The Panthers lost both starting tackles to the NFL and got a new coach, Tony Wise, who came aboard during the offseason. Pittsburgh spent the spring without two starters and an expected contributor while they recovered from surgery, and it had to deal with several position switches and new starters.
Oh, and midway through the year, the starting center broke an ankle, so the lineup had to be shuffled again. Despite all the changes and alterations, Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt was pleased with the way the offensive line progressed and how good it should be this coming season with four starters returning.
"When you end the season with a 1,000-yard rusher for the second straight year and a running back ranked in the top two or three in the nation in scoring, you're getting a lot of positive things done,'' Wannstedt said. "It doesn't happen by accident. So, we continued to make strides in our running game.
"But the passing game, we still have a lot of work to do there. However, I feel like we have the players to make the plays, but ... I'm not going to base the season on just one game. ... Everybody wants to beat up on the offense, but at the end of the season we were first in the Big East in scoring offense.
"I know the deficiencies, but we won nine games which this University hasn't accomplished in 26 years,'' Wannstedt added. "So, there's a ton of stuff to be excited about for this football season and for the future, and I'm not going to get hung up on one game or one or two positions and let that take away from what was accomplished the entire year by our whole team.''
There still has to be concern with Pitt's offensive line depth. It's likely the thinnest area on the team, and while only four-year starter C.J. Davis is lost to graduation the unit likely will be shuffled a bit again. And this spring, expected starting center Robb Houser (ankle) and left tackle Jason Pinkston (shoulder) might not be available or at least will be limited due to injuries.
Davis, a left guard before moving to center after Houser's injury, could be replaced by scholastic All-American Chris Jacobson. A redshirt sophomore this year, Jacobson's progress has been slowed by a serious knee injury his first week or so at Pitt in 2007. Another high school All-American, tackle Lucas Nix, should make an impact this year after playing sparsely as a freshman.
Senior-to-be John Malecki should be solid as the right guard after moving there from defensive tackle last year, and classmate Joe Thomas is back at right tackle after moving from guard. He has been a starter for most of his three season at Pitt. That's about it for experience on the Panthers' offensive line.
"Lucas Nix and Chris Jacobson will be in the lineup next year,'' Wannstedt said. "If we would have known before pre-game warmup that Jason Pinkston wouldn't be able to go (in the Sun Bowl) we would have played Lucas Nix and let him go the whole game. I think Lucas has a lot of upside.
"Chase Clowser did everything he could, but Lucas is going to be a great player for us. He's been playing the right side and had no reps on the left. Everything is different, the calls, the angles are different, and the stance is different. And we didn't find out until just before the game that Jason wasn't going to play.
"So, depth is a concern on the offensive line, but our plan is to recruit another four freshmen this year,'' Wannstedt added. "And some of the redshirt freshmen (like) Gaskins, Matha, Fieger (and) Gibbs ... we're going to have to get two or three of these young kids to step up and play.''
Greg Gaskins, Dan Matha, John Fieger, Jordan Gibbs and Wayne Jones will be redshirt sophomores. Walk-on Alex Karabin and Jared Martin are redshirt juniors. The most-experienced backup is fifth-year senior John Bachman, and then there's redshirt freshman Ryan Turnley, who had shoulder surgery before the season.
Karabin, Martin and Jones are backup centers. Karabin has been second-team for two years. Matha, Gaskins and Gibbs are tackles, while Fieger and Bachman are guards. Turnley could not practice during the season.
"We've got to figure out the center position and where we're going to put Nix, Jacobson and Thomas,'' Wannstedt said. "We've got a little bit of flexibility, and ... we should have 5-6 quality guys. But we don't have two deep like we do on the defensive line and a couple other positions.''
That's why tracking the offensive line's development is just as critical as the quarterback's progress to Pitt this spring.
Pitt's OL Promising
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