There is a lot going on with Pitt's offensive line this spring.
Looking ahead to the 2014 season, the line returns four starters from the 2013 group--left tackle Adam Bisnowaty, center Artie Rowell, right guard Matt Rotheram and right tackle T.J. Clemmings. Five starters, if you include Dorian Johnson, who started in three games.
It may have not been the best year for the line, statistically. Only four teams allowed more sacks per game than Pitt. However, the line accomplished a lot to set up 2014 as a big year. There were certainly a lot of obstacles across the board.
Bisnowaty entered 2013 as a redshirt freshman with no previous experience. Rowell had to battle Gabe Roberts for the starting job. Rotheram was trying his third position on the line, and Clemmings was transforming himself from the defensive line.
After going through all that, the line developed some cohesion along the way. Specifically the right side, where it looks like Rowell, Rotheram and Clemmings will start in their same respective spots in 2014.
"We look at last years tape, where we were, and we say, 'here's where we want to go,'" Rotheram said. "We want to be better."
Rotheram anchors the line, and leads the way with 27 career starts. A year ago, he had to break in a first-year starter on both sides of him, while learning a new position, himself. It doesn't get more challenging than that, as a right guard. Rowell is arguably the strongest of the group, with a 400-pound bench and the highest squat, according to Rotheram. Clemmings--for making the switch from offense to defense--has left Rotheram wondering only one thing.
"I almost wishe he would have switched to offense a year earlier," Rotheram said. "I can't imagine what we'd be like now. He's grown a lot. He's playing some really good football."
The guy who puts it all together, offensive line coach Jim Hueber, hesitated in labeling Clemmings as the next big star. However, he did praise him of the progress, and where he's at right now.
"He's doing a nice job," Hueber said. "I want him to keep improving. He's improved--since the end of last season, he's improved. I don't want to anoint anything, but he's got to keep working. He has some goals for himself that he may not have had when he was on defense."
Within that development is another obstacle, particularly this spring. Out this spring, or at least under cautious watch of the coaching staff, is Bisnowaty and Roberts. Bisnowaty was slowed by a nagging back injury that kept him from a few starts in the second half of the season. Roberts suffered a second shoulder injury that required surgery.
Paul Chryst is playing it cautiously, for good reason, holding both players out. While he's eager for both to get back in the mix, and continue their development, he doesn't want to risk further injury.
Chryst would much rather have a healthy Bisnowaty and a healthy Roberts. Instead, he gets to toy around with Jaryd Jones-Smith at left tackle and at left guard. When both players are able to go in the fall, who knows when we might see Jones-Smith in action--making this spring a very important one in his development.
"I think like any young tackle, he's doing some good things and he's working," Chryst said. "He certainly has some things he has to keep working on and cleaning up. It's his first spring and it's early, but I like what he's doing. Offensive linemen have to be flexible, and our job is to try and get the best five on the field, and he's certainly in that mix. He's done good work in the weight room, he's staying on top of the installation, and I don't see him getting stuck mentally. He's done a pretty good job with the things he can control."
What Pitt's offensive line is going through this spring, is reflective of any program's. There are some returners they want to develop and give more seasoning to. There's a group of redshirted players in their first spring, getting an early glimpse of where they might fit in. Combine that with a couple of key injuries, and the fact the group will add three more freshmen in the fall, it's clear that Hueber's work is never done.
The line continues to make more progress, yet there's still a lot to work through. There are a lot of positive signs, though, that this group is on the right track.
"The hits keep coming," Hueber said. "We've got two guys not practicing, we're a guy short on the depth, we're moving guys around. The got a good attitude about it. Hopefully we'll get through it and get everybody out here."