The offensive line seems to be an area of concern every year, regardless of who's coaching them.
Of all position coaches in 2012, Jim Hueber had the toughest job. He had pretty much seven guys to work with. Even one injury to the unit would have been devastating.
Hueber did a good job keeping the unit together, and certainly getting the most out of what he had. The end result was developing guys like Cory King and Matt Rotheram further along, to a point where these two will anchor the line this year.
In hindsight, playing King at left tackle and Rotheram at right tackle last year, looks like the most brilliant personnel move the coaching staff made last year. Here is why:
King is the most experienced offensive lineman with 18 career starts. He started as a left guard two years ago, then started all 13 games last year at left tackle. Now, he goes back to guard. Going back to guard should be an easier, much more natural transition for him. Also, adding 13 games of starting experience adds a natural feel for him of what goes on at left tackle. Learning a play book and actually relating to the former position from previous experience is a whole different thing. While Pitt breaks in a new starter at left tackle, King will have a natural feel--a sixth sense almost--of what goes on at that position.
On that note, having King inside will help redshirt freshman Adam Bisnowaty as he prepares for his first year as a starter. The coaching staff took a big risk in redshirting Bisnowaty last year. Thankfully, they didn't get stuck with any injuries which would have burned that redshirt.
Expect some growing pains with Bisnowaty, as there would be with any redshirt freshman at any position. Expect some long term dividends though, as he seems to understand his assignments. He was one of the players who earned a lot of praise last year for his work with the scout team. Long term, Bisnowaty should also be one of the team's leaders in time.
Another benefit of King at left guard, is that Pitt will break in a new center this year. Gabe Roberts, despite being redshirted and having an injured shoulder last year, took over the primary center duties in the spring. The coaching staff seems to like him. However, like Bisnowaty, he is a redshirt freshman, and there is the inexperience factor. So far, it seems like he gets it. He will have to hold off Artie Rowell--a natural center, and another whose work ethic has impressed the coaching staff. Don't rule out redshirt senior Ryan Schlieper from getting a crack at center. He took snaps there two years ago, and was the starting right guard before a foot injury in the Temple game ended his season. Artie Rowell battled with Roberts for first-team reps in the spring, and should do the same in training camp.
Rotheram, Pitt's second most experienced linemen, moves inside to guard after starting at right tackle last year. He should anchor the right side, much the way King will anchor the left side. And just like the left side, Rotheram should aid in whoever the center is going to be, even if it's adding a comfort level. He will break in a new starter at right tackle, and should also have good instincts of the position's responsibility.
T.J. Clemmings moved from defensive end--where he played in eight games, with six starts--to right tackle during bowl preparations. Will he earn the starting spot at right tackle? He seems to be off to the right start, but much like the other spots up for grabs, we may not know until September 2.
Early on in the spring, Clemmings battled for reps with Juantez Hollins. Eventually, Clemmings took over full-time with the first team. He has a lot of natural abilities for the position and has responded well to the coaching. Can he develop into a starter? Still up for debate, until we see him play in a couple games.
Top backups will be Schlieper, Hollins and Shane Johnson. Seniors Chris Jacobson and Ryan Turnley, obviously, graduated. Arthur Doakes transferred to Stony Brook, but was also suspended from the team for the bowl trip due to a violation of team rules. Doakes was the one to fill in for Schlieper, when he went down to injury. He started the final five games at right guard.
Numbers wise, it's not much better than what Hueber had to deal with in 2012. However, there are more options if there's an injury, or if someone doesn't pan out. Outside of what looks to be the starting five, he has players (Schlieper, Hollins) with actual starting experience.
Then, there's the group of freshmen who will fill out the rest of the backup spots, which is more promising for the future. However, don't bet on any of them playing this year, just yet. The reason for that, simply looking at Bisnowaty. Bisnowaty was a player who looked very comfortable from the getgo and certainly someone at this point looks like a good player for this year and beyond. With thinner numbers last year, they were somehow able to redshirt him. With more numbers this year, it becomes tougher from a numbers standpoint for any of these freshmen to play.
That is, unless someone comes into camp and blows somebody else out of the water.
A lot of expectations will be placed on Johnson to play this year, or even start. That's a tall order for any freshman anywhere looking to break in as a starter on any offensive line. Don't rule it out, but he has to pass Hollins and Clemmings. More important than that, he has to develop a comfort level with Hueber--where Hueber has more of a comfort level than a pair of veterans--just to have that chance. Not to say that it can't happen, but it's tougher for freshmen on the line than at any other position.l
This year's line seems to be more stable than in previous years. It is still a work in progress, and there is hope it will soon become one of the team's strengths. However, there is some overlooked pressure on this group. A lot of attention is on who the starting quarterback is going to be, and who the starting running back is going to be. I this line doesn't perform, it won't matter who is starting at those positions, because there won't be much of anything.