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Pitt assistant coach John Peterson and the players on his offensive line wouldn’t use the word “tryout” to describe the rotation the Panthers used in their 42-10 win over Rice last week at Heinz Field.
But when they discussed the rationale behind rotating the right guard and center as often as they did, it sure sounded like the players were auditioning for their jobs.
“I think the one thing this line has is that they understand there’s competition and every day that they come to practice is a chance to compete,” Peterson said this week. “They all want to play, but they have to understand that the next guy has to be ready to play.”
“It wasn’t so much of a tryout,” redshirt senior guard Brandon Hodges said. “They just wanted to see who was going to get in there, who was going to do what they need to do when they need to do it. It was one of those deals. You just have to be impressing the coach at all times. You can’t be lackadaisical in your job. You have to do what you have to do.”
Hodges was the starter last Saturday at one of the two positions that saw extensive rotation: right guard. That was Hodges’ third start of the season at right guard; he also started the season opener against Youngstown State and the loss at Georgia Tech two weeks ago.
In between those two games, Hodges went to the bench as a result of Alex Bookser’s return from suspension. Bookser stepped in as the starting right guard at Penn State and against Oklahoma State. But at Georgia Tech, Bookser shifted to right tackle, bringing Hodges back into the starting lineup.
Bookser’s move to right tackle was a reaction to the play of redshirt senior Jaryd Jones-Smith, who started the first three games there but struggled. After moving Bookser to right tackle, which seems to have solidified that position, the coaches needed a new option at right guard.
So they went back to Hodges but decided to also give redshirt junior Mike Herndon a chance. So against Rice - Pitt’s final non-Power Five opponent before diving into ACC play for the final seven games of the season - the coaches rotated Hodges and Herndon.
Hodges started, Herndon played the second drive and they flipped on every possession through the first three quarters. After Herndon made his regular rotation in for Pitt’s second drive of the second half, Herndon stayed for the final three possessions. He ultimately played seven possessions, compared to four for Hodges.
That’s a significant opportunity for Herndon, who didn’t play at all on offense in the previous game at Georgia Tech; all of his snaps that day were at defensive tackle.
“I’m just thankful for all the playing time I’m getting, whether it be on defense or offense,” Herndon said. “I mean, I love defense, obviously; who doesn’t love playing defense, trying to get some tackles? But I’m just real thankful for everything I’m getting.”
Now that the ACC schedule is fully underway beginning this weekend at Syracuse, will the coaches cut back on the rotation? Continuity and cohesion are often cited as being among the most important elements for an offensive line; rotating on every possession would seem to run counter to those goals.
“I don’t mind rotating,” Peterson said, “as long as the guys rotating, they’re starter-level and competing and doing the right things.”
Still, Pitt’s rotations up front against Rice might have been beyond the pale. In addition to rotating the right guards, the coaches also substituted Connor Dintino for Jimmy Morrissey at center on four possessions. And they brought Jones-Smith in at right tackle for the final two drives, so every Pitt possession in that game saw a different offensive line combination from the series that preceded it.
Perhaps that was a product of the opponent. Perhaps the Pitt coaches saw the Rice game as an opportunity to work multiple linemen and multiple combinations in the hopes of locking into a set five going forward.
In that case, the line rotations should settle down, starting with this week. For their part, the players at the focus of the rotating had different takes on how it affects their play.
“You never really get out of rhythm, I think, when you take a drive off,” Herndon said. “You’re still looking on the sideline at what the other guy’s doing and what the defense is doing, so I never really got out of a rhythm, really.”
“You’re out there, you do a drive and you know you’re coming out; it’s kind of hard to get a feel for the game,” Hodges said. “But like I said, you have to be willing to do anything for the team, putting your best foot forward and helping the team win by any cost and any means.”