Injuries still problem on the line for Pitt
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Pitt has used five starting offensive line combinations through eight games because of inexperience and injuries. Somehow, though, the line has actually improved as the season has progressed.
Coach Todd Graham said that's a testament to the work of offensive line coach Spencer Leftwich, who, in turn, said it speaks volumes about the character of the players who have had to step in and play because of injuries.
But stability in the line still remains a problem as the Panthers (4-4, 2-1 Big East) start their run at a league championship Saturday against Cincinnati (6-1, 2-0).
Guard Lucas Nix (knee) is hoping to return for the game but is still day to day, and center Ryan Turnley has sat out practices the past few weeks to try to heal his foot, although he has yet to miss a game.
While Leftwich craves some stability in the lineup, he knows most of it is out of his control.
"We are going to play who is healthy and who can play," he said.
"But to the kids' credit, where ever we moved them and where ever we put them, they responded and played. That is just one of those things we can't worry about -- we are going to prepare for one set of guys to play and we have another plan but we'll see what happens Saturday at 7.
"You'd sure like to have the same five to play every week but what our program is built on is, we're going to be positive and we're going to worry about the things that we can control. You can't control that as much as you want to. There is nothing you can control about it.
"We're going to find a way to do it and like I said, to the kids' credit they have found away to do it."
If Nix can play, the offensive line will be (from left tackle to right tackle) Greg Gaskins, Ryan Schlieper or Juantez Hollins or Cory King, Turnley, Nix and Jordan Gibbs.
That is the unit the coaches would like to finish the season with once the left guard spot is settled.
But Nix's status is still unclear, and if he doesn't play, King likely will start at right guard, leaving the left side to Schlieper or Hollins.
Schlieper also is the backup at center, but Turnley has found a way to play in each of the past two games despite battling injuries.
Leftwich said Turnley is a "warrior" who will show up Saturday and be ready to play.
"The kid the last two weeks has had those two feet banged up and he just kept on playing and fought through it," Leftwich said.
"And my side of it is, I appreciate the kid so much for what he wants to do for the team, for himself and for this program and he just keeps battling and somehow finds a way to get out there and play."
Turnley -- and Gibbs -- have been the two rocks on the line. They are the only two to start every game and have steadily improved to the point that Graham said both played their best game in the win against Connecticut.
While Leftwich would prefer not to have all the injuries on the line, there is a silver lining because several players have shown their versatility and gained experience at a number of different positions.
Hollins, Schlieper and Nix have played guard and tackle, King has handled both guard spots, Schlieper has practiced at center, Gibbs has played both tackle spots and practice at center, and Turnley has played all three positions on the line in his career.
That gives the Panthers depth along the line and will come in handy if Leftwich has to do more shuffling down the stretch.
"You have to look at things positively," the line coach said. "What you have is, whatever number of them are healthy, you have a lot of guys who can play multiple spots. And that is why it has been able to be good as you plug a guy in and know that he is going to be good."
While all of that juggling has been admirable, Leftwich concedes he would like to avoid it in the future because he believes an offensive line is at its best when it can play together as a unit for multiple weeks in a row.
"It is like anything, I don't care if it is O-line, defensive line or if it is quarterback, game experience is something that is invaluable," he said.
"You sure would like to have the same five consistently for 12 weeks but it isn't happening and so we have to go with what we got."
• Game: Pitt (4-4, 2-1 Big East) vs. No. 23 Cincinnati (6-1, 2-0), Heinz Field.
• When: 7 p.m. Saturday.
• TV: ESPNU.
• The skinny: Cincinnati makes its first trip to Heinz Field since its memorable 45-44 victory against the Panthers in 2009.
First Published November 3, 2011 12:00 am