Pitt offensive line coach Dave Borbely builds culture of trust, pride, grit
Dave Borbely had been Pitt’s offensive line coach for only a few months in the spring of 2018 when he walked out of the indoor facility one day after a practice. He was joined by Bob Junko, Pitt’s director of player development who has served the football program in various roles over parts of four decades.
“I said, ‘Junk, what was the worst offensive line you can remember?’” Borbely said.
Junko, who coached the defensive line from 1997-2005, referenced a unit from the late 1990s when former coach Walt Harris was trying to resurrect the program.
Borbely responded, “I said, Junk, we could surpass that. He said, ‘I know. You got a tough job.’ I mean we stunk. I didn’t think we’d win three games.”
Yet, as spring turned into summer and summer into football season, Pitt’s offensive line evolved into a highly functioning unit, helping carry Pitt to the ACC Coastal championship. The Panthers finished with two 1,000-yard rushers for the first time in school history and was ranked 18th nationally with an average of 227.9 rushing yards per game and the fourth-highest total in school history (3,191).
Borbely told the story Friday on the first day of training camp to illustrate how things never are as bad as they seem.
Which brings us this season and another rebuilding job for Borbely, 60, who has coached offensive linemen at 14 schools since 1981.
Four starters from last year are gone, with only junior center Jimmy Morrissey returning. In Borbely’s eyes, Morrissey is the most important cog.
When Morrissey went down with a foot injury and missed the final three games of the season, Borbely said, “It was trouble without Jimmy in there.”
Before that, however, Pitt won five of six games after a 45-14 loss at Central Florida.
“Central Florida, we stunk,” Borbely said. “I thought we had a bad gameplan. I didn’t like what I put together.”
But a week later, Pitt rushed for 265 yards and defeated Syracuse, 44-37, in overtime.
“You talk about leaving it all on the field,” Borbely said. “(Right tackle) Alex Bookser left it all on the field. I said, ‘You know what? We’re making some progress.’
“We were practicing at a really high level, like no mental errors all the way through practice, which is really unheard of. And that’s how we played every game until Miami (a 24-3 loss, the first game without Morrissey).”
At that point, Borbely brought the conversation back to this year’s team.
“That’s where this group needs to go,” he said. “If we can just get targeted on the right guys and give ourselves a chance that way, I think we’ll be OK.”
Now, all he needs to do is put players in proper positions, a process that will take most of this month.
Morrissey will be the anchor, and he could be flanked by guards Bryce Hargrove and Gabe Houy (who also can play tackle) with left and right tackles Carter Warren and Nolan Ulizio. But they will be pushed by Carson Van Lynn, Jerry Drake Jr., Brandon Ford, Chase Brown and Blake Zubovic. Few jobs are safe.
Hargrove is an important piece of the puzzle after he started the last three games at guard when Connor Dintino replaced Morrissey at center. Borbely said Hargrove has shown growth in the past year.
“Bryce busted a blitz against Syracuse and was very nonchalant about it, and it was one we had repped over and over,” he said. “I was like, ‘Screw this,’ and I didn’t play him (much) the rest of the year.”
Hargrove, a junior, learned a lesson and Borbely said, “I like Bryce a lot. I think he would tell you that he’s really matured mentally. From sophomore year to junior year, huge jump.
“I think it was good to get him those starts and get him those reps. ”
How Borbely handles his players with tough love might have prompted Morrissey to describe him as “one of the most honest men I ever met.”
“I love him like a family member,” Morrissey said. “He’s one of the biggest role models in my life.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .