A Look Ahead: Offensive And Defensive Line

Matt Rotheram leads all active offensive linemen with 26 career starts.

On one side of the ball, a heavy number of starters and contributors returning. The other side has to replace one of the most decorated players in school history.

The offensive line may see someone shift, but overall the position looks to be in good shape for the foreseeable future.

It wasn't the best year for the offensive line, in terms of protecting the passer and opening up holes for the running game. Pitt allowed an average of 3.31 sacks per game. Only five other teams in the FBS (Connecticut, Hawaii, Miami of Ohio, Florida International, Idaho) gave up more.

The run game certainly ended the season on a high-note with James Conner's 229 yards against Bowling Green. Not all of the run games shortcomings Fallon the offensive line. There were games like Virginia and Virginia Tech where the backs struggled to find room. That was all expected to be part of this season' process.

Most noticeable about this year's offensive line, was the number of different options that offensive line coach Jim Hueber had when it came to injuries. Not that he wants to thinks about injuries in 2014, he will have four additional bodies--freshmen who redshirted in 2013, and another three true freshmen coming in.

Adam Bisnowaty started the first seven games of the season, and started the Notre Dame game. He battled a back injury after that seventh game, and was limited after that. If he can remain healthy, he has that first full year of experience to build off of. Jaryd Jones-Smith redshirted this past season, and it's expected he'll compete for that backup spot at left tackle.

The Panthers lose fifth-year seniors Juantez Hollins, Ryan Schlieper and Cory King to graduation. Hollins started the final three games of the season at left tackle, filling in for Bisnowaty. King started the first five games of the season before battling a back injury that limited him the rest of the season. Schlieper filled in, starting the final eight games of the season.

Freshman Dorian Johnson started three games this year--two at left tackle, and a third at right guard. If Pitt doesn't plan to juggle the remaining spots on the offensive line, it seems Johnson would be the ideal candidate to start at left guard. He struggled when in the lineup at left tackle, as would be expected for a true freshman. He looked much more comfortable in his start at right guard against Bowling Green. In addition to that, Johnson filled in as an extra blocker at tight end. Playing multiple positions, it's safe to assume the coaching staff trusts his abilities. He also has enough experience to be able to apply himself at any spot on the line. The biggest factor for him, simply the playing time he garnered as a true freshman.

Artie Rowell started all 13 games at center, a position that looks like it has the most stability it's seen in quite some time. Rowell won a training camp battle over Gabe Roberts, and didn't look back. This despite Roberts being lost for the season for a second year in a row due to a shoulder injury. If Roberts isn't good to go, Alex Officer redshirted as a true freshman behind him.

Matt Rotheram enters 2014 as Pitt's most experienced lineman, with 26 career starts. He made a successful transition from right tackle to right guard, where it looks like he's there to stay. Either Aaron Reese or Carson Baker, who both redshirted this past season, will backup at guard.

The most pleasant addition to the offensive line was T.J. Clemmings, a converted defensive lineman. Clemmings won the job coming out of training camp, receiving a stiff test from Johnson. It should show the amount of confidence the coaching staff has in Clemmings, considering how eager the staff was to work Johnson into the lineup somewhere. John Guy is a potential backup, as are one of the true freshmen such as Michael Grimm or Alex Bookser.

Just as they did this past year with the four true freshmen that redshirted, the staff has the luxury to redshirt Grimm, Bookser or Conner Hayes. Whatever the case, what's different about this group of offensive linemen is that the staff has time to develop the newcomers, as opposed to rushing them to the field. They've also shown in the case of a Johnson, they're not afraid to find a role for someone if they're as good as advertised.

The defensive line will need some retooling, but it's also a group not short on bodies.

The biggest challenge for the team as a whole will be filling the shoes of Aaron Donald. It's too much to ask someone to come in and replicate Donald's productivity. It isn't too much to ask someone to come in and play starter-like reps. The Panthers also have to replace fifth-year senior Tyrone Ezell.

The leading candidates at tackle will be Darryl Render and Khaynin Mosley-Smith. Render has already played in 24 career games with two starts. Mosley-Smith, who sat out this past season due to a suspension, still has two years of eligibility left. LaQuentin Smith and Tyrique Jarrett also saw limited action this past season. Jarrett could possibly classify as a redshirt, still giving him four years of eligibility.

Pitt is slated to have all of its defensive ends back. Bryan Murphy played in ten games this year, finishing second behind Donald with four sacks. David Durham also returns, after his first full season of action for Pitt. He played in all 13 games. Ejuan Price was moved to defensive end prior to the beginning of the season, where he played in the first six games of the season, starting four. He redshirted the 2012 season due to a pectoral injury, then had his 2013 season cut short due to injury.

Shakir Soto has a promising future. He played in all 13 games, getting his first start in the bowl game, where he picked up his first career sack.

Certainly a lot to replace, taking into consideration Donald's production. As a whole, the cupboard is not bare anywhere on the defensive line.

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