Spring Football Assessment: Offensive Line

The offensive line is one of Pitt's most experienced and proven positions, and also brings a lot of leadership and versatility.

Pitt started spring drills with Jordan Gibbs at left tackle, Chris Jacobson at left guard, Brandon Sacco at center, Lucas Nix at right guard and Greg Gaskins at right tackle. When the group lined up for the spring game on April 16, it was Cory King with the first group instead of Brandon Sacco, with a lot of shuffling in between.

Entering spring, the biggest question was who would be at center. The coaching staff took a lot of time, and many practices, rotating four different players at center with the first group. Sacco worked in at the first two practices. Greg Gaskins worked at one practice at center, the position he was recruited at coming out of high school. Junior-college transfer Zenel Demhasaj then came on for a full week of work at center before head coach Todd Graham made an interesting switch.

Chris Jacobson moved to center at the halfway point of spring drills. After watching Jacobson through the first six practices, Graham decided that Jacobson had the ideal body type for playing the position, even though he had not snapped the ball since he was in fourth grade. The move proved to be the right one, as Jacobson remained with the first group. Though there were some technical things with the snap that Jacobson had to adjust to, they were things the staff—specifically offensive line coach Spencer Leftwich—felt he could work with. There were some minor growing pains to the position they felt Jacobson could accustom to. It's the most sure Pitt has been at center in quite some time.

The future is still bright for Sacco, will looks like he should be able to take over the starting position when Jacobson graduates. Demhasaj could also fill in at center, but based on his versatility, he is able to jump into the lineup at guard or even tackle if need be.

Jordan Gibbs was praised throughout spring football for his work at left tackle. Gibbs, no question, benefitted from starting the final 10 games at right tackle as a junior after the line was reshuffled in 2010. Not only does Gibbs have starting experience, but he has such a good hold on the left tackle position that there has been no concern with having to replace three-year starter Jason Pinkston there.

Lucas Nix started off at right guard, the position he finished out the 2010 position. It looked like he was there to stay, and even Nix admitted to that after the first practice of the spring. Nix moved back out to right tackle, where he practiced for most of the spring, largely in part because of the shuffling at center, but also because of where the next linemen on the depth chart could contribute. Two of those next linemen are Matt Rotherham and Cory King. At first, it was Rotherham who got the first shot with the starting group. When Rotherham went down with a hamstring injury, it was Cory King who moved into the starting lineup and stayed there through the rest of spring.

Interestingly, King was a backup at tackle last year. In the new offense, he is more comfortable at guard, which allows Nix to move back to right tackle. The coaching staff showed its willingness to try different players out at different positions all spring. Through all that movement, King held on to his spot on the first team at right guard for the final eight practices of spring, making him firmly entrenched at the right guard.

The battle up for grabs heading into training camp in August, will be at left guard, which was also the big battle in 2009. It will come down to Zenel Demhasaj and Greg Gaskins. Demhasaj looks like he has a good hold on the position, and seems to understand the responsibilities of the position, having lined up at center. Gaskins has the experience factor. The only concern with Demhasaj at this point is that he is still only one year removed from when he tore his ACL at Nassau Community College, heading into his final year there. If he proves to be healthy in August, he will likely win the job.

As for the remaining backup spots, this is where there's some actual concern on the offensive line. It's become clear that past the starting five, Brandon Sacco, Cory King and Matt Rotherham are next in line, based on the opportunities they were given to work with the first group. Juantez Hollins is the backup at left tackle, and should be in line for a starting job at one of the tackles, following the graduations of Gibbs and Nix. If there was an injury to one of the starters, Demhasaj or Gaskins would be viewed as that sixth offensive lineman—meaning that either they or one of the other starters could be moved to a different position for injury sake. Hollins, though, is the team's third tackle right now. Though he won't be counted on to contribute or start in 2011, this upcoming season is a big one in terms of his development.

Ryan Schlieper is a backup at left guard, and also needs a big 2011 in terms of his development. Hollins looks like he has a closer path to the field, with Demhasaj, Gaskins, King and Rotherham ahead of Schlieper in line at guard. Shane Johnson made a push with Rotherham as a backup to Cory King, late in the spring, meaning that he could a move on the depth chart sooner than expected. Justin Virbitsky, moving over from tight end, filled in as a backup at right tackle.

Tackle, at least on the second-team, is where the offensive line is thin. Ryan Turnley and Arthur Doakes were both held out of contact in the spring—Turnley with a shoulder, and Doakes with a knee—are expected to contribute at the guard spots. If healthy in August, both should be able to help add to the overall depth on the line, but it's unknown if either of them or any of the other backup guards would be able to move to tackle.

The line will also get a boost from the addition of Artie Rowell, who can also come in at center but also play guard.


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