Pitt Working to Fill OL Vacancies in Spring Ball

With Morrissey healthy, Panthers hoping to keep standard

Josh Rowntree
March 19, 2019 - 2:35 pm
Pitt OL coach Dave Borbely at Spring practice in 2019

Josh Rowntree - 93.7 The Fan

The most consistent part of Pitt’s football team under Pat Narduzzi has, quite likely, been its offensive line. 

A year after producing two 1,000-yard rushers, the Panthers will now look to fill the holes that made the holes for a pair of talented tailbacks in 2018. 

Gone are four starters, including takcles Alex Bookser and Stefano Millin, as well as guards Connor Dintino and Mike Herndon.

“It makes it a heck of a lot harder,” second-year offensive line coach Dave Borbely said Tuesday after Spring practice. “In some regards, we have to start over. But, in another sense, I feel like we’ve got a little more athleticism. As  I told the players, we’re a lot further along mentally than we were a year ago at this time.”

Pitt is still looking for the right combination to fill the voids. In the mix for the guard position will be juniors Brandon Ford and Bryce Hargrove, as well as junior Rashad Wheeler, who has converted from defensive tackle to guard.

“It’s definitely different,” Wheeler said of the transition. “I’ve got to work on my weight distribution now. Instead of going forward, I’ve got to learn how to sit back, anchor down. I have to stop them from rushing now and protect our quarterback.”

Hargrove stepped in over the final three games last season, playing against talented defensive fronts from Clemson, Miami and, in the bowl game, against Stanford. 

“It’s taught me a lot,” Hargrove said. “I think my best game was the game I got hurt, against Stanford. I feel like being consistent is everything. That’s my number one goal.”

At tackle, Jerry Drake and Gabe Houy will compete for spots with Michigan transfer Nolan Ulizio, who is not yet on campus. 

“Definitely just dominate,” Houy said of his mindset in the competition. “I want to become a dominant player. I don’t want to be just an average starter. I want to be the best starter I can be, the best player I can be.”

Ulizio could provide a boost, at 6-foot-5, 305 pounds. 

“He’ll be a good addition,” said center Jimmy Morrissey, who added that he hosted Ulizio on a visit to Pitt. “He can play tackle and guard and, hopefully, he doesn’t come in and take my spot at center. But he’s a good player and we’re excited for him to come.”

Morrissey probably has nothing to be worried about, as Pitt’s only returning starter. But, coming off a season-ending ankle injury against Wake Forest, he is balancing rehab with practice during Spring practices.

“I feel good,” he said. “I’ve progressed a lot in the last two weeks since Spring ball started. My ankle feels really good. My strength in my legs is really good.”

“He’s a pretty important piece of it,” Borbely said of Morrissey. “I thought, a year ago, he was our best offensive lineman, and I still think that. He’s going to be a huge part of it, in terms of leadership. And really, he’s the glue that makes it all go.”

From a player perspective, Morrissey has been pleasantly surprised with the group early on.

“It’s coming along a lot better than I expected,” he said. “The learning curve from having Coach Borbely for a year, it’s been a lot better than what last Spring was.”

Tuesday was the first day that Pitt put pads on to practice this Spring, so Borbely got a chance to get a more realistic look at the group.

“I learned that we have a long way to go, which I knew,” he said. “Frankly, I would have been shocked if it had turned out differently. There were some good things, but there’s a lot of things we have to improve on fundamentally and from a communication standpoints. But that’ll come along.”

Hear Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi’s comments on the offensive line, and more from the first day of padded Spring practice, below.