July 29, 2014

Live and Die On the Line

Filed under: Football — Chas @ 6:49 am

This is no great secret. As important as it will be for Chad Voytik to develop quickly at QB. As much as there are big questions about who will be the second and third WRs to take some of the coverage away from Tyler Boyd. As curious as I am to see how James Conner looks. It all starts on the O-line.

Chad Voytik isn’t going to have much success (or avoid injury) if the O-line isn’t giving him a chance. Conner or any of the other running backs can only do so much if the O-lines isn’t at least producing some sort of opening for them to hit.

Health is the concern for the offensive line — as it is throughout the team — but there is a reason to have optimism.

The size is back up front.

“We felt like we needed to get bigger, so you had to recruit bigger,” he said.

The reconstruction of the Pitt football program has taken many shapes, including attitudes and athleticism. There are those who have watched practice every day since Chryst arrived and believe the pad-popping gets louder every year.

One of the most important alterations is the basic look of the team.

When training camp opens next Sunday, Pitt’s offensive linemen will stand, on average, taller than 6-foot-5 and weigh 311.4 pounds. That’s not unlike how it was in 2011 when former coach Todd Graham’s line stood at 6-5 and 313 pounds. But it’s a half-inch taller and more than 16 pounds heavier than in Dave Wannstedt’s final season in 2010.

The four players this season who are 330 pounds or more are either starting (right guard Matt Rotheram) or showing promise as redshirt freshmen (Jaryd Jones-Smith, Carson Baker and Alex Officer). In fact, Jones-Smith (6-7, 335) played almost every first-team snap this spring at left tackle because Adam Bisnowaty was dealing with a bad back.

There were no players who weighed more than 330 pounds in 2010. In 2011, there were three, including Rotheram, who was 15 pounds heavier at 350. The other two were low-impact players Zenel Demhasaj and Arthur Doakes.

Asked whether recruiting big players is part of his coaching philosophy, Chryst admitted, “A little bit.”

It was very obvious from the moment Chryst arrived at Pitt that he was going to go with bigger players. He made it clear to many of the offensive line recruits when he took over after the 2011 season that size matters. Some decommitted. Some stayed. Only Center Artie Rowell managed to overcome the size bias (and he has bulked up quite a bit). Mainly because Pitt had no other options at center. Chryst was going to follow the blueprint set out at Wisconsin.

And don’t tell me, Coach Paul Chryst hasn’t learned a little something about playing to the local base.

But Chryst said Wisconsin didn’t invent the concept of mammoth linemen.

“People talk about (Pitt’s) offensive line, ‘Are you trying to build it like you had at Wisconsin?’ ” he said. “Yeah, but we tried to build Wisconsin like the one that was at Pitt in the ’80s (with All-Americans Jimbo Covert, Bill Fralic and Mark Stepnoski who went to the NFL at 277, 280 and 269 pounds, respectively).”

“We are trying to build that line (at Pitt).”

There’s just enough potential truth to the statement, given Barry Alvarez’s ties to the area for it to be true. But still. Nicely played.

But then size doesn’t matter so much if you are hurt or not very good.

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.

As wonderful as James Conner’s performance was in the pizza bowl, those numbers also made the overall rushing numbers not look as bad as they really were for most of the year.

Pitt has to be able to run the ball this year. Not simply because James Conner can be a beast. Isaac Bennett is consistent and Chris James has potential. The offense cannot dump that much on Chad Voytik right away.

We already know that teams will look to blitz early and often against Pitt. You want to try and rattle a new QB. The offensive line was such a weakness last year, it has to be attacked. I have to believe that Chryst and OC Rudolph are expecting and preparing the offense to face a lot of blitzes.

With their experience and a more mobile QB they should be able to cut the sacks in half or better.

If Conner et al can’t pick up yardage behind Clemmings, Rotherham, and Rowell we are in trouble.

Bisno and Johnson have to be better as well.

Of course it is doubtful that everyone stays healthy all year so hopefully the back-ups are ready as well.

Comment by gc 07.29.14 @ 7:18 am

31 days till Kick-Off

Comment by gc 07.29.14 @ 7:20 am

The prized bulls from HCPC’s first class, weights at the time of recruitment, and now listed on the team site:

JJ-Smith: 6’7, 290—>335
Alex Officer: 6’4, 285—>335
Aaron Reese: 6’6, 275—>310
Carson Baker: 6’5, 300—>330
Dorian Johnson: 6’5, 280—>300

Hopefully these kids can play.. depth and competition looking solid, finally.

Comment by BostonsCommon 07.29.14 @ 8:22 am

No wonder the meal plan is so expensive! Its gotta pay for these guys.

I have to say I am a little disappointed to hear that our line is not even as big as Fraud’s!

Comment by DD 07.29.14 @ 8:34 am

Regarding O-Line…

Have doubts about Bisonwaty. Granted he had back issues last year. Even factoring that in, he looked REALLY SLOW and susceptible to the Outside Rush.

No doubts about TJ Clemmings. Jerry DiPaola of the Trib says he struggled last year. WHAT?

Clemmings was absolutely the MOST CONSISTENT Member of the O-Line a year ago.

Predicted last year that he would hear his name called in the 2015 Draft. Based on the raves he’s gotten from Coaches this Spring… nothing has happened to change my mind.

Comment by PittofDreams 07.29.14 @ 10:21 am

I’m cautiously optimistic about the OL. I also like what I’ve read from the s&c coach/team preparing the OL (the team as a whole) for the season. What I personally am most eager to hear about during camp is the health of Biz. Who steps in if he can’t get back to full health? Jones-Smith?

Comment by JAM05PITT 07.29.14 @ 10:31 am

And regarding the continuing topic of Chris James… the Gunslinger from Chi-town.

Reed, don’t think you need to worry about James pulling a McCoy and starring from the start.

LeSean McCoy (prior to his ankle break) was the No. 1 H.S. Back in the NATION according to most recruiting sites.

A better comparison is Dion Lewis. Although to me, Lewis’ High School tape highlights looked a bit better than James.

On paper, James is faster than Lewis. But on tape, Lewis has the slight edge as a Runner.

See James as a TOUGH Kid who will get the TOUGH yards when given the opportunity. But don’t see him running away from people on a consistent basis.

See more of that coming from Ollison. Although again on paper… James is slightly faster in the Forty.

Comment by PittofDreams 07.29.14 @ 10:32 am

One more thing on the O-Line…

Artie Rowell getting some Pre-Season accolades. But that guy really struggles last year against the Bull Rush by BIGGER Lineman.

Hopefully he’s gotten BIGGER and STRONGER with the New Strength Coach.

But if not… a change will be made.

Already on the record saying Dorian Johnson… while MUCH BETTER at GUARD than Tackle… his BEST POSITION would be CENTER.

Guess we’ll find out.

Comment by PittofDreams 07.29.14 @ 10:38 am

PittofDreams –

I like DiPaola but I agree with you that Clemmings was solid last year and everyone seems to think he will continue to make strides this year.

Comment by JAM05PITT 07.29.14 @ 10:39 am

One thing that may help the OL is the amount of skill we have spread all over the field on Offense. We will not have to be one dimensional, and that alone will help keep the opposing D “honest.” It should be very exciting to watch our O move down the field. Can’t wait!!!!!

Comment by pittman4ever 07.29.14 @ 11:02 am

I’m tired of the negative Post-gazette.
If you click on the list of Pitt articles it’s all bad or we can’t do this or we are picked last.
I like the article that drove the last two topics on this website on size and rebuilding recruiting from the Trib.
We, Pitt, IMO doesn’t have the budget nor is inclined to be Alabama, Texas or Ohio State, powerhouses in football recruiting, so lets not compare ourselves to them. You can always write Pitt isn’t good but it takes some thought and insight to measure this team from it’s real competition.

Comment by Tackle made by Hugh 07.29.14 @ 11:02 am

The bigger question mark????? may be the “D” line.

Comment by alcofan 07.29.14 @ 11:09 am

The key to the O-line’s play will be LT. As we all know that is the blind side to a RH throwing QB.

Will Biz play up to his billing or will changes (alias Jones & Smith) have to be made ?

I think the rest of the line should be ok, if not maybe things have passed Hueber by.

Comment by Emel 07.29.14 @ 1:25 pm

This Offensive Line has much to prove. Last year they stunk. Can the five coming in with the ones this season change that perception? I don’t know. On paper, you have to conclude that this crew will be a handful to contend with. But the reality is, until proven otherwise, Pitt’s OL play has a history of poor performance, they stunk last season and their expected play this season will be continuing to stink, until proven otherwise!

Comment by Dr. Tom 07.29.14 @ 1:28 pm

From 2010-2012 well you could say maybe they didn’t like blocking for tiny, as they never helped him back on his feet after tiny did his fetal position roll over.

Last year they were even more pathetic, of course maybe Ray Graham’s brilliance made them look a tad better in the previous 2 seasons.

Far too many chinese fire drills last year, as Savage took his knocks and lumps. And let’s face it a lot of the rushing yardage was piled up against the likes of Old Dominion, New Mexico, Bowling Green, Navy & Duke. Not exactly ‘murderers row’.

So yes they indeed have a lot to prove. As does whether or not Hueber can still motivate/teach college kids.

Comment by Emel 07.29.14 @ 1:42 pm

Seems like every year since the Harris years that there have been O-line concerns going into the season. And a lot of those concerns were warranted.

This year, in relative terms, feels better. Whether we consistently blow open holes for Connor/Bennett/Ibrahim/James….I don’t know. But I’m less worried than years prior….and that is progress.

Comment by Joe Lawrence 07.29.14 @ 3:13 pm

Reed – good post yesterday.

Fully agree that Ibrahhim will be someone to watch.

Too early to disagree on Voytik vs the name we should not speak of. But Voytik appears to be able to hit receivers in the flat, something that – ahem – was never able to do.

Comment by Joe Lawrence 07.29.14 @ 3:16 pm

Boston – maybe I’m doing the same workouts as those Chryst recruited OL kids. When I retired from the military three years ago I was 6’6″ and 230. Now, three years later I’m 6’5.5″ and 265. Too bad I’m too old for DE, plus I have a real laid back attitude toward my ‘opponents’ – I just don’t care anymore.

Joe – I really wasn’t comparing Voytik and ‘He Who Shall Remain Italian’… I was pointing out that fans love stats and tend to look back over the last few year at a skill position player’s production. Beside, I believe Voytik is a different QB than our last two starters both physically and in his skill sets. I’m looking forward to seeing him as QB1 in practice next week.

Overall I’m cautiously optimistic that he’ll have the 1st time starting jitters behind him as we go into the ACC portion of the schedule. That’s five games with two being pretty good competition in Boston College and Iowa. If he can get us three or four winds without making too many damaging mistakes then I think he’ll begin to get pretty productive over the last seven games.

Regarding the below average play level of the OL last year; if they repeat themselves then it makes even more sense to me to keep Conner at RB. He can bullrush for yards and break arm tackles at or behind the LOS. As a matter of fact I can’t remember him getting minus yardage on any play last year. I think we’ll see less sacks with a QB who can tuck and run better than anyone we’ve had since Pat Bostick.

Note: I’m working up a Defense post along the lines of the one I posted yesterday. It’s harder for me because I don’t follow the individual players much like I do on the Offense.

Comment by Reed 07.29.14 @ 4:33 pm

This is pretty funny.

What’s his name is the backup QB for the Teddy Roosevelt Roughriders.

Really !!!

Comment by Emel 07.29.14 @ 4:51 pm

If the OL sucks this year Hueber must go.

All remaining starters should be improved. I think Dorian will be a stud by years end.

Comment by notrocketscience 07.29.14 @ 5:04 pm

Personally, I think James is unlikely to see much action right away, except for garbage time. I would be surprised if he were not immediately the #3 back ahead of Ibrahim, though. My feeling is that as the season wears on James will take a lot of snaps from Bennett. Conner will still be the feature back. By seasons end I would think it’ll be 50% Conner, and 25% Bennett and 25% James in terms of touches. I also don’t know why Ibrahim hasn’t been talked about more as a DB, which is where he was recruited. We have very little depth there and he’s got a much better chance of being a starter in the defensive backfield than the offensive backfield. Particularly after this year when Conner, James, and Ollison will be competing with him for every touch. Throw in the very dynamic recruit Quadree Henderson and I cant envision Ibrahim even seeing much of the field on offense.

Comment by PittHW 07.29.14 @ 6:50 pm

I expect the Ol to play well. But who exactly are they facing this year that is a great defensive front? HCPC first year they did a great job with limited depth and talent. Last year the front lost King, Biz and just never got going until Hollins and Schlieper got into a rhythm. I agree Rowell was the real weak link and he has to play much better. If not they better hope someone steps up in camp.

Comment by chethejet 07.29.14 @ 7:02 pm

I think I like the depth on the offensive line and at running back. Injuries are always critical. Has there been discussion of moving bisnowaty to the interior? Seems that would protect him from the speed rushers. That said, an extra year of technique work can make up for that.

All this chatter is exciting. Can’t wait for the season to start. Hopefully the biggest change comes between the ears for these fellas. It’s all mindset. Beat your man for 4-6 seconds every time!

Comment by dhuffdaddy 07.29.14 @ 9:16 pm

not sure I understand the skepticism of Chris James not contributing this year. In only the the last handful of years, we had Shady, Dion, Graham (when he saw the field) Shell, and Conner all make healthy contributions in their first years. Yes, 3 of the them were 4-stars (as is James), but Dion was a 2-star while Conner was a 3 star –DE!

So why not James all of a sudden?

Comment by wbb 07.30.14 @ 5:42 pm

wbb – I think the question by the fans is whether or not he’ll win the starting job as to allow the staff to move Conner to DE permanently. At least that is what has been discussed on here lately.

My take is that we have some pretty talented returning RBs in front of him to preclude that from happening. But you are correct – it very well could happen, I just don’t bank on it doing so.

Comment by Reed 07.31.14 @ 6:55 am

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