Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt on his offensive line: "I hate to make a change in one position when we're struggling as a group."
By Paul Zeise Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt announced some position changes Monday in the offensive line, but also made it clear that he will not hesitate to shake up the lineup more if that is what it takes to get the team back on track.
The moves come in the wake of the lopsided loss Thursday to Miami and as a prelude to the game Saturday afternoon at Heinz Field against Florida International.
"We've had some serious heart-to-heart conversations with some players," Wannstedt said. "Let's watch the tape: who is producing? Who is getting the job done when the lights come on? That's the point that we're at right now with everyone. We have to be very honest about it and play the best players that will give us the chance to win."
The first moves have starting right tackle Lucas Nix switching to right guard ahead of former starter Greg Gaskins with former reserve tackle Jordan Gibbs inheriting Nix's spot at right tackle.
Gaskins had not progressed as coaches had hoped, but Wannstedt stressed he was not blaming Gaskins for all the offensive line's problems.
Instead, he said it was time for some changes and that Gibbs had earned the right through his performance at practice.
"I hate to make a change in one position when we're struggling as a group," Wannstedt said. "It's not an indication that it is one individual or one position. When you don't win a game, when you get beat like we did on Thursday, as I told the players, as a coach you have a tendency to look at everything under the microscope a lot closer after a loss."
With Gibbs (6 feet 7, 315 pounds) at right tackle and Nix at right guard, the Panthers could get a boost in the running game..
Although Gibbs is huge and a formidable run-blocker, he will need help as a pass-blocker because he struggles with speed rushers off the edge as he is not as quick or athletic as Nix. Nor is Gibbs as experienced as Nix, who has worked some at guard the past few weeks in anticipation of such a move.
"The biggest adjustment is with some of our plays: our sweeps, our screens, our powers, the guard has to do some pulling, and, if the guy is not athletic enough, then it wouldn't work," Wannstedt said. "In Lucas' case he's one of the better athletes that we have on the offensive line behind Jason [Pinkston]."
Two other offensive linemen who might see some playing time if this new combination does not work are reserve guard Ryan Turnley and reserve center/guard Jack Lippert.
Turnley has battled injuries and has not been healthy enough to practice consistently. Lippert is the only center other than starter Alex Karabin. As Wannstedt explained, center is not a position where you can shuffle players in a game.
But make no mistake, the remaining two games before the Big East Conference season begins will be an audition for the entire offensive line, so Lippert and Turnley may yet get a shot at starting.
"We want to take a look at this lineup and see if this doesn't give us the best five at this time," Wannstedt said. "Our focus is to find the best five. We're looking to see who is making progress."
Wannstedt also said that, when it comes to run-blocking, the tight ends are struggling just like the interior linemen.
Last season, the Panthers had Nate Byham, one of the best blocking tight ends in the country. His strength and athleticism made him virtually another tackle, who could take on defensive linemen by himself and often manhandle them.
Wannstedt also said the tight ends' inability to run block could force some changes in the playbook.
"Tight end is probably a position that is taken for granted when you're running your power game, and you're running your toss sweeps and your stretch game. The point man there is really your tight end," Wannstedt said. "That happened when we had the third down and 3 on the goal line. We have a wing (blocker), we run a power (play), and their defensive end gets penetration up the field, up and under our tight end. Was it a mistake mentally? No. It was a physical thing.
"That is something from a coaching standpoint where you have your plays that you believe in. It looks good on the board and sounds good in the clinic, but, if we can't do it, then we're wasting our time."
Changes could be coming at linebacker, too.
Already a season-ending injury to middle linebacker Dan Mason (dislocated knee cap, torn ligaments) has forced a shuffle that, for now, puts Max Gruder in the middle, Tristan Roberts as the weak-side starter and Greg Williams as the strong-side starter.
Depending on his health, safety Dom DeCicco (hamstring), who was knocked out of the Miami game in the first quarter, will play weakside linebacker some in passing situations and also fill the role of the nickel back in some defensive alignments. That was a role Elijah Fields filled last season.
Wannstedt said the first linebacker off the bench would be redshirt freshman Shane Gordon (6 feet 1, 230).
NOTES -- Mason is expected to have surgery by the end of the week and will be redshirted. ...Wannstedt said he is not considering a change at punt-returner, even though Cam Saddler fumbled a punt at a crucial time against Miami. "Cam Saddler has been outstanding," Wannstedt said. ... Safety Andrew Taglianetti (groin) played some snaps against Miami and will continue to see his role expand as he gets healthier. "He's about ready to go," Wannstedt said.