First if all, my son, Raphael (no turtle jokes, please), celebrated his one-month birthday this past Saturday, and what better way to commemorate the occasion than to suit him up for spring ball. As you can see young Raphael is expecting big things from the offense this season, because he is already working on his “touchdown” gesture. (The actual truth is this one of the few shots I could get where he wasn’t crying, so one way or the other, I suppose he’s preparing for the season…)
And the other truth is that we might all be crying, because there are so many question marks on offense. Although with OC Mark Whipple at the helm, this is less likely than it was with Shawn Watson. Nonetheless, there are many questions to be answered. And so…where to begin? In my opinion (as well as the opinion of Barry Alvarez, from whom I stole this quote) “It all starts with those big palookas up front”.
The Offensive Line
- Nolan Ulizio – LT – rJr
- Brandon Ford – LG – rJr
- Jimmy Morrissey – C – rJr
- Chase Brown – RG – rSr
- Bryce Hargrove – RT – rJr
- Carson Van Lynn – LT – rSo or Gabe Houy – LT – rSo
- Carter Warren – LT – rSo or Gabe Houy – RT – rSo
- Owen Drexel – C – rSo
- Carter Warren – DE – rSo or Gabe Houy – RT – rSo
- Jerry Drake – RT – rSo or Gabe Houy – RT – rSo
Age of Projected Starters (Avg): 22, 21, 21, 22, 21 (21)
Age of Projected Backups (Avg): 20, 20, 20, 20, 20 (20)
Player we can Least Afford to Lose: Jimmy Morrisey. He was 3rd team all ACC in 2018 and he’ll be the glue that holds this line together.
Potential Breakouts: Bryce Hargrove, Gabe Houy, Carson Van Lynn
Wildcard: rFr’s Blake Zubovic and Jake Kradel
Michaelangelo’s Take: The projected starting five are long on age, but they are short on experience, and that is what has so many Pitt fans worried. The good news is that we were in a similar situation last season, and our grizzled O-line coach Dave Borbley managed to turn Pitt’s line into an all-ACC caliber unit, at least from a run blocking perspective.
Because offensive line is an area of great interest, and one of the two positions that will make-or-break the offense in 2019, I’ve made some discreet inquiries to insiders regarding the 2019 situation. The insiders take from “people close to the team” suggests that there is talent to be developed, but my sources do acknowledge that there is a good deal of development that needs take place. However, what I found most interesting was that the sources believe that coach Borbs is the right guy get it done. Now all of this kind of stuff has to be taken with a grain of salt, but I would say it’s a better read than I initially hoped for. Needless to say, spring will be an important time.
Personally, I believe Borbs will develop a similarly effective run game in 2019. I am still skeptical about his ability to develop an effective pass-blocking line. This is mostly due to Reed’s point that the Maryland’s pass blocking was a complete mess prior to Borbley coming to Pitt. It is also partly due to the fact that our pass blocking was not very good in 2018 (actually statistically it was quite bad). However, in fairness to Borbley, he has developed effective pass blocking lines in the past, at stops prior to Maryland. (More to come on that in the offseason.) So if we have the right talent on the roster (debatable), and if Borbs still has some magic in that old silk hat (plausible) then the O line has the potential to be very good at run blocking and at least average at pass blocking. While this may not sounds like the tonic that our passing game needs, average pass blocking is an improvement over the last two seasons, and it would probably give OC Mark Whipple’s offense just enough oxygen to put up some halfway decent numbers.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Coach Borbley, here is a ‘mic’d up’ session that was published last spring. He seems like an old-school kind of guy, with a bit of personality, which for Pitt is not a bad fit at all.
Regarding the actual players, it’s all going to start with Morrissey. He’ll need to provide leadership and be smart enough to absorb a new offense and make sure all the protections are sound in the passing game. Fortunately he’s the one player on the squad who is up to the task. From what I understand, Bryce Hargrove is also reputed to be the real deal. He seemed to play well in the ACC Championship and the Sun Bowl so that is encouraging. Given the fact that Hargrove was recruited as an “Athlete / DE”, I feel like he might have the athleticism to swing out to tackle. If that’s the case, I’d hope he’d be a step or two quicker in pass pro than Alex Bookser, whom he would likely replace.
Brandon Ford should be a serviceable enough guard. I seem to remember him stepping in during the second half of the Sun Bowl and not having his name called too many times, which for an O-lineman is a good thing. Chase Brown could be a total bust and a career backup, or he could turn into a starting guard. Time will tell. I think there is also the possibility that one of the redshirt Sophomores steps up and becomes one of starting five. Gabe Houy seems to be a guy that the staff likes. Narduzzi spat some bombast about Jerry Drake a couple of seasons ago as well, but you know how that goes. And of course it’s trendy to say that Carson Van Lynn will switch back to the O-Line and push for a starting spot, given that he started five games at Tackle…er Tight End last season. Oh, I almost forgot about our grad-transfer du jour, Nolan Ulizio. He started for Michigan when they had a run heavy offense, and was benched when they started to features the passing game, so this spring will be important for his development.
- Kenny Pickett – QB – Jr
- Jeff George, Jr – QB2 – rSr
- Nick Patti – Qb3 – rFr
- Davis Beville – Qb3 – expected to redshirt
Age of Projected Starters (Avg): 21
Age of Projected Backups (Avg): 23, 19, 18?
Player we can Least Afford to Lose: Kenny Pickett
Potential Breakouts: Kenny Pickett
Wildcard: Kenny Pickett
Michaelangelo’s Take: If you haven’t figured it out, Kenny Pickett’s development and ability to pick up Mark Whipple’s offense is really important to this team. Yes, yes we have the heralded four-star freshman Davis Beville enrolling early so he can participate in spring ball, and I probably should have listed him as the wildcard. But… I’m trying to make a point here. The point is that Pickett has a full year of starting experience under his belt. Yes, some of the moments seemed way too big for him, especially in the postseason, but he performed well in others. Remember. We wouldn’t have beaten Duke if Pickett didn’t throw an on-the-money last-second TD bomb to WR Maurice Ffrench, and we would not have made it to Charlotte if Kenny didn’t light up Wake Forest on the road.
And while there are plenty of people out there who will say that Pickett doesn’t have the tools, I believe that the Wake Forest game is a glimpse into what is possible if a) He has time to throw, and is coached to be more decisive, b) He is properly prepared, c) the game is properly game-planned and d) our scheme is such that our Wide Receivers can get open. Mark Whipple brings all of that to the table, and that is why he was hired. That is why I think Pitt fans should be cautiously optimistic about the passing game this year. The other side of the Whipple conversation is that he knows quarterbacks so well that if Pickett isn’t the guy, it will become pretty apparent to him pretty early … I would hope.
For those of you in the Jeff George, Jr camp. I want to point out that he’s a longshot to start at best, because he’s never done anything to show he’s an upgrade over what we have. George has never thrown more touchdowns that interceptions; he carries a career 103.1 passer rating, and at this point he’s a one-and-done. Unless George is clearly better than Pickett by the end of spring, I’d be surprised if Pickett isn’t tabbed as the starter. Redshirt Freshman Nick Patti will probably be relegated to Qb3, given this is the first year he’s eligible to see the field, although if Narduzzi is to be believed, Patti was “making plays” on the scout team in 2018. Beville is a wildcard, as I mentioned, if only because of his four-star status. He will likely be given a chance to compete, but four-star or not he’s going to have to be pretty dang good to unseat a Junior with a 18 games under his belt, a 121 career passer rating and a 13-7 career TD to Int ratio (i.e one Mr. Kenny Pickett).
So yes, it’s probably Pickett or bust in 2019. We all should be hoping KP is using Miami, Clemson and Stanford as motivation, and we all should be hoping Whipple can get the most out of him. Because if Pickett falters, we could be in for a long season.
Be on the lookout for the RB’s, WR’s and TE’s article tomorrow.
Hail to Pitt