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Versatile offensive line gives Pitt plenty of options

Jerry DiPaola
| Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017, 8:27 p.m.
Pitt offensvie lineman Brandon Hodges during practice Aug. 2017 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt offensvie lineman Brandon Hodges during practice Aug. 2017 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Pitt offensvie lineman Brandon Hodges during practice Aug. 2017 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt offensvie lineman Brandon Hodges during practice Aug. 2017 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

First, he grimaced. Clearly, the question didn't please him.

Then, he smiled (but only slightly). When a reporter asked coach Pat Narduzzi on Wednesday about the details of the puzzle that has become the Pitt offensive line, he had no interest in sweeping away the fog.

Is he close to naming the five starters for the opener Sept. 2 against Youngstown State.

"Maybe. I don't know," he said.

"Do you have a sense?"

"We have a sense."

For now, that will have to do.

Narduzzi protects such secrets like a bank guard watches his vault, but the problem is a good one to have.

There's depth on the offensive line, and players are getting cross-trained at multiple positions.

"Everybody's usable; everybody's versatile," guard/tackle Brandon Hodges said.

With so many options, Narduzzi can keep the mystery alive, which presumably will make it more difficult for Youngstown State to prepare. At least, that's what all coaches say.

Of course, after that game, the mystery ends. ESPN will take the lens caps off its cameras, and Pitt's five starters will be revealed.

Until then, there are questions.

• Where will Brandon Hodges line up after starting nine games at tackle for Texas last season. Guard? Tackle? "50-50," Narduzzi said.

• Who's going to win the battle at center? The team's newest scholarship player, redshirt freshman and former walkon Jimmy Morrissey, who got the good news Wednesday on the practice field?

• Or, junior Connor Dintino, who played in 11 games last season and has been competing for the starting job since winter workouts? • Or, will Narduzzi and line coach John Peterson merely decide to move senior Alex Officer there from left guard. After all, he has started 23 games at center. Officer has been lining up at left guard through most of training camp, but he said, "I've been taking center snaps to make sure it's fresh in my mind."

• Or, will Alex Bookser move to center after he serves his one-game suspension in the opener? That's one mystery that may not be cleared up until Pitt visits Penn State on Sept. 9.

Recruiting Hodges as a graduate transfer was probably Pitt's most important personnel move of the off-season. He can play guard and tackle, which allows for plenty of options. Hodges said he's at right guard "right now," which would allow Bookser, the incumbent right guard, to play center (if that's even Peterson's top plan). If Hodges moves to tackle, what happens to Jaryd Jones-Smith? Does he move to left tackle until All-ACC tackle Brian O'Neill is completely healthy after an offseason shoulder injury? Narduzzi has said O'Neill will be ready for Youngstown State, but is it worth stressing the shoulder against an FCS team that Pitt should beat easily?

Resting its best players might be a risky move for Pitt against Youngstown State, the FCS runner-up from a year ago that outscored the Panthers, 68-62, in their past two meetings.

Hodges said he's ready for anything.

"Learning fast has always been one of the things I was good at," he said. "I take pride in it." He said her has been studying both positions "in the film room, late nights, even before I go to bed.

"You have to be ready for anything."

Which does he prefer? "It doesn't even matter," he said.

Now, there's a player who has been well-schooled by his coach.

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

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