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Pitt still searching for continuity on offensive line

Jerry DiPaola
| Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017, 6:09 p.m.
Pitt quarterbacks have been sacked 16 times this season. The Panthers gave up 10 all last season.
Chaz Palla
Pitt quarterbacks have been sacked 16 times this season. The Panthers gave up 10 all last season.

Before darkness falls over the Syracuse campus Saturday night, 50 percent of Pitt's football season (it's too soon to assume a bowl game) will be finished.

Perhaps it's time for Pitt to find five offensive linemen who ably can handle their positions and work together as one functioning unit for multiple games.

For the second half of the season, maybe the shuffling of personnel at center, right guard and right tackle won't be necessary. Pitt will have found its run game, protected its quarterback and won the game to remain relevant in the ACC Coastal Division title chase.

Then again, maybe not.

Offensive line coach John Peterson said he doesn't mind moving players from one position to another.

“As long as the guys rotating are starter level, competing and doing the right things,” he said.

But the line hasn't played at a consistently high level this season.

• The season began with Brandon Hodges, graduate transfer from Texas, starting at right guard in place of junior Alex Bookser, who was suspended for the opener.

• Jaryd Jones-Smith, another senior, started the first three games at right tackle, but Bookser moved there for the past two.

• The rotating recently drifted left. Center Jimmy Morrissey, a former walk-on and a redshirt freshman who has started every game, is sharing snaps with Connor Dintino, a junior who held the position in the spring.

• Meanwhile, Hodges and junior Mike Herndon, who occasionally plays on the defensive line, rotate at right guard.

“He's still working on learning and continuing to learn in the system,” Peterson said of Hodges.

Herndon said the rotation doesn't bother him. In fact, he welcomes an occasional move to defense, where he recorded one tackle this season and a sack in 2016.

“You never really get out of rhythm,” he said. “You're always looking at what the other guy's doing and what the defense is doing. Who doesn't love defense, trying to get some tackles?”

Hodges said he will do whatever is best for the team.

“You do a drive, and you know you're coming out, it's kind of hard to get a feel for the game,” he said. “But you have to be willing to do anything for the team and put your best foot forward to help the team win by any cause and any means.”

Peterson calls it competition and keeping everyone alert, which is what all coaches want to see. But in 2016, tackles Adam Bisnowaty, Brian O'Neill, guards Dorian Johnson and Bookser and center Alex Officer started every game at those positions.

There were continuity, communication and — most important — a 1,092-yard running back and a total of 10 quarterback sacks for a loss of 75 yards in 13 games.

This season, running back Qadree Ollison leads the team with 221 yards (a 530-yard pace), and opponents have recorded 16 sacks and 16 other tackles for a loss, totaling a minus-182 yards.

Part of the problem might be a lack of experience. Morrissey is 19 years old, Herndon answers to two masters, Hodges has been working with coaches for only two months and Jones-Smith missed two of the previous four seasons (redshirt, knee injury).

O'Neill, Officer and Bookser are mature veterans, but all three line up in different positions than they did a year ago.

Peterson said competition always will be part of the formula, especially when it pumps up the energy level at practice.

“When you're sweaty and physically worn out, you feel like you've accomplished something,” he said.

Next step: Experiencing that feeling after a game.

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

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