Every once in a while, Pitt’s offensive line will watch game film of coach Paul Chryst’s old lines during his tenure as Wisconsin’s offensive coordinator.
On that tape, the lineman see a Badgers line that battered and bruised opponents for an average of 203.8 rushing yards per game during Chryst’s seven-year stint running the offense.
“We don’t watch it often, because we’re not them, we’re Pitt,” center Artie Rowell said Thursday at the South Side practice facility.
“We’re going to do what we do, but it is cool to see how tough they played and how fast they played.”
Pitt’s offensive line was not at that level last season. In fact, the unit wasn’t even close. The Panthers averaged just 125.7 yards per game on the ground in 2013. The figure Rowell was more concerned about, though, was 43, the number of sacks given up last season, sixth worst in Division I-A.
“We don’t have numbers, we’re not running backs, receivers, quarterbacks. That’s our number,” Rowell said. “We’ll own up to it. We have to cut that number down this year.”
The biggest factor working in the unit’s favor is the amount of experience returning. Projected starters Rowell, right tackle TJ Clemmings, right guard Matt Rotheram and left tackle Adam Bisnowaty all started at least eight games last year, and Dorian Johnson, who will likely start at left guard, started three games and played in nine.
Part of the problem last season was that injuries forced the line to shuffle constantly. Cory King started the first five games before going down with injury, and Bisnowaty’s back injury forced him out of the final four games. So, Johnson played both guard and tackle, and other players such as Ryan Schlieper rotated through the lineup.
Rotheram and Bisnowaty credited new strength coach Ross Kolodziej’s summer program as a reason to be optimistic that the injury bug of 2013 won’t rear its head this season.
Rotheram said that while former strength coach Todd Rice emphasized flexibility and movement, Kolodziej has focused on power and brute strength, especially with the offensive line.
For his part, Bisnowaty said he felt just as good as he did before his back injury.
“A month, two months [after the injury], I felt great, back in the weight room, everything like that,” Bisnowaty said. “Now I’m to a point where I feel like I’m back to where I was in the weight room [before the injury].”
This year, the hope is that all five players will be healthy for the whole season. The depth behind the starters should be better, too, as guard Gabe Roberts recovers from injury and redshirt freshman Jaryd Jones-Smith got extensive first-team action in the spring while Bisnowaty rehabbed his back.
It seems unlikely that a freshman will have to fill in this year as Johnson did last year.
“The offensive line is just one unit,” Rotheram said. “Having those five guys out there, and then having the guys who played a little bit behind us and got some experience in spring ball will be big in case we do have anyone go down.”
A big chunk of that confidence in the reserves can be attributed to Chryst’s recruiting, which has been stellar along the offensive line. Johnson was a five-star prospect out of Belle Vernon High School, and 2014 enrollees Alex Bookser and Mike Grimm were four-star WPIAL products.
“At the time, when I was looking at different schools, their offensive line wasn’t as great as it used to be. That’s what I wanted to change,” Bisnowaty said. “When you look at the guys in the room now, guys that are coming in, guys that we’re recruiting, those are the guys that are going to change the program.”
Of course, a bright future is great, but seniors Rotheram and Clemmings are ready to improve this year.
“It’s good that those guys played well last year. It’s good that they’re young and have more time to be here, but this is it for me, and I want to make the most of it,” Rotheram said.
Can the offensive line get to the level of play it sees in those Wisconsin films? Rowell is confident it can.
“I think that we can get there,” he said. “I think that we can get there this season.”
•NOTE — Pitt added its 12th commitment of the 2015 class Thursday when Hempfield offensive lineman Tony Pilato gave his verbal pledge to Chryst and the Panthers. Pilato is rated as a three-star prospect by Rivals.com and chose the Panthers over Maryland, Minnesota, Syracuse and Virginia. He is the second WPIAL offensive lineman to commit to Pitt’s 2015 class, joining Canon McMillan’s Alex Paulina.
Sam Werner: email@example.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.