The past 18 months haven’t exactly been easy for Juantez Hollins.
After earning a starting job in 2011, the senior offensive lineman was suspended for the 2012 season for a violation of team rules.
When he came back, the Panthers had moved on with an offensive line rotation that seemingly did not include him.
“[I thought about] quitting, for real,” Hollins said. “It came across. I’m not a quitter. I wasn’t raised to be a quitter. So I stuck it out.
“I figured, ‘You got suspended the year before, you didn’t leave, you stayed. You might as well stick it out now. It’d be stupid to quit your senior year.’ ”
Sticking around turned out to be a smart move for Hollins, and the Panthers are glad he did.
Thanks to a combination of injuries and inexperienced depth, Hollins is now listed as Pitt’s starting left tackle, the position he occupied at the beginning of the 2011 season.
“I just tried to stay ready all year,” he said.
It took a series of events for Hollins to get his shot.
First, redshirt freshman Adam Bisnowaty, who began the year as the starter at left tackle, went down with a back injury.
Freshman Dorian Johnson started in Bisnowaty’s place against Georgia Tech and North Carolina, but despite praise from coaches he was removed in the second half against the Tar Heels.
Hollins went in and the offense found its rhythm, mounting a 24-point comeback that eventually fell short.
“He’s experienced, he knows exactly what he’s doing,” left guard Ryan Schlieper said of Hollins. “He knows the plays.”
Hollins said Schlieper was one of the most encouraging teammates throughout his time away from the playing field.
Schlieper would know.
A starter last year, he got hurt toward the end of the season and lost his starting job coming into this year.
When Cory King went down with an injury in October, though, Schlieper stepped in.
“We’re a tight-knit group,” Schlieper said.
That experience helped him lend some motivational words to Hollins, who also credited his mom for keeping him going when it looked like he might never see the field again.
“When you’re not playing as a senior, you know it’s your last year, you get a lot of bad thoughts,” Hollins said. “But having him, my mom, my parents behind me, telling me just stay focused, don’t let it get to you.”
Hollins will anchor a reconfigured offensive line Friday against Miami. The Panthers have lost two starters (Bisnowaty and King) and one key reserve (Gabe Roberts) to injury, and will face a Miami defensive line that averages 293 pounds per player.
The Hurricanes rank 35th in Division I-A with 2.45 sacks per game.
“If you watch the film, they can move like they’re 280 [pounds],” Schlieper said. “They’ve got some good players.”
It’ll be a challenge, but Hollins is just happy to get another chance.
Despite the suspension and subsequent drop on the depth chart, he had faith this moment would come.
“I knew eventually my number would be called,” he said. “I hoped it would be called, so when it came I just tried to take advantage of it.”
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG.