If you all remember I did a series of articles in June of 2017 that looked at the departing starters from the 2016 season and who I thought would be replacing them for 2017. With that I assigned a grade of “Upgrade“, “Downgrade” or “Draw‘.
What I’ll do first is look at each position, or unit, along the offense or defense as of today and write down who I think will be the starter and why it will be that guy. Then I’ll assign a ranking of “Upgrade” if I see an upgrade in player quality, “Downgrade’ if I see a lessening of talent or “Draw” if I think we’ll match last year’s player(s) in the position or unit.
It isn’t any secret that I have been writing many times since the end of last season that I feel the Offensive Line is going to be a major problem for our 2018 team. I have done so constantly and I sure do feel that way.
Last year at this time I also wrote that the 2017 version of our OL was going to be the Achilles Heel of the offense… battling the QB position for that honor. Well, as it turns out that was correct and our OL was about the worse I can remember in a long time.
Going back not all that far we had a very poor OL in Todd Graham’s 2011 year when we were 119th in Tackles For Loss Allowed with 110 on the season; 120th in Sacks Allowed with 64 and 93rd in Passing Efficiency at 118.1. Add to that our 74th in Rushing Offense and you can see how ineffective we were – and those ranking are out of only 120 teams in Division 1 at the time. You may say that the implementation of the Graham’s High Octane Spread Offense had a lot to do with that but the truth is we just had poor offensive line talent.
Those four statistics are key indicators of how well the line is protecting the QB and helping (or hindering) the running backs. Now, it is pretty obvious that our 2017 wasn’t a whole lot better than that 2011 unit. Here is how they stacked up against each other in those categories:But here’s the rub – that poor showing by our 2017 OL was done even when it was populated by linemen who had a pretty darn good amount of P5 game experience. Experience is what you want in an Offensive Linemen and that is why when you see really good, productive lines they are made usually up of a lot of upperclassmen – mostly redshirt Juniors and redshirt Seniors.
For instance last year our starting lineup on the OL was, in left to right order; rsJR Brian O’Neill, rsSR Alex Officer, rsFR Jim Morrissey, rsJR Alex Bookser and rsSR Jared-Jones Smith. Not only were four of five upperclassmen they also had a lot of starting experience to draw on.
That is the big difference between the 2017 OL and what our 2018 squad is going into this season. Here is a table of experience I drafted to show the huge difference in the two season’s lineman’s starts against Power 5 schools.
Where in most years we’d be jumping up and down at having four (count ’em – 4!!) rsSR in the O line, this season there is a decided negative twist to that. Three of those four OL are virtual P5 competition virgins with a total of five (count ’em – 5!) among them with any experience in that at all. There is a huge difference between 75 games experience vice 40 but even more so in ’17 we only had one player, Morrissey, with less than five P5 starts… this season we’ll have three.
rsSR Mike Herndon, a converted Offensive Lineman to Defensive Lineman and back again to Offensive Lineman has exactly one P5 start and rsSR Conner Dintino (Remember him – the rsJR who couldn’t beat out a rsFR walk-on for the starting job at Center?) has none.
I’ll repeat that; Herndon and Dintino have a total of one P5 start as offensive lineman. Actually they have two combined starts against any competition in their six total years of previous eligibility; Dintino started at fullback against Villanova and Herndon at RG against Syracuse.
rsSR Stefano Millin is an interesting transfer and one I think Pitt pursued out of sheer panic. He played left tackle on a Mid-American Conference (MAC) school that compiled a 2-10 record on the season in 2017. Why did they have only two wins? Well, you can look directly at their offense and especially their offensive line for that. Here is the tale of their offense…look at it then remember LT Millin was the key member of that OL protecting a right-handed QB.
My friends, hard to believe but their OL was worse than ours by a mile in a much weaker conference than ours. the reliance on transfers is a big part of why I feel that Pat Narduzzi’s recruiting hasn’t been done well. Where are the younger offensive linemen who can step up and grab a starting job from two knock-abouts and a MAC tackle?
Well, in 2016 he landed three 3* & 5.5 rated OL in Brandon Ford, Zach Williams and Justin Morgan. All would be rsSOs this season and if talented ready to play. But wait! Morgan was dismissed from the team and Zach Williams never qualified academically.
In the class of 2015 Narduzzi had commitments from 3* & 5.7 rated Alex Paulina and 3* Tony Pilato but they both bagged out for greener pastures. As did Chryst recruit 4* Mike Grimm after he had to sit out a year due to injury..
I wondered about all these offensive lineman leaving Pitt in bunches and the best I could find out was that they really didn’t want to be coached by our previous Offensive Line Coach John Peterson who was poor at developing talent on the line. That is understandable.
So rsSO Bryce Hargrove was moved over to OL at the end of 2017 to fill a gap but he’ll take time to learn the position. rsSO Brandon Ford is in the wings though and good for him because his Dad is an excellent guy and is a great guy to prop up a bar with. He and I, along with Scott Orndoff, SR had a good long session the night before the Pinstripe Bowl.
Experience is so highly valued in offensive linemen and that is why, along with the mental and especially physical maturation process needed, playing in actual games against like-competition is everything. Well, this upcoming season at Pitt it is virtually nothing. You may say that these new starters have been in scrimmages for four years in Pitt’s practices but let’s face it – they were going up against pretty average defensive lines in those scrimmages.
The bald fact is the both Dintino and Herndon have been journeymen who the other and better players practice against and beat up on. In essence they have been living blocking sleds for four years working on the 2nd string, 3rd string and Scout teams.
Pitt got two JUCO transfers in last december from Lackawanna College – C Devon Davis as a Preferred-Walk On and Tackle Chase Brown to bolster the depth in the OL. At this late date in the fall camp, neither are projected to start. However, the OL Pitt was pursuing the hardest was OT Anthony Wigan who signed with PSU.
The good news in all this is that our two returning offensive linemen are pretty solid. Bookser was an Honorable Mention All-ACC awardee in ’17 which wasn’t bad considering he was suspended early in the season and Morrissey had some accolades also. He was an All-ACC Academic Football team member. Morrissey acquitted himself well for a first year player though and he’ll build on that I’m sure.
Players don’t produce in a vacuum though because coaching has a lot to do with that. This season we’ll have Dave Borbely as our OL unit coach. He’s late of the Maryland Terrapins where he coached the OL in 2016 and had a real Jekyll and Hyde season. They were very good at running the ball and set UM records in that. However their pass protection was sorely lacking – as in terrible.
They were 127th in Sacks Allowed with 49; 125th in TFLs Allowed with 108(!) and 106th in Passing Offense with only 178 ypg. I follow the Terps pretty closely as I live right here and the fact is that the HC wasn’t happy with Borbely’s OL work so they ‘kicked him upstairs’ to Ass’t HC in 2017 to fill out his contract and then hired a new OL coach, Tyler Bowen, for 2017. No Terp fans were crying when Borbely left Maryland though – it was more of a Huh…OK? type reaction. I don’t feel his hire at Pitt is that much of a betterment over Peterson but we’ll see how it goes on his watch.
But these articles deal with returning talent on the units and because we lost three experienced starters – one a bona fide star All-ACC 1st teamer Brian O’Neill and All-ACC Honorable Mention Alex Officer along with experienced Jared-Jones Smith… and since we are replacing them with three guys with little or no actual P5 game experience I see this unit as possibly the worst OL we have had in a long time. Actually that same phrase was directly quoted to me when I was up on the Southside for Spring Game Draft Day.
Again – when you read and hear the mainstream writers constantly stating that the OL will be the ‘team’s biggest problem” this year and one even stating ‘he’s not convinced they will be good‘ you can pretty much infer what they really think.
So this unit is a dramatic: