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Pitt offense undergoing major line change in spring practice

| Saturday, March 18, 2017, 6:03 p.m.

An optimist looks at Pitt's offensive line and happily notes that four players with starting experience return.

The pessimist studies the same group and finds it more than notable (troubling perhaps?) that four of the five positions — at least through three of 15 scheduled spring practice sessions — has a new face. Then, he'll add that strong senior leadership departed when Adam Bisnowaty and Dorian Johnson graduated.

The pessimist needs to speak to Brian O'Neill.

A fourth-year junior, O'Neill is one of two starters from last year who switched positions last week (perhaps permanently). A year after displaying remarkably quick feet by running for two touchdowns from his right tackle spot, he's moving to left tackle, Bisnowaty's former position and one that generally requires more athleticism.

The move looks like it will help the team, but O'Neill endorses it for another reason: It makes him uncomfortable.

“I look forward to the opportunity to learn something new and stay out of my comfort zone,” he said. “Anytime you get in a competitive environment, as soon as you get comfortable, you lose the edge you might have had on somebody else.”

O'Neill, who was high school basketball player of the year in Delaware, said flipping sides is easier than shooting a layup left-handed when you're right-handed.

“It doesn't take as much getting used to,” he said. “Another week or two, I'll be feeling really comfortable.”

O'Neill, 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds, and new starting quarterback Max Browne hope to eventually find their comfort zones with an offensive line that has old and new elements.

It's true when the optimist says four experienced players are back.

• Senior Alex Officer, 6-4, 335, has played center and right guard at Pitt, but he took repeated snaps at left guard last week in an effort to replace Johnson.

• Junior Alex Bookser, 6-6, 315, hasn't moved from right guard, where he started all 13 games last year.

• Senior Jaryd Jones-Smith, 6-7, 325, started three games at left tackle in 2014 and missed the entire '15 season with a knee injury. He now is taking snaps with the first team as O'Neill's replacement at right tackle.

The new guy is former defensive tackle Connor Dintino, who is learning to play center.

It's too soon for Dintino to consider the job his to lose, largely because coaches could decide to move Officer back to center, where he has made 23 of his 36 consecutive starts the past three years.

Dintino, 6-3, 310, is a fourth-year junior, but he only flipped to offense a year ago. He's fortunate because he lines up next to Officer and Bookser, who also has center experience.

“I'm the young pup,” Dintino said. “I'm getting all the knowledge I can from both of them.

“Anyone can get (the center job). Everyone just has to keep working in spring ball. It's where people go up the depth chart, go down the depth chart.”

Offensive line coach John Peterson said he likes Dintino learning the position in the stress-free spring environment.

“He's a strong, powerful guy who is learning the details of offensive line play, transitioning from the defensive line and still growing with the details of playing offensive line,” Peterson said.

Like most teams, Pitt will rise or fall on the strength of its line, which was better than it has been in years in 2016 when the offense averaged 6.7 yards per play (tied with LSU for fifth in the Power 5).

Peterson said there's more to replace than just two good players.

“You lost a lot of leadership: guys who had a lot invested and a lot of experience on game fields and practice fields,” he said.

Finding new leaders isn't easy.

“Now is an opportunity for guys to develop leadership qualities and lead by example first and lead themselves,” Peterson said. “The more confident they become as players on the field and produce, guys will look up to them.”

Peterson said O'Neill has what it takes to handle the yoke of leadership.

“He has a lot of game experience, and as coaches you expect players like that to develop into leaders.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Brian O'Neill practices Friday, March 17, 2017, at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Brian O'Neill goes through drills during practice Friday, March 17, 2017, at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Brian O'Neill runs during practice Friday, March 17, 2017, at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
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