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Simplified defensive gameplan earning raves from Panthers - The Pitt News

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Simplified defensive gameplan earning raves from Panthers

By Jeremy Tepper / Staff Writer

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With its 6-7 season last year, the Pitt football team had a parched garden of problems screaming for a sprinkling of improvement. Pitt’s defense was the tallest problem in the patch. 

Enter new head coach Pat Narduzzi: He is striving to make Pitt’s defense, which finished 59th in points against, resemble his previous, top-ranked Michigan State defenses.

In Narduzzi’s last four years as Michigan State’s defensive coordinator, his defenses finished in the top 10 in yards allowed per game all four times. Countless factors contributed to the success of Narduzzi’s previous defenses, including utilizing strength in simplicity.  

Defenders seem to be relishing the opportunity to simply play without worrying about audibles or line shifts.

“Definitely, I think [the defense is] 100 percent simpler,” said sophomore linebacker Matt Galambos. “We are just playing football. Obviously we have our certain schemes and everything, but at the same time, he wants us to be fast, play fast and just fill the gaps.”

For the linebackers and the overall defense, the players will retain a single formation.

“We’re going to play what we play 80 percent of the time. We’re going to be in the same defense,” linebackers coach Rob Harley said. “There’s going to be different things we’ll do off of it [based on] what the offense gives us, but we’re going to be in it 80 percent of the time.”

The coaches assert that this specialization will plow the defensive makeover.

“We’re not going to change up defenses,” Harley said. “We’re not going to say, ‘Well, it’s third down, then we’re going to run this coverage. It’s first down,’ or this, that. It’s going to be one thing, and we’re going to get really good at it.”

Like the linebackers, the coaches have simple motives for the corners: Be aggressive, be self-reliant with little safety help and press opposing receivers at the line.

In terms of the shift to press coverage, freshman corner Avonte Maddox is bullish about the transition.

“It’s easier,” he said. “Playing off [the receivers], they’ve got more routes they can run, but when you’re pressing, you’re right in their face and they’re limited to certain routes.”

Maddox isn’t the only defensive back eager to install more press coverage. Junior cornerback Lafayette Pitts looks fo rward to the competitive aspects of the philosophy change.

“It’s just man-on-man [and] who’s going to be the better guy at the end of the down,” Pitts said.

In front of those linebackers and corners is the defensive line. The new head coach cited the importance of the defenders in the trenches in order for the entire defense to thrive.

“We always talk about that it starts up front,” Narduzzi said. “If you can’t win up front with those guys, you have a problem. You can have the greatest secondary in the world, but if you don’t have a defensive line that can put some pressure on the quarterback, you’re going to have issues.”

The players have also responded well to the energy and competition encouraged by the staff.

Part of the competition stems from the staff’s readiness to move players up and down the depth chart from day to day.

“The depth is fluid, fluid, fluid. We tell them that,” Harley said. “And that’s awesome because it’s built-in competition. I always tell them, this is the Wild West; you go get what you want.” 

Players have noted that the new coaching staff is much more active than the departed regime of former head coach Paul Chryst.

According to Maddox, the difference between the two staffs can be seen in the energy Narduzzi and company exert on the practice field.

“They run with us. It’s not just us running, they’re running around with us,” he said.

The energy brings more attention to detail, junior Nicholas Grigsby said.

Part of this energy is directed towards keeping the players’ energy up as well, with the hope that all 11 defensive players run to the ball and try to force turnovers.

“We have a totally different mindset this year of just constantly getting after the ball every single day,” sophomore safety Reggie Mitchell said. “We didn’t have that mentality last year. It wasn’t 11 guys to the ball.”

Still, much like last season, inconsistent results have plagued the defense throughout spring practices.

In the first scrimmage, the defense faltered, letting the offense easily move the ball up and down the field, according to junior quarterback Chad Voytik.

“We got first downs and when we were in backed-up situations, we got away from our own end zone. I feel overall we did pretty well,” Voytik said.

In the second scrimmage, though, the defensive unit went deep for success.

Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney was thoroughly impressed with the defense’s effort.

“Our defense showed up and thumped us today. We had a tough go out there today,” Chaney said.

Narduzzi was particularly impressed with the unit’s work against the Panthers’ formidable ground attack.

“I thought the defense did a better job of stopping the run,” the head coach said. “If you can stop the run on defense, you have a chance.” 

As spring practices continue and the season nears, the defense still feels a need to prove itself as a group that can dominate a game.

“I really feel like that unit has something to prove,” Maddox said. “Everyone talks about the offense, and the offense is great, but it’s time to make our defense great.”

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Simplified defensive gameplan earning raves from Panthers