Returning linemen should give Pitt boost

Pitt coach Paul Chryst didn’t try to sugarcoat it.

The Panthers’ offensive line, which ranked No. 118 in the country last year with 3.31 sacks allowed per game, has little choice but to improve quickly if Pitt is going to take another step forward this fall in the Coastal Division race.

“I think we have a chance to” be better, Chryst said, “I really do. I think we can be better and flat-out need to be better. We have to make that come to fruition.”

While it remains a work in progress this spring, those within the program are optimistic that four returning starters can give the group a boost and help take some of the pressure off first-year starting quarterback Chad Voytik, who is more of a scrambler than his predecessor, Tom Savage. Senior guard Matt Rotheram is the seasoned veteran with 27 career starts, and the Panthers also welcome back both starting tackles: senior T.J. Clemmings and redshirt sophomore Adam Bisnowaty. Center Artie Rowell started every game last season and earned praise for his performance in the bowl victory over Bowling Green.

“Every spring we come in, we look at last year’s tape and say, ‘Here’s where we were; here’s where we want to go,’” Rotheram told reporters after Tuesday’s practice. “You want to build off of every single year. It does give us a chip on our shoulder. We want to be better.”

Clemmings started all 13 games at right tackle last year, and it was his first full season on the offensive line after making the move from defensive end. Pitt is also eagerly awaiting the return of Bisnowaty, whose promising debut last year was derailed by a November back injury. He made eight starts as a redshirt freshman, but has still been sidelined this spring and is going through rehabilitation.

“He’s making progress and feeling a little more confident about everything,” Chryst said. “He’s slowly building to that level of work and so far, knock on wood, there have been no setbacks. So it’s good, but it’s a process.”

It’s also an opportunity to build some depth.

Jaryd Jones-Smith, who redshirted last year, has been getting more meaningful reps at left tackle this spring.

“I think like any young tackle, he’s doing some good things and he’s working,” Chryst said. “He certainly has some things he has to keep working on and cleaning up. It’s his first spring and it’s early, but I like what he’s doing. Offensive linemen have to be flexible, and our job is to try and get the best five on the field, and he’s certainly in that mix. He’s done good work in the weight room, he’s staying on top of the installation, and I don’t see him getting stuck mentally. He’s done a pretty good job with the things he can control.”

Pitt offensive line coach Jim Hueber said he has noticed a difference this spring in the maturity on the right side of the line, but the youth is still showing on the left side. That should start to improve with the eventual return of Bisnowaty.

“I need to really work the left-side guys along so we’re not spending our time going back to correct things that should be easily done,” Hueber said. “The only way we can do that is to see it at practice and make them do it right, but we need to get just a little bit mature and handle everything on that side a little bit easier.”

So far, not much has come easily for Pitt’s offensive line. Having some experience up front this fall, though, is reason enough for the Panthers to believe it can.