Football: Patterson leading new Panthers defense

By Alex Oltmanns

A new era of Pitt football — the Todd Graham era — has begun, and Keith Patterson will serve… A new era of Pitt football — the Todd Graham era — has begun, and Keith Patterson will serve as the former Tulsa coach’s secretary of defense.

After a disappointing performance last season, and especially from the defense in the Backyard Brawl, Pitt fans widely called for a change. And the recent overhauld of the coaching staff will bring just that — a drastically different playing style.

Named as Pitt’s co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach in January, Patterson is one of the coaches redefining that style of play. The former four-year letterman at cornerback for East Central Univeristy in Oklahoma seems more than eager to start bolstering the Panthers’ defensive corps.

“It’s a linebacker-friendly defense. We’re always going to force the issue,” he said. “It’s a fun style because it’s an attacking style of defense. We’re going to dictate the play to the offense.”

Working in the same role under Graham the past eight seasons at Tulsa, Patterson’s defenses were some of the best in the country and often ranked atop Conference USA against both the run and the pass.

Additionally, Patterson’s defensive units are known to play with a desire and a will to win that matches the personality of their coach.“The only thing I can say is we’ll bring a great deal of passion and energy and a tempo from the way we practice,” Patterson said.

Even with limited time with his new set of defensive players up to this point, it’s that type of enthusiasm that has them excited about their energetic new coach.

“I briefly got a chance to talk to him about the defense, and I could hear the excitement in his voice and his sense of love for the game,” junior Pitt linebacker Max Gruder said before spring practice began last week. “Just talking to him got me excited about strapping the pads back on for spring ball.”

“I’m excited to try this new defense out and I’ve heard really exciting things about him,” junior defensive tackle Chas Alecxih said.

The main reason that players like Gruder and Alecxih hadn’t had the chance to meet with Patterson much before practice was that the newly appointed coach was on a plane for much of the two weeks after his hiring.

After former head coach Dave Wannstedt’s resignation from the team in December and Mike Haywood’s subsequent hiring and firing, almost all of Pitt’s recruiting class jumped ship.

That meant Graham, Patterson and the rest of the staff had to hit the road — or the sky, for that matter — to persuade high school athletes to wear the blue-and-gold.

“In a two-day span I went from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati, Cincinnati to New Orleans, New Orleans to Atlanta and Atlanta back to Pittsburgh,” Patterson, a Marlow, Okla., native said.

Their work paid off, as they were able to round up a solid recruiting class given the rough situation they landed in with only a few weeks to recruit. The class includes 20 players, highlighted by highly touted Woodland Hills high school star Lafayette Pitts.

“I didn’t really get a chance to really sit down with Coach Patterson because he and the coaches were on the recruiting trail,” Gruder said. “Under the circumstances and the time they were given, they did a very good job on this class.”

Pitt fans will see a change in defensive schematics from former defensive coordinator Phil Bennett’s 4-3 system in which four defensive linemen played in front of three linebackers.

Instead, Patterson will use a variation of just the opposite, a 3-4 defense that relies on pressure from linebackers to blitz the quarterback.

Yet Panther fans still might see some shadows of the Wannstedt and Bennett era, as Graham and his team view the former Pitt coaches as mentors.

“Coach Patterson and I started off as high school football coaches, sitting in a room and listening to Phil Bennett and Dave Wannstedt talk defense,” Graham said. “There’s a lot of similarities to what we do as far as coverages and schematics.”

Now that Patterson is back in Pittsburgh for the time being, he can finally focus on football and not on traveling, as well as one other thing: finding his way around the city — his most immediate challenge to coaching in Pittsburgh.

“I can get you to the football complex and I can get you to the Pete, but that’s about it,” he said last month.