Center Of Attention

The center position has been a sore spot for the Pitt football team for years now with walk-ons, junior-college transfers and makeshift linemen manning the middle for the Panthers' offensive line more often than not.

Pittsburgh might need another stop-gap player there this year, as fifth-year senior walk-on Alex Karabin -- a backup the past two seasons to former JC player Robb Houser -- has been the front-runner so far this spring.

However, the Pitt coaching staff, in an attempt to solidify the position for the future, moved redshirt freshman Jack Lippert to center from the defensive line about a month before spring practice began. And despite his struggles, at times, the switch has been well-received from everyone involved.

"I've got it all down in the film room, but now I just have to do it on the field,'' Lippert said. "I've only been doing this less than two months overall and only a couple weeks in spring practice so far. I had a meeting with Coach Gattuso about spring ball, when it was coming up, and he first talked to be about it.

"It hasn't been easy, but it's a great opportunity for me to play early in my career. I've worked really hard with Buddy to get physically ready to play, and I've worked hard in the film room as well to get ready. Now, as I said, I just have to take it from the film room to the field. It's been going slowly so far.''

Lippert has upgraded his stature to a muscular 280 pounds on a 6-foot-4 frame, so there's no denying that he can handle the physical aspect of the position, which entails constant pounding from defensive tackles and linebackers stacking the line of scrimmage.

What Lippert has found the most difficult is coming off the ball after the snap. He occasionally has misfired during the connection with the quarter or has not gotten into position, at times, but he has two more weeks this spring and all summer to prepare for the season.

"I wish it was going a little faster for me, but I never played center before,'' Lippert said. "I played mostly guard and even a little tackle, but never center. I think I can do it, and the coaches are confident I can do it. So, with Coach Wise working with me all the time, I'm going to give it my best shot.

"I understand that they see me as a guy with a big up-side and four years of eligibility remaining. So, I conceivably could be a four-year starter, if I start this season, and I certainly could start at least three seasons. So, that's what I'm working toward, to start as many years as possible at Pitt.''

Pitt veteran offensive line coach Tony Wise has worked extensively with his young protege. Wise was effusive in praising Lippert and believed that it was only a matter of time before he perfected the center position.

"Jack mostly used traps and no zone-blocking in high school, but he has played a lot and is a very confident player,'' Wise said. "So, he does have a reference from what he did in high school as an offensive lineman, but he just never played center before. So, we're giving him a crash course in playing center.

"The first thing is that we needed a guy to give us some numbers at the position, because all we really had was Alex Karabin. Greg Gaskins and Ryan Schlieper are doing it, and Gaskins played some center before. But Jack, I think, is ahead of those guys. And if he performs better than Alex, I have no qualms about starting Jack at center for us this season.''

Karabin is just 6-1, albeit 290 pounds, and he is not as athletic as Lippert. He has experience, and he actually has played pretty well this spring. But his lack of height could be a problem, as the opposition could go over the top to make plays. Pitt's aggressive defensive front should be intimidating up front again this season, and that unit has shown a tendency to beat Karabin that way.

He and Lippert have struggled with Myles Caragein, Chas Alecxih and Tyrone Ezell on occasion during one-on-one drills, but that trio should terrorize opposing team's centers this season as well. Lippert, though, is using the experienced as a way to learn.

"Coach Wise tells us that it's in the D-linemen's favor, the one-on-one drill,'' Lippert said. "Since I was on the D-line last year, I didn't realize it was that hard to be an O-lineman in that drill. It's pretty tough, but I'm getting better every time. And before long, I hope to be really good at it.''

And if Lippert can do that, the Panthers might have found a center for the present, as well as the future.

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