Pitt offensive lineman Matt Rotheram entered spring practice with no expectations other than he hoped to get a shot at a starting job, either guard or tackle.
Not only did he get that opportunity, he made the most of it, working with the first team at right tackle. Barring an injury, Rotheram likely will be the starter there in the fall.
"I haven't thought about that, I just want to contribute and know that I need to continue to improve," said Rotheram, a redshirt sophomore. "But all of us [offensive linemen] are coming together well, I think we've gotten better and, as long as we continue to work hard and work together, I think it will be pretty good in the fall."
Rotheram filled one position of need. The other, left tackle, has been filled by Juantez Hollins, and the two have helped to solidify a line that lost both starting tackles and their primary backup to graduation.
The first team, which also includes guards Cory King and Ryan Schlieper and center Ryan Turnley -- has improved each week..
Offensive line coach Jim Hueber, a 40-year coaching veteran regarded as one of the top offensive line coaches at any level, has been a key to their success, Rotheram said.
"It is tough love," Rotheram said, "but if he is not growling at you and pushing you, it means he isn't thinking about you or doesn't like you. He pushes us because he wants us to be the best we can be and he knows we can be better than we are. He is a fantastic teacher, a great coach."
Hueber, new to the Pitt staff, said he has liked what he has seen from both of his tackles, but is not satisfied..
"We think we made progress, but we are nowhere near where we need to be," Hueber said. "But we are moving in that direction. We have made a lot of progress in a lot of areas, but we have some things we have to shore up and find some depth.
"I can't complain about where we are now as compared to where we were on the first day attitude-wise and accomplishing things we wanted to accomplish.
"I didn't know who we had to replace [at tackle], so everyone was on the same level at the start. [Hollins and Rotheram] are still growing up -- there is not much experience there, but they are still growing up and they have done a lot of really good things. And now it is my job to get them over the hump in the fall."
One big decision Hueber will face is where senior Chris Jacobson fits in with the line when he returns from injury in the fall. Jacobson had knee surgery last season and is not available for spring football.
Hueber said Jacobson will be a guard, but he will have to beat out one of the two guards who have manned the starting positions this spring.
"I'm not going to give anybody the job, including [Jacobson], and he knows it," Hueber said. "My No. 1 thing is, I want to see him come out and see him able to perform the first day, no hesitation, no nothing else. But he would even tell you that there are some days up and down right now where you can see a difference in what kinds of things he can do with his leg.
"We just need to see where he is and throw him in the middle of it and give him a chance, but we're not going to give anybody the job."
The odd man out at guard likely will be the sixth offensive lineman.
Hueber said that developing depth is a big part of his new job. While there are a lot of players for him to choose from, few have experience and it has been a bit of a struggle to develop a consistent second unit.
The Panthers are going back to the pro-style offense rather than the spread attack favored by former coach Todd Graham. That means that the interior linemen will have the help of tight ends and a fullback and that should help ease some concerns about the inexperience.
"It is a comfort thing with me to have a tight end next to me, taking away that edge from me because now defensive ends have to think about what we're going to do," Rotheram said. "And then to have the help of a fullback chipping guys coming off the edge -- it really is going to be a great scheme for what we like to do. Basically, it will be nice to go out and look for guys to hit as opposed to the spread, where a lot of times we were standing around waiting to get hit."
NOTES -- Starting middle linebacker Dan Mason missed practice Thursday, but coach Paul Chryst said it wasn't injury related and that he just needed to "take care of some things." In his absence, Shane Gordon moved to middle linebacker. ... The spring game Saturday (1 p.m. at North Hills' Martorelli Stadium) will be an offense-defense situational scrimmage rather than a true game. There will be no scoring system. ... There will be a football clinic starting at 11:30 a.m. for children (8th grade and younger) under the direction of the Pitt players on the field before the spring scrimmage.
Paul Zeise: firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter: @paulzeise. First Published April 13, 2012 12:00 AM