August 6, 2014

Eyes On the Defense to Start

Filed under: Football,Practice — Chas @ 8:46 am

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.

Well hopefully Baldwin gets his knee in order, get’s his confidence back and at only 25 years old, he can still get another shot or two.

As we all know he would if he went to one of the ‘brand name’ football schools.

Comment by Emel 08.06.14 @ 6:33 pm

Lamar Patterson signed with a pro team in Turkey.

Comment by Nick 08.06.14 @ 6:46 pm

Re: Defense. This quote says a lot about Aaron Donald, but it also says out about our defensive tackles coach. Need a couple of the guys to step up with this kind of work ethic this year.

“He’s absolutely a very polished rookie in pass rush,” said Chris Long, a monster pass rusher himself. “One of the most polished rookies I’ve ever seen as far as his technique. Somebody along the line coached him up pretty well. We were sitting in the room the other day watching film, and I said to him, ‘Who taught you to watch film and play with technique?’ Not all kids coming in have that.”

link to

Comment by Atlanta Panther 08.06.14 @ 6:52 pm

I like the idea of a 3-4 but don’t think it is that simple a change. Also, although you are right about Thomas and Grigsby fitting well, I think we have 3 nose tackles and no one like Aaron Smith or Brett Kiesel, maybe Soto. In the 4-3 we did have some ends that could rush in Romeus and Sheard, those are the kind of guys that make the 4-3 work.

I never thought Baldwin lived up to his abilities, he has the body but not the athleticism to be really good. Don’t remember him making the tough catches.

Comment by gc 08.06.14 @ 7:01 pm

Nice article about Donald, sounds like he landed in a great situation too.

Comment by gc 08.06.14 @ 7:06 pm

In 2010 Baldwin made some incredible catches of horribly thrown tiny passes.

Passes that were basically thrown, ‘up for grabs’.

Which is why he was a #1 pick.

Agree with you about needing good DE’s in the 4-3.

I just believe if you’re going against spread offenses the 3-4 is more flexible than the 4-3.

Especially if you don’t have those quality type DE’s you’re talking about.

With that being said, if they play Grigsby as a rush DE, it would almost like playing a 3-4.

Comment by Emel 08.06.14 @ 7:20 pm

Too bad about Baldwin — with that size and speed, hard to imagine he’d be out of the league that long if his knee heals.

My guess is Chryst will install more rollout pass/run options for Voytik, so could see more passes to TEs…and I think we have some good ones.

Comment by Matt N. 08.06.14 @ 8:40 pm

good point about the TEs .. and now at 270 lbs, Jaymar Parrish is like a TE, although I readthe he still can fun preety fast for his size.

Pitt may run that play that they used to when they fake a handoff to the RB folowing the FB off-tackle, then the QB hits the FB in the flat. The Giants still run that play when Hyno is on the field

Comment by wbb 08.07.14 @ 6:15 am

Pitt’s extra work for the Bahamas should pay big dividends. Like summer league, don’t know what will translate to ACC games, but so good so far.

Comment by gc 08.07.14 @ 6:39 am

Reports of yesterdays 11 on 11 sound like the offense had a pretty easy time throwing the ball.

Soto got into the backfield once and broke up a play.

Comment by gc 08.07.14 @ 6:49 am

PITTFan28 – I don’t get any emails sent to the PITT Blather site – they go straight to Chas. He’s the owner/moderator, I’m just a contributing writer.

That was a great bit of info though.

Comment by Reed 08.07.14 @ 7:13 am

gc – I t doesn’t matter what Shell does this season.

I only listed those three in reference to the many PITT fan’s expectations that James comes in, blows up and grabs a starting spot in his true FR year.

wbb – you are correct that those I listed had other returning RBs in front of them… just like James does with Conner.

I don’t base my preference for Conner at RB only on that bowl game. He was a tough and productive runner when he was healthy and had to run behind an average at best OL. I really believe that if he’s the established #1 RB going into the season and is written into the gameplans as the guy who advances the ball on the ground – we’ll see very good production out of him.

The reason he did so well in the Bowl game is that all those variables I listed above were met. He was 100% healthy after a full month of rest and the coaching staff gave him carries right off the bat.

I’d love it if James stepped in and played so well the staff had to give him the ball, but that would be the about only time I’d contemplate moving Conner to DE. One thing we all are discounting is Isaac Bennett’s role in the backfield. There no reason he can’t jump up and grab that RB1 spot either. He played well last year and given starting slot he could be 1000+ yard easily this year.

Chryst like multiple RBs to play dur a game. What we might see is a committee of Bennett, Ibrahim and possibly James at RB, then Conner moving to defense. But again, I’d have to see some really excellent production out of a Conner-less backfield before I moved him.

Comment by Reed 08.07.14 @ 7:38 am

understood …. but you also has to consider the needs of the defense. Everyone always seems so concerned about the offense, but this team is overloaded on the offensive side … both for now, and the forseeable future. The quality and quantity of recent commits definitely tilt towards the offense.

Last year, Pitt rated low in QB sacks and hurries, and that was with the most decorated DL in the NCAA. Now, not only is the DE depleted with a lack of experience, the very same goes for the DB … and there is nothing that helps the DB more than an effective pass rush.

Also, a point I made before … the noise of Conner playing DE was not something initiated by the fans or the media … it came from the horses mouths themselves. PC never denied and it and in fact had him practice there in the spring as well as currently. Further, Conner has said on many occasions that he looks forward to playing on the defense .. and there was even an article a couple of months ago where he admitted that he thought his long term future was on defense.

Lastly, you take away the bowl game and the game vs Duke (which was not defensively last year), that cuts Conner’s 800 yard output last year in half … which means he gained approx 400 yards in the other 10 games he played.

He is currently the best RB we have right now (no doubt) but, barring certain injuries, I truly believe we will see him more on defense in the future

Comment by wbb 08.07.14 @ 9:33 am

@Emel, I too remember that!!! I remember seeing their name, and thinking it was pronounced
Sham-ee-nade or something, like lemonade.
No idea who they were then even more so than today.

Hey, remember the UVA v. UNC battles??
That damn Dean Smith and that 4 corner offense??

Finals of 28-26, 36-34 etc. etc. ha ha!!

Would hold the ball for 5 minutes at a time, if the defense didn’t go out and play them, they just kept passing the ball to each other.

Heck, I think they may of held the ball for almost the entire first half against some team, like a half time score of 10-8????

Comment by Dan 08.07.14 @ 9:49 am

The reason UVA had some battles, for the younger fellas on here, they had Ralph Sampson and Jeff Lamp, but more importantly, they were good enough to get the lead on UNC.

UNC, couldn’t play the 4 corners so much when down.

I can’t be specific, but I remember a time, and I believe it was against UVA, the UVA had the lead by like 4 or so, well into the 2nd half, and UNC pulled the pull out and went into the 4 corners.

The UVA coach, instead of waving his guys up to play defense, emphatically waved back to just stay away from them.

The whole crowd erupted tremendously loud, the UVA coach with the wave was like saying..

“screw you, keep the effin’ ball, we’re up”!!!

Comment by Dan 08.07.14 @ 9:54 am

Terry Holland the coach I believe.

Another important player, Jeff Jones.

Comment by Dan 08.07.14 @ 9:59 am

Othell Wilson

Comment by wbb 08.07.14 @ 10:06 am

wbb – with Conner’s role this season really does depend on how the other’s play vice how he plays, with both the RBs and the DEs.

Should Bennett, Ibrahim and James step up and fill the Conner-void rushing the ball then fine. On the flip side should Durham, Soto, MacLean and Blair produce at DE then there is no need to move Conner.

But here is the one scenario no one is talking about – whether or not Conner is a legit D1 starting RB. As you stated half of his yards came in two games against relatively mediocre defenses. As much as I hate to type this it could be that he’s just not the guy to get 25 carries a game for 12 games and still be effective.

In that case then move him anyway onto the DE two-deep because there wouldn’t be a place for him elsewhere.

Comment by Reed 08.07.14 @ 5:27 pm

^^^ Didn’t want to post that here.

Comment by Reed 08.07.14 @ 5:27 pm

I will have two tickets to the Iowa game and a Casino parking pass which I can sell separately. Do you guys recommend StubHub for sellers, too?

Comment by OhHowIHateOhioState 08.07.14 @ 10:55 pm

@Comment by OhHowIHateOhioState 08.07.14 @ 10:55 pm

I’ve sold on SH before, no problems or issues. They do hit you with a fee though. I think it was pretty nominal though, small percentage of the sale price, or something.

I’ve always had pretty good fortune on Craigslist too. Although there’s more effort involve with haggling and responding to emails… If it’s worth your time and effort, you’d probably make a few extra dollars going that route.

Comment by BostonsCommon 08.08.14 @ 9:08 am

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