I’ll be working my way through the position groups over the next few weeks. It’s the kind of offseason activity that every Pitt outlet does, and one that nobody has done for a while, so hey, why not. I did wide receivers last weekend (the Jared Wayne article) , and I saw this video on Twitter recently, so I figured I’d do the offensive line today.
So first of all, two points to Pat Narduzzi for this little confidence builder. While the ‘Duz’s game day coaching may sometimes be questionable, he overindexes in the motivation department, and to be a good motivator you’ve got to get your guys believing they are better than they are. This video helps to do that.
Because depending on who you ask, Pitt’s O-line graded out as fair-to-middling last season, and that’s probably being generous.
From Pro Football Focus’ “Ranking all 130 College Football Offensive Line Situations”
94. PITTSBURGH PANTHERS
Highest-graded player: C Jimmy Morrissey – 72.4 (28th)
Pitt’s offensive line improved as you traveled inward, as their tackles ranked just 126th overall, their guards 66th overall and Morrissey at center helped them rank 26th in overall grade. Morrissey allowed just 10 pressures — all of which were hurries — as he kept a clean sheet in sacks and hits allowed this year.’
I don’t think anyone is surprised by this assessment. It became clear to even the casual fan that first-year starter Carter Warren was sometimes overmatched at left tackle, and grad-transfer Nolan Ulizio was more or less a dumpster fire on the right side. So much so in fact that we was replaced mid-season. As is per usual, Pitt is on the lookout for yet another grad transfer tackle this offseason, so no matter what the coaching staff tells you, the situation has not improved.
Interestingly enough there are nearly half-a-dozen ACC teams ranked below Pitt in the PFF piece. Just to help you feel better about being a Pitt fan, I’ll post them
130. GEORGIA TECH YELLOW JACKETS
Highest-graded player: OG Mikey Minihan – 61.9 (181st)
It was a rebuilding year for Georgia Tech, as their offensive line had to adjust to pass-blocking more than they ever had with the triple-option of years past. The Yellow Jackets struggled mightily in the switch from a dominant run-first offense, and they gave up the nation’s highest sack+hit rate, with 12.1% of their pressures ending up with the quarterback on the ground. They also lost 34.9% of their pass-blocking reps, by far the highest in the country, and the unit also had the nation’s lowest pass-blocking efficiency rating as well as the 129th-ranked run-blocking grade.
129. FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES
Highest-graded player: OG Dontae Lucas – 61.7 (185th)
Everybody knows that it was an ugly offensive year for FSU, and any layman who watched their games could say they knew the main culprit: the offensive line. The Seminoles’ offensive line gave up the 11th-most pressures (136th), the fourth-most sacks, the fourth-most hits and the second-most combined sacks and hits this year. Their 10.5% sack+hit rate ranked fifth in the country, and their allowed pressure rate of 25.9% was the 20th-highest.
111. DUKE BLUE DEVILS
Highest-graded player: C Jack Wohlabaugh – 67.2 (50th)
For a team that liked to pass as much as Duke, their 125th-ranked pass-blocking unit certainly hurt their chances. They ranked 69th in run-blocking as a unit, but they gave up pressure in the passing game an average of 2.29 seconds after the snap. That rate is the second-fastest among all offensive lines.
101. SYRACUSE ORANGE
Highest-graded player: OG Evan Adams – 64.0 (156th)
Syracuse’s offensive line really struggled to move the line of scrimmage in the run game. On their 513 pass-blocking snaps, however, they allowed a pressure on 23.0% of their snaps, which is not as bad as it could have been given their 107th overall grade in the run game.
100. MIAMI (FL.) HURRICANES
Highest-graded player: OT DJ Scaife Jr. – 68.0 (135th)
The Hurricanes may have seen their highest-graded player on the offensive line finish at tackle, but how bad they were opposite Scaife is put into perspective when you realize they ranked just 110th overall as a unit on the outside and 110th in pass-blocking grade. They allowed the eighth-most pressures as a group (140) this season.
Also one last thing that should strike fear into the hearts of Pitt fans. The former teams of our Head Coach, our Offensive Coordinator and our Offensive Line Coach all rank near the bottom of this list. Yes Pat Narduzzi is five years removed from his Michigan State tenure, and yes he coached defense not offense, but the apple does not fall far from the tree people. And Mark Dantonio is that tree.
125. UMASS MINUTEMEN
Highest-graded player: OT Larnel Coleman – 66.0 (163rd)
The UMass offensive line had just one position group rank inside the top 100 in both pass-blocking and run-blocking, and that was thanks in part to Coleman, who finished with the country’s 97th-best run-blocking grade. It was an ugly year on offense for UMass, and the offensive line certainly didn’t help.
118. MARYLAND TERRAPINS
Highest-graded player: C Ellis McKennie – 70.2 (35th)
The Terrapins struggled to keep their quarterbacks off the ground this season and allowed a sack or hit on 11.7% of their pass-blocking snaps, the second-highest rate in the country. They also allowed 130 pressures on just 420 pass-blocking snaps for a 30.9% pressure rate that ranked as the fourth-highest mark in the FBS. It’s a good thing that their run-blocking grade ranked inside the top 100 at each position, otherwise they’d be much lower here.
114. MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS
Highest-graded player: OG Luke Campbell – 60.9 (202nd)
When you see that Michigan State’s highest-graded offensive lineman is in the 200s in terms of rankings, you can understand just how bad it was for the team. As a unit, the Spartans didn’t crack the top 100 in run-blocking, pass-blocking or overall grades this season, and their highest-graded unit overall came by way of their center play — checking in at 83rd overall.
Sooo yea. Whipple could neither recruit linemen to UMASS or develop them. The cupboard that Borbely stocked at Maryland is bare and we already talked about Pat “the Apple” Narduzzi. Maybe we should just turn our attention back to Pitt.
As Pro Football Focus correctly points out, Morrissey anchors Pitt’s line, and he’s damn good at it. He returns for his senior season, and that in and of itself is something of a reason for optimism. Both guards also return (all three actually because Jake Kradel played significant snaps at RG) and you’d have to think that they will be at least as good as last year, if not slightly better. As far as the tackles, well… You could assume that Carter Warren will improve somewhat. Maybe slim down a little. Maybe work on his feet. To be honest I’d be happy if he just improved to average (and you should be too…)
It’s also addition by subtraction with Ulizio gone on the right side, right? Well lets hope so. At this point you’d have to figure that Carson Van Lynn (or Gabe Houey) would be slotted in as the starter if either of the had what the coaches were looking for. Given the fact that Pitt is still looking for something…anything …to help shore up the tackle position means that, sadly, neither Van Lynn or Houey is the guy (well at least not yet…) Which is a shame Also let me nip the Grant Carrigan optimism in the bud. I heard a lot of “well he’s approaching it with a great attitude and he’s learning” in the Spring ball interviews, and we all know what that means, so don’t get your hopes up for another Brian O’Neill people.
And yet, after all this gloom and doom, I will give you some small hope for optimism.
First, the line actually protected Pickett well on passing downs. Pitt’s “Pass down” sack rate was only 5.3% last season, good for 26th in the FBS. Raise your hand if you saw that coming. I did not. Their “standard down” sack rate was 5.5% – so kind of the same, but Pitt’s ranking actually fell to like 80 (78 actually) because a lot of other teams are much better at protecting their QB on first and second down, or third and short. (sigh)
Also… Pitt largely struggled to get push in the running game. This was also pretty apparent to the casual observer last year. You could probably argue that the run blocking got better as the year went on but I don’t have any hard data to support it. Or at least I don’t feel like going and looking nay up. The stats by the way were 2.42 “line yards” per play, and 2.3 “line yards” per carry on standard downs in 2019 (91st and 102nd respectively).
For those of you wondering what the heck a “line yard” is, it basically measures how much space the line is creating for the running backs. For comparison the 2018 Pitt team was ranked 23rd at 2.76 line yards.
Line Yards Definition: The line gets credit for rushing yardage between 0-3 yards (instead of 0-4) and 50% credit for yards 4-8 (instead of 5-10). Anything over 8 yards is quantified as a highlight opportunity, and credit goes to the runner. As with the pro definition, lost yardage still counts for 125%. (Garbage time is filtered out for all line yardage averages.)
So yes, Pitt struggled to get push when it was supposed to…on “standard downs”. (First down, 2nd and less-than-seven, and third and less-than-four). Maybe it was because opponents were stacking the box. Maybe it’s because Pitt couldn’t execute. Either way, it was bad.
But…oddly enough, when Pitt had to get a couple of tough yards, they were noticeably better. Their “Power Success Rate” was 74%, good for 52nd in the country. I mean that’s not great, but it’s also not 102nd. In other words Pitt got a first down or a touchdown 3 out of every 4 times they ran the ball on third or forth and less than 2. (If only Pat had had those stats in his back pocket at Penn State…)
So what does this all mean? Building the line from the middle out, line yards, sack rate? Nothing different than previous years I’m afraid. Seems like as long as I’ve been a Pitt fan there has been questions about the offensive line, particularly the tackles, and the jury is still kind of out on how well coach Borbs can teach pass blocking to the group we have now. And so yet again, the biggest question mark on offense is also the second most important position. Hope is not a strategy folks, but sadly, right now hope is all we’ve got. And I sure hope Borbs can work some magic.
Hail to Pitt