Since the day he committed to Pitt last November, Dorian Johnson has been an important part of Pitt's future.
The big offensive tackle from Belle Vernon was a key piece in Paul Chryst's first full recruiting class. He was recruited to be the bookend tackle for Chryst as the first-year head coach rebuilt Pitt's offensive line. No one knew quite when he would step into that role, though; turns out it took about seven games.
Johnson made his first career start Saturday night in Atlanta when Pitt lost to Georgia Tech, and that experience - combined with appearances in six other games this season - will be invaluable as Johnson's role increases.
"I thought he did some really good things," Chryst said Monday. "Obviously, he had his challenges. But it's his first action and there's something to build on and certainly something to clean up."
"I watched the film, and when I was out on the field, I thought I did a lot better than I actually did," Johnson said. "So, going back and looking at it, I was kind of disappointed, but I thought it wasn't too bad for my first game."
The natural challenges of making his first career start at a crucial position like left tackle were compounded by the opponent. Georgia Tech's outstanding defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu often lined up across from Johnson, and that battle was won by the Yellow Jacket more often than not.
In fact, Attaochu set the tone from the start, beating Johnson to get into the backfield and sack Tom Savage for a 10-yard loss on third-and-10 to end Pitt's first drive of the game. Attaochu finished with two sacks and three tackles for loss in the 21-10 Georgia Tech victory.
But despite the considerable challenge in handling a player of Attaochu's ability, offensive line coach Jim Hueber liked the way his star pupil handled Saturday night's game.
"I didn't see [a sign of being overwhelmed] in his eyes," Hueber said. "I think there were some situations that came up, with crowd noise and with [Attaochu] rushing on him, the speed of the rush and not getting his head where it needed to be. But I don't think he was overwhelmed by the situation; I just think he had to go through it. That's the best way you can put it: he had to go through that game."
Now he has been through it, and several questions remain. For starters, there is a question of whether he will start again. Johnson stepped into the starting lineup after redshirt freshman Adam Bisnowaty, who started the first seven games at left tackle, missed practice time last week and only played a handful of snaps in Saturday night's game.
Hueber seemed to answer that question this week when he said, in no uncertain terms, that Bisnowaty will return to the starting lineup when he is healthy and has a full week of practice. All indications are that he will be the first-team left tackle when Pitt hosts Notre Dame at Heinz Field Saturday night.
The other question about Johnson is what position he will play. He was recruited as a tackle and spent training camp as the backup at right tackle behind T.J. Clemmings. But with Clemmings and Bisnowaty holding down the tackle jobs, the coaches found opportunities for Johnson as an extra blocker lining up at tight end.
Then, when redshirt senior left guard Cory King was hurt and had to miss the last three games, Johnson moved inside and became a backup guard. And finally he moved to left tackle when Bisnowaty couldn't practice last week.
As the former five-star recruit and No. 2 offensive tackle prospect in the class of 2013, Johnson has a lot of natural talent. But all the moving was not helping his development.
"We've bounced him around so much, we need to settle him in," Hueber said. "When we started out, we wanted him to play tackle, and then we wanted him at tight end because they were side by side and something might carry over. As we got guys beat up, we moved him inside and then we moved him back outside, so I'm not sure. We have to come to a decision on [whether he will be a tackle or a guard].
"He certainly has the athleticism to play at tackle, but he's also got the strength and toughness to play inside. So I'm not sure. The best part about it is, we don't have to make that decision right now. We can do that when calmer heads prevail, or whatever that saying is."
For now, it's back to the ranks of the reserves, where Johnson will be the first tackle off the bench and, depending on King's availability, one of the first guards off the bench. Barring additional injuries, he'll work in those roles - as well as his specialized tight end role - for the rest of 2013 and then look for ways to get into the lineup next season.
"I wasn't really expecting to start," he said. "I knew I was going to be getting some playing time, but I know the start was definitely a lot different than the playing time I had been getting. It was a good experience for me, and I think it will be good for me next year and the years after."
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