Pitt is very strong up front on both sides of the ball. This is an offensive line that faces the challenge of replacing a three-year starter, and two-year all Big East selection in Jason Pinkston, was is now with the Cleveland Browns.
Though Pitt endured some growing pains in the early part of last season, those growing pains have paid off, allowing for this year's offensive line to be more experienced and also be one of the team's strengths.
The heart of this offensive line starts with seniors Chris Jacobson and Lucas Nix. Nix has started all but one game over the last two seasons; bouncing between right guard and right tackle. Though it looked like he would stay at guard entering spring ball, after moving to guard to help the team after the third game last year, he quickly moved back to tackle where it appears he will stay.
Jacobson has blossomed, going back to two years ago, where he battled then senior Joe Thomas all the way to the end of training camp for the starting spot at left guard. Jacobson started the final game of that 2009 season, then moved into a full-time starter role last year at left guard. His experience, ability and drive have put him in the position to succeed even more this year, as head coach Todd Graham has entrusted Jacobson at the center position. Jacobson wasn't moved there until the start of the third week of spring drills. At the time, he was the fourth player to run with the first team at center. No one else was moved over to center, as Jacobson got a good hold on the position.
The biggest, or most integral part of the line being a strength this year, is Jordan Gibbs. Gibbs had not started a game until he got the nod at right tackle for the Florida International game last year. It may not have been a conference game, but he added a more physical dynamic, which helped Ray Graham have a record-setting performance in that game. From that point on, the offensive line had a much more confident look to it. It was also a more physical unit with the addition of Gibbs as a starter.
While Nix and Jacobson are the unit's marquee players, Gibbs breaking in as a starter last year and the noticeable change in line play from that moment on were big turns in momentum for this year's line. For one, Gibbs moves into the left tackle spot vacated by Pinkston's graduation. Even though Gibbs did well at right tackle last year, he's more of a natural at left tackle. Two, it's an additional returning starter, and not just a replacement. Because of Gibbs, losing Pinkston doesn't hurt as badly as it would have looked, and the offensive line's play improved as the season went on last year—the unit should pick up where it left off.
There will be two new starters on the line, and based on their play in spring drills, there is little to be concerned about. At least it's not a concern the way it was last year. Cory King has shown some promise at right guard. Matt Rotheram started off with the first-team at right guard, before pulling a hamstring that held him out for a significant part of camp. It was so significant that when King was put in with the first team in place of Rotheram, King stayed there even when Rotheram returned healthy. King also has the luxury of playing between seniors Jacobson and Nix to help guide him in his first year as a starter. There may be some competition for that spot, but it's King's to lose in this training camp.
The real position battle will be at left guard. With Jacobson moving over to center, Todd Graham must choose between fifth-year senior Greg Gaskins and junior-college transfer Zenel Demhasaj. There are pluses for both players, but also obstacles both must overcome to win the job. Both players split reps with the first-team in spring drills. Gaskins won the starting right guard job by default last year, but did not play up to par. He has the experience factor, and he has started games in the past. His obstacle is if he can be physical enough, and whether or not this new system eases things up for him enough to make an impact. Demhasaj appears to have that physical play, but the question with him lingers in his health, and whether his knee is 100 percent following an injury in April of 2010 while he was still in junior college. He made it through the spring okay, but according to Graham during the spring, the injury still had him limited in terms of his physical limitations. We will find out pretty quickly how much the last four months have benefited Demhasaj's health.
With the starting five looking promising, or at least seven players in the mix for starting positions, the biggest question for this year's offensive line will be who is in position to step up next?
The tackle position is very thin, with the need for both backups to step up immediately. Juantez Hollins enters his third year with the program, and has already gained about 10 pounds—of course going from last year's roster to this year's. However, even when there was a need for a guard last year when Jacobson had to miss some time with injury, players like Ryan Schlieper and Ryan Turnley were still ahead of him at guard. Hollins is now back at tackle. Even at the right guard spot, King—who also came in with Hollins' class—and Rotheram, who came in a year after Hollins, already passed him up. Hollins is back at tackle, and is Pitt's third tackle by default. He needs to have a big year, and use this year to develop. He'll already be facing enough of a challenge next year, breaking in as a full-time starter.
The other tackle is former tight end Justin Virbitsky, who will take time to just learn the position more. The coaching staff isn't counting on Virbitsky to contribute or even start, but having him at tackle to give the Panthers two sets of tackles is important.
Unlike recent years, the Panthers are more loaded at guard for this season. Even though there are more quality backups at the guard spot than at tackle, the likely third-teamers also need big years. Schlieper enters his third year with the program, and could find himself in competition for a starting spot a year from now. On the right side is Shane Johnson, who of all the backup guards, may have the most athleticism. According to a source, Johnson had a 41-inch vertical leap during conditioning tests last week. He has the change to push Rotheram to be the backup at right guard. It's unknown yet whether any of these guards can be moved to tackle to even out the depth a little more. Arthur Doakes will have to battle it out for a third-team spot at guard after recovering from a knee injury during spring practice.
Don't rule out Artie Rowell contributing, especially with a new coaching staff in place, who may be more willing to give younger players an opportunity early. Rowell will start off at center, and despite the loss of Brandon Sacco, can help the position be even stronger for the future. Ryan Turnley is going to get a shot at being Jacobson's backup this year. It's been awhile since Pitt has had three centers, but if Turnley and Rowell can come through, the position will actually be deep for once with the promise for the future at the position. In the previous six seasons, Pitt has had five different players start at center. Jacobson will make number six in seven years.
2011 OFFENSIVE LINE PRE-CAMP DEPTH CHART
Zenel Demhasaj/Greg Gaskins
SENIORS – Jordan Gibbs, Greg Gaskins, Lucas Nix, Chris Jacobson
JUNIORS – Ryan Turnley, Zenel Demhasaj, Justin Virbitsky
SOPHOMORES – Juantez Hollins, Ryan Schlieper, Cory King
FRESHMEN – Matt Rotheram, Arthur Doakes, Shane Johnson, Artie Rowell