Earlier this spring, Pitt was shuffling its offensive line and doing some experimenting. We're closer to the season now but the Panthers are still moving pieces around and trying to find the best fit.
Pitt offensive lineman and Texas transfer Brandon Hodges is still very much in the mix for a spot on the Panthers' offensive line. That's especially true for the first game with the team missing guard Alex Bookser, who is suspended for the opener. But what about the long-term plan for him?
So far, Pitt seems intent on using him at both guard and tackle. Hodges said after practice on Wednesday that he is splitting his time between the two positions. "I'm playing both [guard and tackle]," Hodges said. "You have to be ready for anything, any possible time. I'm ready to play whatever Coach [John Peterson] wants me to play."
Is he leaning towards any particular position? According to head coach Pat Narduzzi, nope. "50/50," he says.
The Panthers' overall plan seems pretty simple and is one that was mentioned earlier in training camp - get the best linemen on the field, regardless of position.
That sounds good in theory, but how is the team putting it into practice? By playing multiple guys at multiple positions.
The path for Hodges to earn playing time appeared to be at tackle where he was essentially competing with Jaryd Jones-Smith to start opposite Brian O'Neill. That's because the Panthers had two returning starters at guard in Bookser and former center Alex Officer. But that sounds less firm now because Officer continues to get reps at center and could be there instead.
"You have guys like Alex Officer, who is really improving at center," said offensive line coach John Peterson. "We're going into the season having multiple centers, and it's very reassuring." Connor Dintino and Jimmy Morrissey have both been the primary competitors there but Officer sounds as if he's back in the mix and that could be, in part, to accommodate Hodges to play guard.
In addition to Officer and Hodges, Pitt is working to cross-train the offensive linemen to play different positions. Bookser, for example, appeared set at guard but has taken reps at center as well. Peterson explained a little about the importance of moving guys around after practice Wednesday.
"It's really about building depth for the unknown factors," he detailed. "That's the thing when you can't predict what happens through the course of the game or the course of the season. Anything can happen and that's why you practice guys in cross-training, because it allows that flexibility and depth. Everyone has their weaknesses and strengths, so I'm just trying to put guys in a position where they can use their strengths."
All of that, of course, makes perfect sense. But how does it screw with practicing the week of a game? Well, there's less of that.
"You do less [cross-training] (during a game week), because the guys really get honed in on the game plan," Peterson added. "But just like anything, you could play right side, left side, guard, tackle. We have that versatility with guys that can snap the ball then play guard also."
The idea is to get them experience playing a lot of positions early on and in camp and then during a game week, they are mostly at the decided-upon position.
Overall, Pitt has seven guys that are in the mix to potentially start games. That, along with the added flexibility of being able to move around, should make them an incredibly versatile unit this season.