Paul Dunn, in his third season as Pitt's offensive line coach, was a stalwart for the program's great offensive fronts in the early 1980s. And he hopes to develop that same success with the current group. But it's been a slow process during spring practice sessions at the UPMC Sports Complex.
"We've got a long way to go with a lot of questions yet to get answered with this group,'' Dunn said. "Hopefully, when we get into more scrimmage and live situations this spring, we'll learn a little more. So, we're a long ways away right now, but we're working at it.''
The group that take the field this fall certainly has the potential to be the Panthers' strongest offensive line in recent seasons, and it's definitely among the most experienced.
Pitt's starting left guard for the third straight season will be 6-foot-2, 300-pound junior C.J. Davis, while 6-5, 315-pound Mike McGlynn will be in his fourth season as the starting right tackle. In their second seasons at Pitt are starting left tackle Jeff Otah, a 6-6, 340-pound senior, and 6-5, 285-pound sophomore right guard Joe Thomas. The starting center is 6-2, 295-pound fifth-year senior Chris Vangas. He was the backup for three years.
"We really only lost (center Joe) Villani and Simo (guard John Simonitis), but Joe stepped in when he was injured,'' Davis said. "So, we're not too bad off. And Vangas, he's been around for a while, so he'll be all right. We've got a lot of leadership in place right now. We have to keep working at it.
"With (strength coach) Buddy (Morris) here now, we all feel stronger already. And we're getting stronger, so we just need to keep working hard to improve on the field. It's not going to fall together in a day, but the more we work together the more we'll develop the cohesiveness that's needed.''
It all starts with Vangas in the middle, and the veteran appears to be ready to assume a strong leadership role.
"I've been waiting for this for a long time now, but it's up to me to take advantage of the opportunity that they gave me,'' Vangas said. "I have a chance to play and make this football team better, so that's what I want to do. I also can help the younger guys like Scott Corson and John Bachman.
"That's OK, too. I like doing it, because I want to be a coach when I (graduate). So, I enjoy helping them out. Jon Schall and (Justin) Belarski helped me out when I was a freshman. So, I don't mind doing the same thing for these guys. And it should help the team as well, so I'm all for it.''
While his off-field work will be invaluable for Bachman and Corson in their backup center roles, don't discount Vangas' contribution on the field.
"Chris has had some playing time over the past three years,'' Dunn said. "So, it's not like he's a brand-new guy going in there. And you'd hope that little bit of experience will give him a bit of a jump. Behind him, Bachman has some experience, too. It's just not at center, but it's on the O-line.''
Davis noted that while it might take a little time to develop a solid rapport with Vangas, he had no doubt that the entire offensive line would be running smoothly when training camp got under way in August.
"We just have to get more used to playing with each other,'' Davis said. "We're getting all the kinks out right now, but that's what the spring is for. When we come back for training camp, we'll just be fine-tuning things for the season. And Vangas, he's very similar to Villani in a lot of ways.
"Vangas is very smart, and he's a very solid center. But we're just a little rusty right now. We're getting better, though, and once everything gets flowing at a good pace, we can worry about the physical part of it. So, basically, we're working hard right now to gain consistency.''
Vangas actually sensed things already coming together.
"It always helps to get out there, any reps you can get, and it's even better when you finally play in a game,'' Vangas said. "I remember the first time I was out there, I was so nervous back then.
"It was so different for me, but it was a lot of fun. It's just a lot better getting out there and getting a feel for the game and the speed of the game. So, any reps you can get will help, and that's why this spring is important.''
And it's why Pitt will be a better power running team this season.