The fascination is generally with the offense. I’d say more this year so with so many changes to the starters and especially with the novelty (some might say, relief) at someone other than Tino Sunseri under center this year. I know I’ll be returning to that side of the ball soon enough. That said, the reality is the success of this team — especially early in the season — hinges with the defense. Another reason that I really question using Jason Hendricks, K’Wuan Williams and Lafayette Pitts in the return game.
Would it shock anyone that Coach Paul Chryst does not share those concerns?
“We know every time a guy is out there, there’s a risk for injury, but I don’t have any concerns,” Chryst said.
Pitts averaged 24.3 yards per kickoff return last season, including a 64-yarder against Gardner-Webb. Hendricks and Williams have never returned kicks for Pitt.
For the record, if this blows up in his face, it won’t be second guessing or hindsight to criticize the decision.
In the cases of Williams and Hendricks, whether it is to help showcase their versatility to the NFL. Or actually that he thinks they are the best options for returning punts, I think this is a really bad idea. It may be that he feels that these are the best choices and with the offense likely to struggle a bit in real game situations to start he wants to put the offense in the best position possible.
It just doesn’t seem worth the risk. The secondary is Pitt’s biggest strength. Pitt struggled to generate a pass rush last year. There’s potential at the ends, but big questions. No matter how aggressive new DC Matt House wants to be, the secondary has to be at full strength to allow blitzes and being aggressive up front.
Okay, I swear I’ll let this go now.
Back to the defense and getting ready for Monday night.
The combination of high humidity and Florida State’s speed could lead Pitt’s defense straight into a dark state it hopes to avoid: Exhaustion.
Wait, did the game get moved to Tallahassee and I didn’t get the memo? If the issue is “exhaustion,” it won’t be from the humidity. It will be because the offense couldn’t stay on the field. Fine, let’s move on.
“I can see playing with 20 guys on defense,” senior middle linebacker Shane Gordon said. “If guys are tired, we are going to have guys who are ready to go.”
Pitt’s two-deep defensive depth chart looks like an interesting combination of seniors (six) and freshmen (eight, including redshirts). Mix in pass-rush specialist Ejuan Price at defensive end and former safeties Anthony Gonzalez and Bam Bradley at linebacker, and Pitt might have some players to counter Florida State’s speed.
“We have some guys we feel can run pretty well,” coach Paul Chryst said.
Seven starters return, plus junior outside linebacker Todd Thomas, who is Gonzalez’s backup after starting 13 games over the past two seasons.
Like Pitt, Florida State will have a new starter at QB. So both sides will no doubt be looking to generate pressure on the QB. The difference is that FSU has a proven O-line made up of nothing but juniors and seniors. All 6-4 or bigger and all over 300 pounds. No doubt Chryst and OC Joe Rudolph will look at that O-line and think, “That is what we want.” So generating pressure up front is going to require blitzing and overloading.
It may be that Pitt plays twenty guys on defense. I hope not. I would take that to mean that the defense is out there too much, and the coaches are still trying to find the right starting combo.
Part of that mix is with Ejuan Price and Anthony Gonzalez finally appearing to have a set position. Gonzalez, especially has been bounced around a bit — QB, H-Back, S and now OLB. While technically recruited as a QB, everyone knew that wasn’t where he would stay (except maybe Gonzalez). He finally has a position and is embracing it.
“After my first year, I was skeptical,” he said. “(At quarterback), you get to make plays. There is no better feeling than that. That’s why I wanted to come in and play quarterback.
“It just hasn’t worked out for me, and it’s time to move on.”
Gonzalez has played four positions at Pitt, including safety and H-back, but he made the permanent move to strong-side linebacker late last season, starting for the first time in the BBVA Compass Bowl. He starts on the weak side, but Chryst said he is comfortable putting Gonzalez at either position.
Gonzalez said his experience at quarterback helps him on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
“You know where the quarterback wants to go,” he said. “Knowing when you have help and when you don’t.”
As for Price, it wasn’t quite so radical as moving from outside linebacker to defensive end.
“I didn’t like putting my hand on the ground just because I wasn’t used to it, but now that I’m acclimated to it, I feel good,” he said.
“I actually like [defensive] end better because there’s less thinking involved, there’s more ‘go.’ ”
The past few practices have seen Price move primarily to a traditional defensive end role, but he and Palermo said there are packages in Pitt’s defense that would have Price standing up and sometimes dropping back in coverage. But Price knows his main job is getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
“The coaches have different roles for me,” he said. “They have a package where they have me stand up and rush, but at the end of the day, pressure is pressure, whether you put your hand on the ground or you are standing up. It is basically the same technique.”
Palermo said raw talent has never been an issue with Price, who was rated a three- and four-star recruit out of Woodland Hills and originally signed with Ohio State before picking Pitt. At this point, his biggest challenge is shaking off the mental rust of more than a year without live-action football.
“He’s still got a lot to learn, and when I say that, it’s not so much fundamentally — he’s pretty good — but he’s got to learn the defenses,” Palermo said. “He’s got to make sure if they do this, then our adjustment is that. Those are the things that he’s got to learn. When he’s got those down, there’s no telling how good a football player he’ll be.”
And while Gonzalez struggled at times to get on the field because his first three position moves were all made with an eye to the next season, Price was out with an injury all of last year.
“I’m definitely ready to go,” he said. “I tell [my teammates] every day, I’m just happy to be relevant again.”
Hopefully Pitt football will be at some point soon, as well.