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Panther Hollow Presents The Freshman 15: Will Youth Serve Offensive Line Well?

By Matt Popchock
Dorian Johnson

Pitt freshman Dorian Johnson may start at offensive tackle when the Panthers open against No. 11 Florida State Sept. 2. (Photo Credit: 247Sports)

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PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — Head coach Paul Chryst knows the importance of offensive line play, which should explain why he’s still vacillating between two underclassmen who pushed each other hard at center to the very last snap of training camp Thursday.

It should also explain why he wanted Pennsylvania’s most highly-touted lineman to lead his 2013 recruiting class.

The next installment of our “Freshman 15″ series focuses on former Belle Vernon standout Dorian Johnson and redshirt freshman Gabe Roberts. The former is trying to live up to his own hype, while the latter is trying to live up to a lofty standard set by an ex-teammate.

There’s no avoiding the fact Pitt is getting younger up front. The two best members of its offensive line, left guard Chris Jacobson and center Ryan Turnley–each a former All-Big East honoree–are gone.

Until they gain the kind of experience that allowed those two to be successful, can players long on promise avoid falling short on delivery?

“We’re talking about depth, and depth creates competition. There’s nothing better for any athlete than to have to compete for a job,” Chryst said after practice on the South Side Wednesday. “You’re competing to be the best you can be so you can be the best at that position.”

Even with fine farewell seasons by Jacobson and Turnley, Pitt finished tied for 102nd in FBS with 38.0 sacks allowed last year. It wasn’t always smooth sailing for tackles Cory King and Matt Rotheram, so the Panthers are hoping a move to guard by both men will be beneficial as another freshman, Adam Bisnowaty, appears ready to start at left tackle after a productive redshirt year.

That opened a door for Johnson, the top 2013 overall prospect in the state and No. 8 prospect nationally, according to 247Sports. With redshirt senior Juantez Hollins and converted defensive lineman T.J. Clemmings hot on his tail, Johnson has made a remarkable first impression on tough-love O-line coach Jim Hueber while lining up at right tackle.

Chryst said he has yet to arrive at a handful of personnel decisions, but Hueber told Tony Greco of Panther Digest he’s amenable to letting Johnson line up in front of Tom Savage when Pitt’s offense takes the field against No. 11 Florida State on Labor Day.

“He’s really hard on you,” Johnson, a MaxPreps “Medium School” All-American, said of Heuber. “But I think it’s a good thing. It pushes you to get better.”

Johnson (6’5″, 290 lbs.) has had to in a hurry, even with his All-PIAA gravitas. Abusing opponents on a weekly basis in the WPIAL–he recorded 74 pancake blocks as a senior at Belle Vernon–comes much more organically than having to withstand all 285 pounds of all-conference candidate Aaron Donald in practice.

“They told me they just wanted me to come in and perform–to just do what I have to do, and take in everything they had to say to me,” Johnson said. “The way he has us doing our pass sets is a little different.”

Newcomers to this program seem to struggle with pass protection early on, even blockers of Johnson’s caliber. Mastering the physical side of his position may not be as much of a contest for Johnson, but the mental side is something wholly other.

“In high school, we just did a straight vertical. Here, we do a vertical half-jump, we do different kinds of slides, and there’s all kinds of calls that we have to get used to yet,” he explained. “In high school, we used numbers [to signify certain] plays. Here, we use colors, and the colors tell us which side the play is going to.”

If it’s headed up the middle, then the responsibility falls upon the mighty shoulders of Roberts (6’5″, 305 lbs.). Once universally considered one of the top ten high school linemen in Wisconsin, his battle with redshirt sophomore Artie Rowell for the starting center job might be the one that fascinated Chryst the most during training camp.

They’re both faithful students of the game; in fact, as co-members of the 2012 Big East All-Academic Team, they’re faithful students altogether. They’ve both pushed each other, while still respecting each other. And now, they’ll both have to respect the decision by Chryst, which can’t be an easy one.

In any event, Roberts, who has had to do the same yeoman’s work as Johnson, knows his time could come at any moment.

“You have to get ‘mental reps’ for sure. You never know what’s going to happen out there on the field,” the New London (Wisc.) High School standout said. “It’s a lot of thinking. Some of my footwork I need to tighten up a little bit. I think, maybe, if I can perfect that, I can get the spot.”

Not many seem sure what to make of the 2013 Panthers. Offensively they were a very average football team a year ago, and Roberts is just one of a number of underclassmen in transition under the program’s new leadership, including new quarterback Tom Savage and future signal-caller Chad Voytik.

“Tom’s obviously taller, so if I snap it high, he usually gets it,” Roberts chuckled. “They both put their hands differently under center, and they both take charge of the huddle in different ways.”

The running game has become another uncertainty. Rising star James Conner survived a scare Thursday when he banged up his left shoulder during one of the final 11-on-11 exercises of camp, but later tweeted he was okay. Projected starter Isaac Bennett, sans brace, is on the mend from a bad right knee.

The bottom line is, however, if the Panthers don’t block for any of their aforementioned skill players, it won’t matter who has the ball.

“It’s been about coming together,” Roberts said of this year’s camp. “It’s a pretty close-knit group. Matt and King were originally guards anyway, so they know what’s going on, T.J. is pretty quick-moving and pretty strong, and Adam had a lot of reps during bowl week and spring ball. He knows what he’s doing. Me and Artie are just in there, working, trying to figure things out.”

“I think there are good teams, then, when you get to the point where you’re a really good program, you do have that depth. Guys aren’t playing earlier than maybe they should. Once you get to the point where you truly are deep, even if a guy is ready to play, it’s harder,” Chryst said. “I’ve appreciated this group. They’ve been fun to be around. They come to work every day. They seem like they want to be coached. It’s been good.”

(Contact me at mpopchock@kdka.com and/or follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)