Competition renewed on Pitt's offensive line

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Pitt's offensive line seemed set heading into the final few days of camp, but that's mostly because the five players who had constituted the first unit didn't have much competition from others on the depth chart.

And that wasn't a good situation because it meant there wasn't much, if any, depth at any of the positions along the line.

But this second week of camp has proven to be quite productive for the reserve offensive linemen to the point where Pitt coach Todd Graham said Thursday that some of the starting spots again are up for grab.

Graham said there are seven players competing for five spots, but those five spots will be settled by the end of camp Saturday so the competition over the next two days should be intense.

"There is still a lot of work to be done," Graham said. "Football is such a physical sport that it is important you are developing your depth and getting guys ready to play. We'll go through and evaluate this Saturday and go from there.

"I'm feeling a lot better about things because my biggest concern was the fifth spot up front along the offensive line and that group being so thin. And now we have some guys coming on and now we are looking at seven, eight guys who are getting better and competing."

The five players who have consistently been among the first unit had been left tackle Jordan Gibbs, left guard Chris Jacobson, center Ryan Turnley, right guard Cory King and right tackle Lucas Nix.

But in recent days, fifth-year senior Greg Gaskins has moved into the first unit at right tackle, Nix has moved to right guard and King has been playing with the second unit.

Graham said Gaskins has made a strong move this past week, as has redshirt sophomore tackle Juantez Hollins who has gotten some first-team repetitions at left tackle

Early in camp Graham said he wouldn't move Nix to guard because Nix was a "special tackle." But the coaches have struggled to find the right combination of the "best five guys," and with both reserve tackles coming on so strong in the same week, there are clearly some options.

"I think Lucas can be as good as he wants to be," Graham said. "I told him and Gibbs that I'd be disappointed if they weren't the best two tackles in the league. And if [Nix] moves down to guard, I'll be disappointed if he wasn't the best guard in the league. Nix is very, very athletic.

"[Juantez] is competing to start. He got his knee drained, I don't know if that had anything to do with it, but his progression up until four days ago [was not what it needed to be] and then all of the sudden he is looking impressive. If he can be consistent, he has a chance and that's our deal."

Graham has been impressed with Jacobson, Nix and Gibbs, which is not a surprise as the three were returning starters from a year ago, but finding the fourth and fifth player had been a little tougher since King and Turnley have struggled with consistency.

The coaches have hoped that a few of the reserve guards could step up and push King but the next two in line, Matt Rotheram and Arthur Doakes, have not done enough to prove they are capable of handling a starting role.

Gaskins actually worked as a reserve center early in camp but he wasn't able to snap the ball consistently enough for that experiment to continue, so Jacobson became the backup center, which is a position he worked at in the spring.

That's why Turnley, who still has been inconsistent snapping the football, is the key to a lot of what the line will look like. The coaches are working hard to get him to the point where he snaps consistently to hammer down the position.

If he can do that, Jacobson will stay at guard and that means there would only be one job still to be settled -- King's guard spot.

But if the coaches determine that Turnley isn't consistent enough snapping the ball -- the offense requires a shotgun snap on almost every play -- it would mean Jacobson would have to move to center and that would potentially necessitate a lot of shuffling to get the right guys in place.

"Every year that I've [taken over a new program the shotgun snap] has been the thing," Graham said. "That's kept me up at nights. I'm always surprised that it kind of limits itself. He just needs reps at doing it. He has done well with the fundamental part of it.

"We really have pushed Turnley to develop quickly because we really feel Jacobson's best position is left guard. But if you ask me what things I worry about, [good snaps are] what I worry the most about."

The Panthers have a scrimmage Saturday, and Graham said the line -- along with every other spot -- will be settled Sunday after the coaches break down film.

NOTES -- Freshman receiver Darius Patton collapsed in the afternoon practice. The university issued the following statement: "During Pitt's afternoon practice session, freshman receiver Darius Patton passed out while participating in a non-contact exercise. He was subsequently transported to UPMC Presbyterian, where he was awake, alert and had strong vital signs. Darius will be kept overnight for observation but all initial indications are positive." ...Safety Jason Hendricks has been slowed by what Graham called a turf toe. ... Three former players, LeSean McCoy, Dion Lewis and Mike McGlynn, visited the facility and met with the players. All three are members of the Philadelphia Eagles, who were in town Thursday night to play the Steelers in a preseason game.


Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720.


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