Time to shine for experienced Pitt offensive line
Pitt center Artie Rowell noticed something different on the first day of training camp.
The shine was still on the helmets when coaches kept hurling tasks and plays of increasing difficulty at the offensive linemen, without fear of knowledge overload.
“Normally, you start with one or two plays,” said Rowell, a junior from Harrisburg. “We started with several.”
That sounds like a small victory, but at Pitt, it's bigger than you think.
Since the day nearly three years ago when coach Paul Chryst introduced himself to his team for the first time, Pitt's coaches have waited patiently for the situation that is in front of them.
The offensive linemen are bigger and stronger than at any time in Chryst's three seasons, and there are plenty of guys — enough for three complete units for the first time.
“We are sitting on top of each other (in the meeting room),” offensive line coach Jim Hueber said.
Most important, however, is this: They have been around long enough that they finally get it.
The five regulars have started a total of 64 games, led by guard Matt Rotheram's 27. Four have been to all three of Chryst's camps.
Sophomores Adam Bisnowaty, Dorian Johnson and backup guard Gabe Roberts know no other way than how Hueber teaches it. Finally, the message is consistent.
“This is my fourth camp,” said Rowell, who was recruited in 2011, “and it feels like my fourth camp.”
Hueber said he has seen growth — mentally as much as physically — in several of his players.
“You look at Artie,” Hueber said. “He has a confidence in what we are doing. He thinks with us.”
Then, there is senior tackle T.J. Clemmings, a defensive end under former coaches Dave Wannstedt and Todd Graham. Clemmings played offensive tackle last season for the first time, and his inexperience showed.
Yet he works harder than most of his teammates, and coaches named him the most improved player on offense the past two springs.
“T.J., you could see it coming in the spring and summer,” Hueber said. “You could see it in the way he carries himself.
“There is less self-doubt. When you move to a new position, that is always there and I think he is over that.”
Now, after determining the Pitt offensive linemen care, work hard and no longer can use inexperience as an excuse, this question remains:Can they play?
Pitt quarterbacks were sacked 43 times last season, and starter Tom Savage ended the season with a bruised kidney.
Chryst is quick to point out that blame for every sack can't be placed on the linemen's shoulders. Quarterbacks hold the ball too long; pass catchers don't get open fast enough.
The line finally has stability, but that's only half of the story.
“That's where we really want to be,” Chryst said. “But we've got to be better.”