Media Day roundup: Offense
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One of the most talked-about players in training camp for Pitt this summer is Brandon Hodges, the offensive lineman who joined the Panthers as a graduate transfer from Texas less than two weeks ago but has played himself into the mix at right tackle.
Joining a team and learning a new offense in that timeframe is tough for anyone, and offensive line coach John Peterson thinks it’s particularly challenging for a player in his position group.
“I think it’s very difficult,” Peterson said Tuesday. “I think right now, where he’s at, it’s a credit to him and just his FBI - his football intelligence - seems to be very high. And the ability to focus on the right things and understand that there’s a progression - don’t worry about making mistakes; just play hard and fast and we’ll get you steered in the right direction. And he’s done that.”
A few things have stood out to Peterson in the last week or so.
“He has quick twitch. His redirectability for an offensive lineman. He has good balance. He has quick hands and he’s strong. He’s a grown man, you know? He’s 23 years old. He’s trained in college for a lot of years, so when you add that experience, he’s able to not - he doesn’t look like a freshman, you know?”
Hodges started nine games at right tackle for Texas last season and he is getting a look there at Pitt, but he also has experience playing guard, giving him a versatility that Peterson called “huge” (an adjective he repeated three times for emphasis). So while Hodges’ initial focus is at right tackle, Peterson sees a future that has Hodges participating at multiple positions.
“I’ve kind of done [kept Hodges at one position] just because you want to get him ground-based knowledge and not cross too much. When we get through a little bit more, we’ll expand that.”
Hodges is the fifth grad transfer to join Pitt’s roster under Pat Narduzzi and the third this offseason, along with USC quarterback Max Browne and Rutgers tight end Matt Flanagan. The Panthers, of course, also got Nate Peterman as a grad transfer from Tennessee, as well as defensive tackle Mark Scarpinato, who came from Michigan State.
Almost all of those grad transfers have been or are projected to be in prominent roles at Pitt; off the field, redshirt junior offensive tackle Brian O’Neill said they have all settled into being members of the team fairly smoothly.
“I think at first you kind of want to get a feel for them as a person, but luckily for us, we’ve been fortunate that the coaching staff took care of that. It’s not like they were taking a shot in the dark on a kid and hoping he is a good guy. Thankfully, our coaches are good at doing that and they brought in four really good guys.
“I talked to Nate a couple days ago and we’re still on good contact, and I don’t see why anything will be different in a couple years with all of these guys. They’ve all come in and had the attitude of, ‘How can I help Pitt?’ Not, ‘How can Pitt help me?’ So I’ve had nothing but great relationships with all four grad transfers.
“Matt Flanagan is one of the bigger personalities on the teams now, in terms of practice being loud, energetic, helping guys out, keeping everybody motivated. And you don’t usually see that in a guy that comes from somewhere else. I’m really appreciative of that as an older guy on the team for him to come in and be like, ‘Hey, we have it good here; things are good here.’ He’s been able to offer a little bit of a different perspective in terms of, he’s been somewhere else. He wants us to know what we’ve got. We’re really thankful for that.”
A different situation up front
Pitt’s offensive line should be solid this season, but it’s a different animal from what the Panthers had in 2016. That line was anchored on the left side by two NFL draft picks in Dorian Johnson and Adam Bisnowaty, and all five starters had experience.
This year’s group has some experience, but not nearly as much as last season’s did, and that’s especially true in the reserves where, prior to Hodges’ arrival, there was virtually no career playing time.
To O’Neill, though, that’s not the biggest different on the offensive line this season.
“Last year, we kind of had pegged spots in terms of where we expected guys to be and we knew where the competitions were going to be at and it was kind of set in stone where that competition was real. This year, we don’t necessarily have that same set thing. We don’t have two guys on the left side who had been there for three years.
“So I think everyone has been able to be a lot more competitive in terms of realizing, hey, I can go play right now, I can go win a job right now. Not that they couldn’t last year - I mean, the best player was going to play. But there’s a lot more room for people to make moves this year. It’s been a lot more competitive from top to bottom, rather than the top dogs and everybody else is below them.”
‘Going to be good players’
Two of the most highly-regarded recruits in Pitt’s 2017 class are both in Andre Powell’s running back group. And while there are three upperclassmen ahead of Todd Sibley and AJ Davis, Powell is starting to see some signs from the two newcomers.
“With the amount of things that they had to learn last week, they were going under,” Powell said Tuesday. “I related it to swimming: they were going under. Then, you know, they started to tread water, so now they’re dog-paddling, they’re beginning to find their stroke.
“They’re fun to coach, they’re tough, they don’t back down, they’re eager to learn. Those boys are going to be good players.”
Powell said that he sees a lot of common ground in his two 2017 additions.
“They both are similar. They’re built different; Sibley has got that low center of gravity, big-legged kid. Both of them are big. Have you seen Sibley in person? How much do you think he weighs? He’s almost 220 pounds. Yeah, so he’s big. He’s thick. And AJ is probably not too far behind, if not bigger. So I’m pleased with those kids.
“I like tough kids. I like kids who, when you get on them, they step up to the challenge instead of going in the tank. I’m enjoying them. They’re pleasant to be around. They have a smile on their face. They’re not a Debbie downer. All of those things. I just like the guys. I like them.”
A need for speed
One thing the position group seems to be lacking overall is top-end breakaway speed. Sibley and Davis can run well, as can Chawntez Moss. But overall, Pitt’s running backs are more thunder than lightning.
“It depends on who’s chasing them,” Powell said when asked about the speed in his position group. “It’s relative to who’s chasing them. I would like faster, but I’ve got what I’ve got. I’m going to coach them hard and I think we can win with them.”
When asked if either of the freshmen provide that element, Powell hesitated.
“It depends on who’s chasing. Speed is relative. I don’t know. I can’t answer that. I don’t have Usain Bolt.”
Favorable early reviews
Similar to Powell, receivers coach Kevin Sherman has some talented newcomers to work with. Michael Smith, Dontavius Butler-Jenkins and Darian Street all look the part, and so far, Sherman has been impressed.
“All of those guys, they’ve been here for a month and they’ve had two weeks, a week and a half of practice. I’m kind of feeding them with a water hose right now with the playbook and they’re jumping right in. They’re learning, they’re curious; I think that’s a good sign. They want to learn, they want to be good football players.
“They have great skill sets and the beauty of them is they’re all big bodies but they all three have a different skill set. And I think we have a good crop of young guys that are going to be productive for us in the future.”