It doesn’t take much prompting to get Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt gushing about Virginia All-America defensive end Chris Long, the son of Pro Football Hall of Fame member Howie and a future NFL player himself.
“He’s quick, he’s strong. He plays so hard. He’s got it all. He’s the complete package,” Wannstedt said. “In my opinion, he’ll be a first-round pick.”
Virginia runs a 3-4 defense – Wannstedt said it is similar to what the Steelers and New England Patriots employ – and uses pressure 30 percent of the time. What makes the Cavaliers so effective is the versatility of Long, a 6-foot-4, 279-pound senior who has a team-high six sacks and seven tackles for loss and is second with 28 tackles.
“He’s the best defensive lineman I’ve seen on tape,” Wannstedt said. “He’s a playmaker. He does it all. He plays the run well. He’s got six sacks. He knocks balls down. He does it all. And he plays all over the place.
“You’ll see on Saturday, he’ll be outside as an end and then move inside as a tackle. He targets the guy he wants to pick on and then that’s where he ends up. I told our offensive line that: ‘You’ll see what Chris Long thinks of you on Saturday.'”
Which brings us to Joe Thomas.
The 6-foot-5, 300-pound sophomore right guard has “struggled” this season, Wannstedt said, in what is one of the most confounding problems on Pitt’s offensive line. Thus far, Thomas has been the weak link in the front five, which makes him a likely target for Long.
“I don’t really concentrate on how they’re going to be in the NFL, I just go out and try to do everything I can do,” Thomas said. “If there’s somebody that’s better and I’m just getting beat, I just do what I can do.”
Thomas dominated the opposition at Lakewood (Ohio) St. Edward, where he started at right guard next to Ohio State tackle and Outland Trophy candidate Alex Boone. Thomas arrived at Pitt a physical specimen, a strong run blocker who was trying to refine his pass-blocking skills.
This season has been a step backward.
“I don’t think it’s lack of confidence,” Thomas said. “A lot of it is still the speed. I have to slow the game down. It’s still a lot faster than high school was. I’m still getting adjusted to that. That’s the biggest part of it.”
Thomas was rushed into Pitt’s starting lineup in the fifth game last season, when senior John Simonitis was lost to injury. Thomas started seven games, but appeared to regress as the season progressed.
“It helped me get the experience and everything, but things like technique, I had to compensate in some areas,” Thomas said. “That’s what this year is about, trying to fix those things. I’ve been getting a lot stronger. I wasn’t nearly as strong as I am this year. That was one of the things I had to compensate last year for, my strength.”
Thomas is a prime example of why true freshman usually have no business in the starting lineup on the offensive line. There is a major adjustment period, not just in terms of learning the offense but the technique and toughness that is involved at the point of attack.
In fact, playing last season might have hindered Thomas’ development, if not his confidence, as he was going head-to-head with All-Big East players like Rutgers’ Eric Foster and Ramel Meekins and Louisville’s Amobi Okoye, the latter a first-round pick in the NFL Draft.
“They’re the same size, except they’re two, three years older,” Thomas said. “That’s a big difference when it comes to strength. Now that I have my strength, working with Buddy (Morris) and just being in college for a second year, I’ve got to get correct technique.”
Morris’ arrival couldn’t have come soon enough for Thomas. Literally. Thomas said he gained 20 pounds – I’ve heard it was as many as 28 – between the end of the season and the start of the spring semester. Some of it was due to the depressing end to the season, with five consecutive losses, and some to the firing of strength coach Mike Kent.
“It was part of that and partially because when they let coach Kent go, I let myself go a little bit because there wasn’t anybody on us,” Thomas said. “Once Buddy got here, we got with a nutritionist and that’s when I started slimming down again. I played at about 290 last year. I got up to about 310. I’m 295 now. My quickness has gotten a lot better.”
The biggest increase in strength has come in his legs. He claims a 70-80 pound jump in squats, which is helping his hip movement and his run- and drive-blocking. Now, he’s trying to improve his hand placement in pass blocking.
Thomas learned most from a demotion. After a rough game in the opener against Eastern Michigan, Thomas was replaced in the starting lineup by Mike McGlynn. Instead of sulking, Thomas intently watched the four-year starter.
“I’m learning from him,” Thomas said. “He’s a fifth-year senior who’s been playing for a long time. He’s a real good player. In the time he was there, he instantly adjusted. I watched his steps every day and just paid attention to what he was doing and how he was coming off the ball.
“I think I got more aggressive from this year to last year. A lot of my technique stuff, I’m getting better on pass sets and on my footwork on run blocking.”
Interestingly, Thomas got his starting job back due to another injury, this one to sophomore Jason Pinkston (shoulder), that forced McGlynn back to right tackle. Now, Thomas is learning more by playing next to McGlynn.
“Me and Jason have great chemistry,” Thomas said, “but playing next to a fifth-year senior, Mike will communicate everything. He knows exactly what’s going on. With Jason and I, we’re both still learning, so we’re trying to help each other out while we’re up there in our stance on the line. Mike already knows what’s going on, so that’s a big help.”
Thomas is being pushed by another position switch, as Wannstedt announced redshirt sophomore John Bachman was moved to right guard to provide competition. Thomas is still the starter – for now – but notice has been served.
“No matter who you are, your job is never safe,” Thomas said. “You have to go out there and compete every day. Nothing is guaranteed. I learned that last year, getting thrown in there. It was due to injury, but still, you’ve got to go out there every day and do your best.”
That’s all Thomas can do at the moment, and he is keeping a positive outlook on both this season and his career. Expecting to see a kid down on his luck, instead I found one who can laugh at his mistakes instead of dwelling on them and is interested in correcting them.
Thomas knows the pressure is on the offensive line, especially with true freshman Pat Bostick making his first career start against Virginia.
“If we go out there and do our job, there’s nothing to worry about. If we’re executing up front, he shouldn’t have any problems,” Thomas said. “I was out there for the touchdown drive. His composure is great. He can sit in the pocket and he was really relaxed. That made us feel better, that he was relaxed and not all hyped up. He just came in and once we got into the huddle, everybody was quiet and he just took control.”
Thomas knows it’s his turn to do the same, even if Chris Long is the guy lining up across from him.