Pitt line coach Dave Borbely starts working on his ‘jigsaw puzzle’
Dave Borbely has coached offensive linemen at 14 schools for 40 seasons. It’s safe to assume he’s had more than a few challenges in his career and even some more difficult to solve than what he’s dealing with at Pitt.
When he was asked about replacing four starters on Pitt’s offensive line this spring, he said, “It makes my job a heck of a lot tougher.”
Still, he sounded like a guy eager to roll up his sleeves and get to work.
The only returning starter on Pitt’s line is rising junior center Jimmy Morrissey. The rest of the line is far from set, but tackles Gabe Houy and Jerry Drake Jr. and guards Bryce Hargrove and Brandon Ford have been lining up around Morrissey during the first three days of spring drills. Transfer tackle Nolan Ulizio, formerly of Michigan, will join the mix this summer.
Meanwhile, Borbely must get the others ready to compete when training camp opens in August.
The team put on pads for the first time Tuesday, and Borbely and coach Pat Narduzzi weren’t surprised when the veteran defensive line was ahead of their offensive counterparts.
“I learned we have a long way to go, which I knew,” Borbely said. “Frankly, I would have been shocked if it turned out differently. There were some good things, but there are obviously a lot of things we have to improve on fundamentally and from a communications standpoint. That will come along.”
Narduzzi said, “The defensive line is ahead (of the offense). It should be, and we anticipated they would be after three (days) and maybe after 10. The O-line takes time to develop.”
The good news is Morrissey’s surgically repaired ankle is healing, and he is hoping to play in the spring game April 13.
“No limp,” he said. “I got my bionic ankle. It feels awesome,” he said after participating in live drills for the first time since he hurt the ankle Nov. 17 at Wake Forest.
“I feel good, progressed a lot in the past two weeks since spring ball started. My strength in my legs is coming back. My (grandfather) has really strong legs. I think it’s genetics.”
Morrissey, a member of Pitt’s Blue-Gold Society for top students, has been given freedom by coaches to monitor the health of his ankle, along with trainer Kate Zirpoli.
“The coaches have been great about it,” he said. “They’ve been leaving it to my discretion. The coaches aren’t pushing me or forcing me. They’re letting me take it day by day.”
Borbely said Morrissey was the glue that held the line together last season, which created a difficult situation when he missed the last three games (all losses when Pitt scored a total of 26 points).
“I thought a year ago he was our best offensive lineman, and I still think that,” Borbely said. “He’s really the glue that makes it all go.
“When we lost him in the Wake Forest game, that piece of it really hurt. We had people we could put in to fill the spot, but all of that leadership, the glue, all of that was gone. It’s hard to overcome.”
Morrissey’s injury opened an opportunity for junior Bryce Hargrove, who started at left guard when Connor Dintino moved to center. Hargrove said he was at his best in the Sun Bowl against Stanford, but he got hurt in that game and couldn’t finish. He also said he failed to attain optimum consistency last season.
“I feel like last year, I had a couple good plays, slack off on a play and my mental focus was on the play I slacked off on,” he said. “That’s my No. 1 goal, to be completely consistent.”
Hargrove and Ford are locked in at guard, but Ulizio could create competition for Houy (Upper St. Clair) and Drake. “You just have to put the jigsaw puzzle together,” Borbely said.
Houy appears ready for it. “I want to become a dominant player,” he said. “I don’t want to be just an average starter.”
For the third consecutive season, Narduzzi has brought in a graduate transfer offensive lineman, a talent source that is becoming increasingly popular among college coaches.
“It’s the way the game has gone,” he said. “Instead of bringing in a (junior-college) kid, it’s even better. You’re probably going to find a better character guy. It’s a great way of helping out in a spot of need.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .