Nix, Gibbs up to anchor Pitt's offensive line
One of them was among the most coveted offensive linemen in the nation. The other was a lightly recruited, converted tight end from eastern Pennsylvania.
Lucas Nix and Jordan Gibbs came from different places, but they are working to give Pitt the best set of bookend tackles in the Big East.
"Me and Luke want to be the top tackles," said Gibbs, a two-star recruit out of Lancaster Penn Manor. "That is my goal. I'm trying to be all-Big East. It really motivates me. It drives me harder to do what I need to do."
There is no official Big East preseason football team, but the ESPN all-conference team included none of Pitt's three returning offensive line starters — right guard/tackle Nix, left tackle Gibbs or left guard Chris Jacobson (6-3, 295).
In its preseason unit rankings, Athlon Sports tabbed Pitt as the fourth-best offensive line in the Big East behind Connecticut, West Virginia and Syracuse.
There remains some uncertainty. Coach Todd Graham this week switched Nix, a former Parade All-American, to guard to boost intensity for the final starting offensive line spot. Ryan Turnley already has secured the starting center job.
"It provokes more competition among the other guys," Nix said.
Nix will be comfortable at either position; he started 12 games at right guard last year after starting all 13 games at right tackle as a sophomore.
"He's very talented, very gifted, very physical," Graham said. "He can be as good as he wants to be. I told him and Gibbs that I will be very disappointed if they weren't the two best tackles in the league, and, if he moves down to guard, I expect (Nix) to be the best guard in the league."
The 6-foot-6, 310-pound Nix is ranked among the top guard prospects in the 2012 NFL Draft. Most grade him as a second- or third-round pick.
"Physically, I've gotten stronger. I've gotten bigger," Nix said. "I feel good about where I'm at right now."
Nix, one of six Big East players (along with Jacobson) on the Outland Trophy Watch List as the nation's top lineman, has excelled in grasping Graham's new high-speed attack. Conditioning is a premium, as the 300-pounders must sprint down the field and get reset to meet Graham's goal of snapping the ball within 15 seconds of the end of a play.
"I can't wait until we play a team, and I see that D-line just dead in the second quarter," Nix said. "At some point they are going to wear down. That's where all the running we did is going to take over, and you will see us start to just gradually get more and more push on the line."
Gibbs, a 6-foot-7, 315-pounder, started the final 10 games last year at right tackle but moved this year to left tackle, where the left-hander replaces former all-Big East selection Jason Pinkston, a fifth-round draft pick by the Browns. Gibbs, a former standout high school basketball player, said he is in better shape after an offseason with new strength and conditioning coach Shawn Griswold.
"I feel like I can run longer than I did before," Gibbs said. "I can punch people harder when I'm on the line and come off the ball faster."