Pitt freshman gets indoctrinated into rigors of major college football

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Night game, on the road, lined up across from one of the best pass rushers in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

It would be hard to think of a more difficult situation for a freshman offensive tackle to make his first career start.

But that was the scenario for Dorian Johnson, who was tasked with protecting Pitt quarterback Tom Savage’s blind side as the left tackle Saturday night against Georgia Tech.

In addition to the rush of his first collegiate start, Johnson also had to handle the crowd noise and Yellow Jackets defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu, a preseason All-ACC team member who has six sacks on the season.

“I don’t think he was overwhelmed by the situation,” offensive line coach Jim Hueber said of Johnson. “He just had to go through it. That’s the only way you can put it. He had to go through that game.”

Johnson replaced starter Adam Bisnowaty, who had been dealing with a back injury the week before the game. Johnson found out Thursday that he would be starting in Bisnowaty’s place, but it still took awhile for him to feel totally comfortable.

“I was excited,” Johnson said. “The first two drives I was pretty nervous and then after I got that initial nervousness out of the way, I just started having fun with it.”

The experience he gained was valuable, but Johnson also looked like a freshman at times trying to block Attaochu, who had two sacks in the game.

Hueber cited the crowd noise, as well as Attaochu’s speed off the ball, as reasons for a couple of mistakes by Johnson, who admitted he has room to improve. Specifically, Johnson said he wants to get better at his pass protection.

“When I was out on the field, I thought I did a lot better than I actually did,” he said. “Going back and looking at it, I was kind of disappointed, but it wasn’t too bad for my first game.”

Johnson has bounced around the offensive line so far this season. He entered Pitt as a five-star recruit rated as the second-best offensive tackle in the country by Rivals.com, but he also has played guard because injuries have depleted the line depth.

His main role until Saturday had been spot duty as an extra tackle in short-yardage packages, a role he likely will return to when Bisnowaty is healthy enough to play again.

“[It was hard] just learning all the techniques for all of them and having to switch the next week,” Johnson said. “Midweek last week, I started to get everything down, and thought I started to do a little bit better with it.”

Johnson figures to play a big role in the offensive line over the next four years, but exactly where is still up in the air. Hueber said the staff still hasn’t decided whether Johnson projects as a tackle or guard down the road.

For his part, Johnson said he prefers tackle, but would be open to either one.

“We’ve got to come to a decision on that,” Hueber said. “He certainly has the athleticism to play at tackle, but he’s also got the strength and toughness to play inside. I’m not sure. The best part is we don’t have to make that decision right now. We can do that when calmer heads prevail.”

Wherever he ends up playing, his experience Saturday night — the good and the bad — will help him down the road.

“It’s what we’re putting in the bank,” Hueber said. “We want to win right now — we’re not looking for excuses or anything — but nothing that happened in that game can hurt him down the road.”

NOTE — Defensive tackle Aaron Donald was named the Nagurski Trophy defensive player of the week for his performance against Georgia Tech. Donald had 11 tackles (all solo), 6 tackles for loss, 2 forced fumbles and a sack.

Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.

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