Usually the first couple days of practice, most of the media attention is on the offense. There’s a logic to that. The practice is padless, so there isn’t any hitting or tackling. It’s a chance for skill players to really stand out. Add in when a new QB is taking the reins, the extra attention is there.
Not that the offense hasn’t gotten some notice. Freshman RB Chris James has looked good — and eager.
Yet, that hasn’t been the story in the first two days. It has been about the defense — specifically the secondary for the first two days. The lack of depth with the DBs. The new, energetic and talkative coach of the DBs also helps.
“We need more [depth],” secondary coach Troy Douglas said after Pitt’s first practice Monday. “We need more guys that can play.”
Illustrating Douglas’ point, the man who replaces Howard on the depth chart, redshirt sophomore Trenton Coles, will do so as much by default as anything else. Coles is the only cornerback other than presumed starter Lafayette Pitts on the roster with any experience.
To create some depth behind Coles, the coaches moved safety Ryan Lewis to cornerback on the first day of practice. But that creates a bit of a depth issue at safety, where redshirt senior Ray Vinopal, sophomore Terrish Webb and redshirt sophomore Reggie Mitchell figure to get the bulk of the playing time.
Mitchell also is seeing time as the nickelback in passing situations, and some specialty packages have Vinopal playing linebacker, creating a bit of a void in the secondary.
“Where’s the next one coming from?” Douglas said. “We need to have those [young] guys come as far as they can so we can play the spreads with four wideouts.”
The “young guys” Douglas is referring to might hold the key for the back end of the defense. Freshman cornerback Avonte Maddox made a splash on the first play Monday when he intercepted Trey Anderson’s pass and took it back for a touchdown, but Douglas cautioned that all four freshman defensive backs still have a long way to go.
“Young pup making a play,” Douglas said. “He’s very talented, and so are all the other young kids, but they’ve just got to learn.
“The faster they learn, the faster they adapt, the faster they’ll play. And I’m not scared to play them. I played a freshman last year, I played [NFL cornerback] Tracy Porter when he was a true freshman [at Indiana]. I’ll play a freshman if he’s the best one and coach [Paul] Chryst lets me.”
Even without seeing the practices, just reading his quotes, you can get a sense for what kind of enthusiasm Douglas brings to coaching the DBs. It reads like he is relishing the challenge of getting the kids ready and dealing with the problems.
That enthusiasm allows him to be positive while bluntly stating what players have to do. Like with Trenton Coles.
So far, Douglas likes what he sees from Coles, a redshirt sophomore.
“You draw up an NFL cornerback and that’s what they are supposed to look like,” Douglas said of the 6-foot-3, 175-pound Coles, who was a Pennsylvania sprint champion in high school. “He’s long and fast.
“Teaching him the game, that’s my job. The other stuff you can’t coach, 6-3 and 4.3 (seconds), or whatever he runs. The game is where he has to learn. That’s what’s going to get him on the field.”
Douglas described Coles as “fearless.”
“He probably made as many plays on the ball as anybody, but he got beat as much as anybody. Those are things we have to cut back on, but we have to get him to continue to make plays on the ball.”
That has been Douglas’ rallying cry since he was hired prior to spring drills: attack the football.
“The thing with (Coles) and Lafayette is chasing the ball and playing hard through the whistle,” he said. “We have to get these guys chasing the ball. If we chase the ball, then we have a chance on defense.”
There’s also the battle going on to start at safety between Reggie Mitchell and Terrish Webb.
One of the best competitions to watch this training camp will be between Terrish Webb and Reggie Mitchell for the starting safety spot opposite Ray Vinopal. Mitchell got the first-team snaps today, but Webb had them on Monday. Realistically, both guys will probably see the field a ton because whoever “loses” the position battle will likely be the Panthers’ nickelback. Pitt will see a ton of spread offenses in the ACC this year, meaning the nickel package will get a lot of work.
“Terrish is really, really bright, not that Reggie isn’t, Reggie is too,” defensive coordinator Matt House said. “Terrish loves to compete, Reggie loves to compete. Reggie’s got great quickness. It’s a good battle going on back there. That’s one thing I do feel: Those three guys, Reggie, Terrish and Ray (Vinopal), they’re sponges. They are fun to coach because you go in the meeting room and they’ve got questions and they’re wanting to be coached.”
The issue, of course, is health. The depth is so lacking. It isn’t about a drop-off in talent from starter to back-up. It’s the drop-off because there is practically no one behind them. One of the issues the coaches cited with the O-line injuries last year — and even at the start of the season. That lack of depth on the line meant balancing how to practice the players. There weren’t enough bodies to split the scout, practice and starting squads. You can’t wear the players down in practice, but you need the bodies out there. That is going to be the issue with the secondary all season. (But at least depth won’t be an issue for the O-line this year. Only experience.)
Related. This piece on Reggie Mitchell being ready to go after sitting the year following his transfer from Wisconsin.
In other things, James Conner continues to work both sides of the ball.
The routine for James Conner working at defensive end seems to be that he goes there for the first few individual sessions at the beginning of practice, then shifts to join the running backs for the remainder. We’ll see if that changes once they get in pads, but today he spent the first part of practice going through pass-rushing technique with defensive ends coach John Palermo.
And of course, both position coaches are adjusting to having to share.
Pitt running back coach John Settle has been around football for most of the past three decades, but something happening on the practice fields this summer is new to him: He never has seen a player work on both sides of the ball at this level like James Conner. “This is a first,” said Settle, who said he doesn’t mind sharing Conner with defensive ends coach John Palermo. “I don’t think I can get around that. To (Conner’s) credit, he is doing a heckuva job keeping up with both installs. Right now, he is loving the game because he is able to do something that a lot of guys can’t do. As a coach, you’d be crazy not to take advantage of it.”
Freshman WR Adonis Jennings suffered what appeared to be minor injury and was held out of practice. Tyler Boyd stayed on him during practices to make sure he was still engaged in what the team was doing. Making sure he was learning.
“No one got pushed harder than Tyler last year,” Chryst said, “so he’s not real sympathetic to anybody. He was just making sure (Jennings) stayed on track. And Adonis wanted (Boyd’s attention).”
Boyd continues to impress with his approach to the game and the team.