-ACC (Media)
2015 First Team All-ACC (Coaches)
2015 Second Team All-ACC (Media)
Four-time All-ACC Academic Team
and in doing so was a stalwart on the line for four years. His 45 starts and his superb play will be hard to replace.
Dorian Johnson was an excellent player for us also as he was tasked with protecting Nate Peterman’s blind side on passing plays and did that well. The fact that Peterman had a 61% completion rate and 27 TDs was due in large part to the excellent protection given him by the OL with Johnson in particular standing out.
One mark that Johnson achieved that was somewhat hidden in the football news this season is that Johnson was the first OL All-American Pitt has had since 1994 when Ruben Brown won that honor. All those good, and some great, OL players we have had in the last 22 years and Johnson was the only All-American. Good for him.
What does the above tell us? That we have major loss at the two most important positions on the OL – two of three if you think Center is up there as they start the actual play. How will the staff, OL Coach John Peterson in the main, deal with that?
I have written in the past that I think this 2017 season will be the first we can use to gauge just how good Peterson is at recruiting, teaching and ‘coaching up’ young OL players. That is because he’s has, up to now, been using Paul Chryst’s chosen recruits. Inheriting that bunch of lineman was a godsend for Peterson and he did an excellent job in making sure they played to potential and executed on gameday.
The are no complaints here with a staff coach whose unit played so well they only gave up 10 sacks on the year and were 3rd nationally in that category! When you see something like that it naturally follows that the QB does well and then the offense scores a bunch – which we saw in spades in our record-setting season last year.
So who do we have returning and where will they play when the dust settles at the end of fall camp.
Our best returning lineman is All-ACC awarded and All-American candidate rsJR Brian O’Neil who is being shifted from right tackle to cover the QB over at left tackle taking Bisnowaty’s old spot. O’Neil has a string of 45 starts going and is superb at what he does. He’s 6’6″ so has that long wingspan the LT needs to keep the opposing DE in a curved route rather than getting a straight line shot at our QB. Also he’s rather light at 300 pounds which is good for the mobility he needs.
LTs use arms and hands to give the QB that extra second to complete the pass so the level of trust between the two players had to be solid since the QB can’t see what is happening off his left side (as a right-handed QB that Browne is). O’Neil will be excellent over there.
Another returning player is rsSR Alex Officer at the Center position which he switched to after playing Right Guard in 2015. I’m not sold on him so much as the other returning OLs. His poor snapping aside – I counted at least eight errant snaps last season – he just doesn’t seem to be able to do all that well in the running game blocking schemes. He’s experienced and has that going for him but it will be interesting to watch what happens in fall camp with rsJR Conner Dintino being tried there also.
The third returning starting lineman is a bit of a wildcard in that there are impending game suspensions hanging over his head. rsJR Alex Bookser started all the games last season but his off-season arrest and multiple charges have thrown a bit of uncertainty into his role on the OL – at least in the beginning of the season. He played well last year as all our starters did but he isn’t irreplaceable if that is what Pat Narduzzi decides to do with him. But as a 4* recruit and a returning starter we will need him to be in the lineup.
One other ‘almost’ sure starter at right tackle is rsSR Jayrd-Jones Smith who has only one start to his name. He was pretty highly touted before the 2015 season but blew out his knee and didn’t play that year. Last season he started only one game and that was as a special 6th offensive lineman against YSU in the opener.
After that he played in only seven more games in spot duty and as relief for the starters. Honestly I don’t expect much from him this season as far as above average play and wonder if he’ll be in the lineup for the whole season.
After those four guys is where we get nervous and worried about the OL. There is almost no experience whatsoever beyond the players listed above. One player who was in-line to get playing time and possibly start this season was highly thought of 3* Alex Paulina.
But he’s gone as are possible starters 4* Mike Grimm, 3* Aaron Reese and 3* Carson Baker when they all left the program for various reasons and took their roster experience with them. Both Reese and Baker played on the OL in every game last season and that will be missed for sure. Those were the guys in the pipeline who we were going to see competing for starting and two-deep jobs in fall camp this season.
The names of the other OL players; Tony Pilato, Brandon Ford, Jimmy Morrissey, Justin Morgan and Jerry Drake just don’t strike fear in the hearts of an opposing team – at this point in their Pitt careers. Heaven help us if we have any long-term injuries on this unit and have to dig down that far for bodies to throw into the lineup.
My impressions of this years OL squad? Not as bright as some other Pitt fan’s.
While three returning starters are good decent players – and O’Neil is our next superstar lineman – there are just too many other question marks past those guys. And no matter how you cut it we absolutely are not replacing Bisnowaty and Johnson with anyone possessing anywhere near the talents those two had and the level they played last year.
With a new, and much less mobile, QB in Max Browne I see us giving up a lot of sacks this season and with that our running game is without the power back we had in James Conner who could make up for any OL’s mistakes with his strength and will power when carrying the ball. While the OL may not be an actual weakness in ’17 I do see it as a big…
Note: I will try to get a short podcast up tomorrow morning but will be leaving on vacation tomorrow afternoon. No articles for the next few days I think (unless it rains or I am completely bored) – but I will be checking in and if anyone wants to email me an article I’ll try to post it.
No Roundtable on Wednesday night – Pens will be on, correct?