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Pitt offensive line coach helps players hurdle roadblocks to success

Not long ago, there were questions about the depth on the Pitt offensive line.

The three seniors — Chris Jacobson, Lucas Nix and Jordan Gibbs — looked to be, far and away, the best players on the line, and left tackle Juantez Hollins and center Ryan Turnley looked like they had a lot to learn.

And the No.  6 guy – whoever he was — looked to be far down the pecking order in terms of talent and how reliable he might  be if forced into battle.

Now, two of the seniors (Jacobson and Nix) have knee injuries.  Jacobson is out for the season and Nix looks like a spectator for at least the next game at Rutgers.

Still, the line flourished against USF, with four players who never started a college game before this season, Hollins, Turnley, Cory King and Ryan Schlieper.

(Pausing for the trivia portion of this blog, three of those players come from three different WPIAL classifications: Hollins, AA, Aliquippa; Turnley, AAA, Hopewell; and Schlieper, AAAA, North Allegheny. King of Lakeview High School also is a Western Pennsylvania product.)

Back to things that matter:
The emergence of those four players and the possible return of Jacobson next year (if he is granted a sixth year by the NCAA because of two season-ending injuries) give Pitt future hope on the offensive line. Plus, four-star recruit Adam Bisnowaty plans to enroll in 2012.

But for now, the question is: Will the line carry over its strong play to the Rutgers game Saturday? Will this young group be able to handle the Scarlet Knights’ confusing mix of blitzes and stunts?

Who knows? College kids can be unpredictable. Up one week, down the next. But I like their chances.

Spencer Leftwich, the unassuming Pitt offensive line coach, has molded this inexperienced group into a cohesive unit that appears confident, studious and hard-working, if nothing else.

I watch Leftwich put these guys through their paces at practice every day. He jumps from encouraging instructor to angry tyrant and back again without losing the respect or the attention of his players.

Then, from what I am told, they spend much of their free time watching video of themselves and the next opponent. All of which doesn’t make them any different than any other player at this level, but it clearly shows that football is important to them. And to their coach.

I looked up Leftwich’s  bio in the Pitt media guide and this 1988 graduate of Stephen F. Austin (three-year starting guard and twice all-conference) has made six job switches since 1992, moving from his alma mater to New Mexico State, to North Texas, to Tulsa, to North Texas again, to Tulsa again and to Pitt nine months ago. This is his third school in three years.

All the moves were accomplished with his wife LaTonne and sons Mack Hays, Cutter and Gage following him wherever he went. Mack is the quarterback at undefeated North Allegheny, by the way, and you should have seen him lead the Tigers to a 49-28 victory against a good Seneca Valley team last Friday night. When I congratulated Leftwich on the fine game his son played and how he quickly has adapted to his new school, the coach smiled and credited NA’s Art Walker and his staff and added, “(Mack) has a good mom.”

But, again, I digress.

What really struck me about Leftwich on a personal level is how he shook hands and thanked every reporter who interviewed him Tuesday morning before going back into his office to watch more video.

I don’t know much about Leftwich and his ability to coach offensive linemen, other than the fact that he has been one and coached dozens of them for most of his life. That doesn’t make him any different or any better than most guys in his line of work.

But I like his style.

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