Pitt assistant Dave Borbely assembles another set of seasoned offensive linemen

5-6 minutes 8/4/2023
Dave Borbely prefers experienced offensive linemen as opposed to those who need to be taught how to take the first step off the line of scrimmage. Yes, something as simple as that matters when 300-pound defensive tackles are tying up traffic in the trenches.
Pitt’s offensive line coach has a few properly seasoned players this season, but 43 years of coaching big men for 15 schools have taught him there’s more to blocking for the run game and protecting the passer than knowing how to do it.
He’s looking for toughness, too.
“We still have to rebuild it and reshape it and continue to build the mentality of a tough, hard-nosed group,” he said. “Certainly, we’re ahead of it had they not been on the field.”
Early August is far too early to make any definitive judgements about playing time, but the 77 combined career starts of center Jake Kradel, guard Blake Zubovic and tackles Matt Goncalves and Branson Taylor is a good place to start.
“I feel good about the fact they played, but until we prove on the field that we can go out and win on a Saturday against anybody … I’m confident, but it’s still unproven,” Borbely said.
“Every year is a new year. I’m confident from the standpoint that I think I’ve got some talented guys. But they have to prove themselves and show that they can play winning football. It’s all puzzle pieces. It’s got to be all put together.”
The puzzle came previously assembled last season when five experienced linemen — Carter Warren, Marcus Minor, Owen Drexel, Kradel and Gabe Houy — returned after the 2021 season when they could have started their climb to the NFL. They had combined for 130 starts.
How many snaps did they take as a complete quintet? Zero. Injuries plagued the line throughout the season, giving Taylor, Zubovic and Goncalves the opportunity to gain valuable playing time. Goncalves put it to such great use that he was named to the All-ACC Preseason Team.
“We played seven different lineups last year,” Borbely said of a unit that found enough cohesion to help Pitt finish fourth in the ACC in average ground yards per game (183). “Guys in and out at center. Guys in and out at tackle. Gabe Houy was back in early October and we worked him back into the lineup.”
It was a tough situation for those five players, four of whom used up their eligibility in 2022. But it was a benefit for those who became next men up.
“Any time you can get guys on the field and win and they get some experience, it puts you in great shape,” Borbely said.
Kradel, who has started 38 games at center and guard, assumes leadership of the group, due to his experience and his duties calling out blocking assignments prior to the snap.
“He’s always been one of those guys as a leader by example. Just a work ethic guy,” Borbely said. “The nature of the position he’s playing now, he drives the train in there with calls and directions. Just by the nature of the position, he’s got to be a more vocal guy.”
Kradel, a Butler graduate who joins Belle Vernon’s Zubovic as six-year seniors, occasionally takes a player aside to remind them of the standard. It’s what leaders do.
On the right side, Goncalves also shoulders increased responsibility now that he’s been recognized as one of the ACC’s best tackles.
“A little bit more pressure to perform better,” he said. “That’s what I want to do. At the end of the day, I don’t want to change anything up. I don’t want to change how I played last year. I don’t want to have a big head. Keep doing the same things I’ve been doing.
“I have to be tough, be physical, deal with injuries, uncomfortable stuff. At the end of the day, it’s how consistent are you. How can you find a way to do your job against a guy across the line from you?”
During spring drills, Borbely wanted to put his best five linemen on the field. He moved 6-foot-7, 330-pound redshirt freshman Ryan Baer to guard, but Taylor’s oblique injury changed those plans. Baer moved back to tackle.
For now, Borbely will cross-train Baer for both positions, with Ohio State transfer Ryan Jacoby and Baldwin graduate Dorien Ford in the mix.
In the end, two from the group that includes Baer, Jacoby, Taylor and Ford will man the two positions on the left side of the line.
“It will all come out when we get a little better look at them,” said Borbely, pleased that the opener is still four weeks in the future.
Meanwhile, Kradel believes one fact won’t change.
“We have a sense of O-line pride in here,” he said.” We have to hold that standard high.”

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