With 4 starters back, Pitt's offensive front looking for a rebound

| Thursday, July 17, 2014, 7:30 p.m.

One number trumps all for the Pitt football team's center, junior Artie Rowell, and it's not how many starters the Panthers have returning up front.

“The big number that sticks out is the 43 sacks we (allowed) last year,” Rowell said Wednesday at the team's South Side practice facility. “Now are all 43 sacks the offensive line's fault? No. But we don't have numbers. We're not running backs, quarterbacks and receivers. That's our number. We'll own up to it. But we have to cut that number down this year.”

Injuries and inconsistency plagued Pitt's offensive line a season ago, but with four starters back — not to mention a much more mobile quarterback in first-year starter Chad Voytik — Rowell and others hope the unit will become one of the Panthers' strengths.

“We looked over our mistakes and the things we did last year,” right tackle T.J. Clemmings said. “We've been working twice a week and sometimes three times a week to improve on those things that we did wrong last year so those mistakes won't happen again.”

The 43 sacks Rowell mentioned ranked last in the 14-team ACC — and was seven more than No. 13 N.C. State. Pitt averaged 3.6 yards per carry on the ground and 125.7 rushing yards, both 12th. In rushing touchdowns, Pitt moved up to eighth.

It's Pitt's goal to improve those numbers.

“We want to know at the end of the day how many sacks we gave up and how many rushing yards we had,” Rowell said. “One's negative, one's positive. But you can make that negative number into a positive number if you keep it low.”

This year's group will be bolstered by the return of left tackle Adam Bisnowaty, a Fox Chapel graduate who missed the final four games of the season and spring drills because of a back injury.

Bisnowaty said his back has been “feeling great.” He has been enjoying Friday workouts with new strength and conditioning coach Ross Kolodziej and his staff at Heinz Field, where players run the stadium steps and work through a series of stations.

“You know when Friday comes around, it's time to work,” Bisnowaty said. “We go over there, and the truth comes out — how much you've actually worked. It's fun to see guys compete with each other.”

Bisnowaty, who's 6-foot-6, 305 pounds, insisted he could feel the stands “moving a little bit” when the linemen ran down the steps together. It might not be that far-fetched, either, considering Bisnowaty's the lightest of the four returning starters.

Right guard Matt Rotheram, who was an honorable-mention all-ACC pick last season, takes the cake at 6-6, 335.

Even the sophomores competing at right guard, Belle Vernon graduate Dorian Johnson (6-5, 300) and Gabe Roberts (6-5, 305) have plenty of size. Jaryd Jones-Smith, a freshman who could challenge for regular playing time, stands 6-7, 335.

“It's been a tough summer program,” Rotheram said. “I think the whole team is stronger, faster and in pretty good condition.”

Bisnowaty, Rowell, Rotheram and Clemmings played the first eight games together last season before Bisnowaty was injured. Johnson shifted to left tackle for a game before Juantez Hollins took over. Johnson didn't make another start until the Little Caesers Bowl, when Pitt racked up 255 rushing yards and allowed just two sacks.

Success like that is what Pitt hopes to achieve in 2014.

“We definitely don't want to do that again,” Rotheram said of the 43 sacks allowed. “We're definitely focused this year on being as productive as we can and keeping our sack totals down. Keeping the quarterback clean all season is a big goal for us.”

Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jmackey@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.

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