PITTSBURGH – At some point, inexperienced players become experienced. Young ones learn their lessons well enough to give their team a chance to win big games. Sooner or later, the coach’s instructions start to yield tangible results.
At Pitt, spring practice, summer training camp and nearly two months of the season have not been enough to rebuild the offensive line.
After the 19-9 loss to Virginia Tech on Oct. 12, coach Paul Chryst appears to be losing patience. The Hokies recorded eight sacks – defensive end Dadi Nicolas entered the game with one sack and left with four – and Chryst blamed everyone, even himself and his coaches.
“I don’t have a sense that it was significantly different from two weeks ago (when Virginia recorded seven sacks),” Chryst said. “It needs to be corrected.”
Quarterback Tom Savage held onto the ball too long while trying to make a play. Receivers, who flourished through the first three games, weren’t getting open against a talented Virginia Tech secondary. The running game disappeared after James Conner, a freshman sensation, aggravated a shoulder injury that he initially hurt in camp. Unafraid of the Pitt run game, the Hokies focused on rushing the passer.
Chryst will look to make some changes in the upcoming weeks, and some of them may include the following:
• Shorter routes for speedy wide receivers Devin Street and Tyler Boyd, who might be able to make linebackers miss before getting to the secondary.
• Quicker releases by Savage, who might be a victim of his early-season success, always looking for the big pass play after throwing for 861 yards in the first three games. “I think we have to take a look at that, certainly,” he said. “You are kind of waiting for that space (between defenders and receivers).”
• More throws toward the four young tight ends, who have combined for only 12 receptions in five games. Sophomore J.P. Holtz has only two for 18 yards – none in the past two games – after catching 10 for 120 and two touchdowns over the final five games last season.
“We have to look at it all,” Chryst said.
But there isn’t much depth on the offensive line to make significant personnel changes.
Chryst’s staff includes Jim Hueber, one of football’s top offensive line coaches. Hueber has worked in the college game and the NFL for nearly four decades. He wrings the most out of his linemen with a tough approach that the players seem to like, but there are issues that are tough for any coach to overcome in one season.
• Left tackle Adam Bisnowaty is a redshirt freshman, and he is learning hard lessons, exposed on the edge of the line of scrimmage where everyone can see him.
• Center Artie Rowell, whose daily work ethic continually impresses the coaches, is a sophomore who is playing for the first time after winning a camp battle with redshirt freshman Gabe Roberts, the starter in the spring.
• Right tackle T.J. Clemmings played defense during his first three years at Pitt.
None of that should be perceived as excuses. Hueber has said many times that he and Chryst inserted those players in their positions because they expected them to produce.
Recruiting Left Holes On Line
The bottom line is that coaches and fans must show patience over the next two seasons. Pitt has not recruited well on the offensive line during the coaching upheaval of the past three years, and it is showing.
Chryst attempted to change that with the Class of 2013, bringing in five linemen who are 6-4 or taller and approach – if not surpass – 300 pounds. The idea is to model the Pitt line after what worked so well for Chryst when he was offensive coordinator at Wisconsin. Four of those players are getting redshirted while tackle Dorian Johnson backs up Clemmings and is used in short-yardage situations.
But Pitt brought in only two offensive linemen – Bisnowaty and Roberts – with the Class of 2012, a group that Chryst had little time to assemble after he was hired only six weeks earlier.
Actually, he did snatch Roberts, who is from New London, Wisc., when he was getting ready to walk on with the Badgers. But Roberts is facing his second shoulder surgery.
Pitt has 18 promises from the Class of 2014, but only two are offensive linemen. One is the impressive-looking Mike Grimm, 6-6, 328 pounds, who is rated a four-star prospect by Rivals.com. With four months remaining before signing day, the only other lineman in the class is Connor Hayes, a three-star from Traverse City, Mich., who is expected to grow into his current 6-4, 270-pound body.
Overall, Pitt has nine three-stars and eight two-stars in its ’14 class.
One of them is running back Dennis Briggs, a two-star, who isn’t even the most productive runner on his team, undefeated Shady Side Academy, a small, private school near Pittsburgh. Briggs is used largely as a blocking back by Shady Side coach Dave Havern – a former Pitt quarterback, by the way – and is sacrificing his personal stats for the good of his high school team.
That has been part of Pitt’s recruiting plan since Chryst was hired: Try to find and secure the best players but don’t be afraid to seek good athletes, with a strong work ethic, a commitment to academics and the willingness to work and accept coaching.
The other part of the recruiting process is that Chryst can tell high school players that they can play almost immediately. Pitt needs help at every position on the field, both in the starting lineup and in reserve.
Freshmen Boyd, Conner, Matt Galambos and Chris Blewitt are playing important roles at wide receiver, running back, linebacker and kicker. Overall, 12 freshmen and seven redshirt freshmen have played this season.
There has been much talk among fans in Pittsburgh about how wide receiver Robert Foster, who went to nearby Central Valley High, is redshirting at Alabama while Boyd has become one of the best play-makers in the ACC (his two-catch, 20-yard performance against Virginia Tech being the exception to the rule).
Galambos is the latest rookie to make an impact. He has started the past two games in place of injured senior Shane Gordon and totaled nine tackles.