April 20, 2007

Spring wrap-up: Inside the trenches

Take your pick of the wide variety of clichés regarding the importance of the offensive line, because they're all true and they're all appropriate: everything really does start up front, blocking is one of the two key elements to the game of football (the other being tackling), and as the offensive line goes, so goes the offense. As such, when looking for the reasons behind Pitt's 78th-best rushing attack in 2006 or the 23 sacks allowed that season, one needs to look no further than the offensive line, a unit that has struggled for some time.

In fact, it might not be too much of a stretch to say that the offensive line has hindered the Panthers in the past two seasons, as the team has continued to produce top-notch skill players on offense with marginal returns on those talents. 2007 will be another year with high-level players at receiver, tight end, and, presumably, running back, but the eternal question remains:

Can the offensive line block?

That question will become even more pressing this season as Dave Wannstedt and Matt Cavanaugh will have a first-year starter at quarterback leading the offense. And whether that quarterback is Bill Stull, Kevan Smith, or Pat Bostick, their success will be greatly limited if the line offers little in the way of protection.

Now that the onus is set, here is a breakdown of the offensive line's performance in spring camp 2007.

Jeff Otah
Left tackle
How well did Otah play in spring camp? Only well enough to be named the Ed Conway Award winner for being the most improved player. While some might think that a senior is an unlikely candidate for such a distinction, Otah is a unique situation as a junior college transfer. Last season he showed a definite learning curve, but he experienced that curve as a starter, and the time spent on-field was a benefit.

This spring, it looked like Otah's technique and understanding caught up to his size and physical ability. With that combination, Otah emerged as a solid force on the left end of the line, which will be a crucial position since, for the first time since before the Rod Rutherford era, Pitt will have a right-handed quarterback; as such, the left tackle will be needed to protect the quarterback's blind side. If his performance this spring is any indication, Otah should be able to handle the responsibility.

Jason Pinkston
Right tackle

If Otah was the offense's most improved player this spring, Pinkston was probably a close second. When Mike McGlynn's spring came to an end during the fourth practice, Pinkston got the call to take over at right tackle. The results were encouraging, to say the least: as Pinkston worked with the first team offense, his pure talents were on display almost immediately. But in addition to his athleticism and strength, which were the skills that initially made him a highly-regarded defensive line prospect, Pinkston showed an ever-improving mental understanding of playing right tackle.

Wannstedt's mantra has always been that the best five offensive linemen will play this season. If that's the case, Pinkston is a likely candidate to see the field. He's still got plenty of work to do this summer and in August, but if Pinkston keeps improving like he did this spring, he'll be one of the five best.

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