One of the first areas that Pitt head coach Todd Graham praised after his first practice was theplay of the offensive line.
"You can tell we have a veteran bunch up front," Graham said. "Not many mistakes up front. I'm very impressed with that group.
"The seniors we have up front on both sides of the ball, not only are seniors but are very mature, have really embraced our philosophy and how we do things. When you're strong on both sides of the ball, it gives you a lot of confidence."
With the kind of veteran experience he had in the first group, Graham should be impressed. The first group included four seniors, all with starting experience. Leading the way is Lucas Nix, who enters the season with 25 career starts. Jordan Gibbs became the starter at right tackle in 2010, and he responded well after the switch was made. He made 10 starts last season, and is now back at left tackle where he back up Jason Pinkston before moving to the opposite side.
Greg Gaskins started the first three games at right guard last year, and made the start against West Virginia after Lucas Nix was held from the first series for disciplinary reasons. He is now back at right tackle, a position he backed up Nix at in 2009. Gaskins lost his starting job, and a change was made to get a more physical presence inside. In the first three games with Gaskins in the starting lineup, the run game averaged 126 yards a game and the offensive line was allowing three sacks a game. In the final ten games—with Nix moving inside to guard—the run game averaged 177.5 yards a game, and the line allowed 1.4 sacks a game. After viewing some early offseason conditioning reports last month, Graham mentioned Gaskins as someone he was impressed with early on.
It's far from being a definite thing for the opener, but after making the first 16 games of his career at right tackle, Nix is more than okay with staying at guard.
"I really don't mind, wherever I fit in, I'm fine with it," Nix said. "Last year, changes were made. This year is no different. People are going to step up. Young kids are going to step up. People are going to see who the real playmakers are."
Also in this veteran group is Chris Jacobson, who became a full-time starter at left guard last season, and improved throughout the season. Jacobson's first career start came in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, giving him 14 career starts.
That's a grand total of 53 starts between four players. With Graham praising them for making few mistakes, that should be given with that kind of experience.
Once again, however, the center position is up for grabs. Running with the first group on Tuesday was redshirt freshman Brandon Sacco. Graham said Sacco is there because the coaching staff believes he has the potential to be very good.
Even though a player like Jack Lippert was moved to center at this exact time last year, just the fact that a younger player like Sacco is ahead of Lippert on the depth chart for now shows the willingness to play the best player if the coaching staff feels that a younger player like Sacco might be that person.
"Sacco has a lot of potential," Graham said. "He's mature, mentally and physically; a guy that naturally I think has great promise. I thought he had a good day."
The only concern for Sacco, or anyone at center, is just getting the shotgun snap down. In other words, it's making the transition from having a quarterback under center to now having him back a few yards—not just once in awhile, but every play.
"That snap has to be 100 percent of the time, right there, perfect," Graham added. "I know Sacco has tremendous potential. He's rolling in there with the (first-team). We think he has great promise."
Sacco also earned the praise of one of the guys lining up next to him.
"He's doing a good job," Jacobson said. "He's paying attention in the classroom. He's answering questions when (offensive line) coach (Spencer) Leftwich asks him. We're trusting him. That's what we need, and he's trying to prove to us, and to the coaches, that he can do it. He'll be fine."
From the sounds of things so far, making the shotgun snap may be the biggest transition for the offensive line. While a lot of spread or zone read offenses develop a reputation for not being as physical as the offensive line, two of the more physical linemen Pitt has had disagree with that notion. Nix and Jacobson feel they still have the opportunity to be physical and knock people around just as much, if not more, than they did before.
"It's offensive line, contact is always going to be there," Nix said. "The philosophy is similar. It's always going to be similar. There's not too many ways to block people up front. It's a couple little different concepts, but we have smart guys in that room. They're coming along pretty good."
While the skilled players put up the numbers and get most of the credit—based on their speed and quickness—for putting up numbers in a fast-pace offense, it's up to the offensive line to establish the tempo when they break the huddle. Jacobson saw some film in the offseason of how the offense worked, and has played against teams that have employed a fast-pace attack. After just one spring practice, he's even more convinced that not only will he be able to by physical on the line, but will also grow accustomed to playing at the faster, more ‘high-octane' pace.
"It gives us such an advantage," Jacobson said. "I just can't wait until we get in that second and third quarter, when you see other defensive linemen tired by how fast it is. It's like blood in the water. I think that's going to be a great advantage for us."