Offensive Line Battles Through Adversity

Having five different combinations of starters on the offensive line is not the ideal scenario for an offensive line coach. Yet, Spencer Leftwich has found a way to make it work.

Spencer Leftwich has had a lot to deal with in his first year as offensive line coach at Pitt.

He started the season with Juantez Hollins at left tackle, Chris Jacobson at left guard, Ryan Turnley at center, Lucas Nix at right guard and Jordan Gibbs at center. Hollins and Turnley making their first career starts in that Buffalo game two months ago were his biggest worries. As long as he had the three seniors starting in there—Jacobson mentoring Hollins on that left side, and being next to Turnley—with two seniors on the right side, it seemed there was enough to build around.

Though Hollins struggled in the first couple of games, Turnley responded getting 100 percent of the snaps down. Even in camp, finding a center was one of the biggest challenges. Turnley met those goals, and has continued to meet that goal.

Then, in Week Three at Iowa, Jacobson went down with a season-ending knee injury. By then, Turnley had become a pivotal part of the line, and there were still the two seniors starting on that right side. Not to mention, Ray Graham was weaving his way through, even making holes when they weren't there. Graham's running could help buy the line some time.

That led Cory King—who spent much of the spring and fall camp working with the first-team—into a starting role. Leftwich had his second combination of starters after just three games.

"There's no question, you sure would like the same five to play (all season)," Leftwich adds.

Then, Nix went down just two offensive plays into that fourth game against South Florida. That led to redshirt sophomore Ryan Schlieper being moved in. Schlieper responded with a pretty good game.

In Week Five, at Rutgers, Schlieper made his first career start at guard. It was the third combination of starting offensive linemen. However, Pitt allowed six sacks in the 34-10 loss to the Scarlet Knights.

That led to some changes for the next game at home against Utah. Gibbs was moved over to the left side, to provide some experience in protecting quarterback Tino Sunseri's blind side. Nix remained out, as redshirt freshman Matt Rotheram came in and made his first career start at right tackle. Six games, four different combinations of starters. The Panthers gave up another six sacks. At this point in the season, the team was giving up an average of one sack for every seven passing attempts.

Pitt entered its eight game against UConn with its fifth set of starters in its eighth game of the season, and still without the services of Nix. Though the Panthers responded with just three sacks—one sack for every 14 passing attempts—they lost Rotheram, who proved some versatility moving inside to guard. Gibbs went back to his right tackle position, while senior Greg Gaskins lived up to the challenge of starting at left tackle.

Despite the loss of Rotheram, and several different combinations of starters—a pain for any offensive line coach, the unit started to see some development.

"It's part of coaching," Leftwich adds. "You don't sit around and wish on it, but it's a part of coaching. I think it speaks well of our kids. It speaks well of our system that you can move a kid here from tackle to guard, you can move a kid from this side to that side. It's about our system, and what we're trying to do, and teach them. No, I've never had to this, but you know the saying in this business; if you stay long enough, you'll see it all."

Through all the turmoil, there has been some good that has come from this. It starts with what Leftwich calls a positive approach, which seems to have been followed by the players.

"I learned a long time ago, what coach Graham talks about, we're going to be positive; worry about the things that we can control," Leftwich explained. "We can't control that as much as you want to, and ‘oh woe is me.' There's nothing you can control about it. You're going to play who's healthy, who gave the best in the week and who knows what they're doing. It's going to be the best for the other ten out there. We'll find a way to do it, and give the kids credit. They found a way to do it."

Inside those positives, a player like Turnley has inspired the coaches and the rest of the players on the line. He fought through a right foot injury—something that could have held him out in this last game against UConn. Somehow, Turnley fought through the pain, and came through with another good performance.

"Turnley, his toughness, and what he's playing through, I haven't witnessed that before, what he's able to fight through," Graham added. "He's doing a great job. That snap has been very impressive."

As a result—through all the injuries, incorporating new players into starting roles, and even moving some players around to different positions—Leftwich has pieced together a line that is showing some promise. Things expect to get better with the likely addition of Nix in the near future, hopefully as soon as Saturday. Along the way, players with little experience have become experienced, and have found some kind of versatility.

"You have to look at things positively," Lefwich said. "Gaskins, he's played guard, then he's played left tackle and he's played right tackle. He did a nice job last week. Nix has moved around and played some different positions. Gibby (Jordan Gibbs), one game, played left tackle. What you have, whatever the number is healthy, a number of guys who can play multiple spots. That's why it's been able to be good. You can just plug a guy in, and he can do a good job."

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