Quicker defense offers Pitt football hope
The word that surfaced more often than any other this month at Pitt training camp is speed.
The defense is faster. Players are more athletic and, with a year of experience behind them, their decision-making will be improved.
Or, so the narrative goes.
But the real concern — perhaps articulated behind coaches’ closed doors — should be this: Will the inexperience in several key areas of the defense offset the increased speed? To put it another way, defenders are fast enough to get there. But will they know the right route?
There is no time for excuses or explanations. Pitt must shore up its pass defense this season, and defensive coordinator Josh Conklin knows it.
Pitt was 127th and next-to-last in the FBS in pass defense last season (333.2 yards allowed per game).
A bad pass defense may only get worse — at least, initially — with its best player, free safety Jordan Whitehead, suspended for the first three games. The opener is Saturday at Heinz Field against FCS 2016 national runner-up Youngstown State, with No. 6 Penn State and No. 10 Oklahoma State following immediately.
Coach Pat Narduzzi doesn’t believe a bad start will define his season, but good luck getting fans to believe that.
The two most prominent replacements for Whitehead are Jazzee Stocker and Bricen Garner. Stocker, a sophomore, played in 11 games last season with 12 tackles. Garner spent 2016 as a redshirt.
At cornerback, Conklin seems encouraged by the improvement displayed this month by cornerback Avonte Maddox, one of only two seniors (defensive end Allen Edwards is the other) who look like starters.
“Maddox has really come along nicely,” Conklin said. “He’s really addressing shortcomings and issues he felt like he had. That’s encouraging.”
The other cornerback spot could turn into a concern. Injuries of varying degrees to Phillipie Motley, Therran Coleman, Damar Hamlin and Malik Henderson have thrust freshmen Damarri Mathis and Jason Pinnock into a battle for the starting spot with sophomore Dane Jackson.
At least, there are several able bodies; the trick is to find the best and healthiest ones.
“I think (Mathis and Pinnock) have done a really good job of developing,” Conklin said. “They’re not perfect right now, they’ve had a lot of mental errors and they have a long way to go. But I think they’ve gotten all that they can out of camp.”
The situation at linebacker is more encouraging where sophomore Saleem Brightwell and juniors Seun Idowu and Elijah Zeise are entrenched as starters. Brightwell played outside linebacker last season, but he has spent most of his time this year in the middle. He and Zeise are inexperienced, but have played well in camp.
“I think they’re there,” Conklin said of the three linebackers. “That’s why they’re the guys. I think if they got to that stage where they know what they have to do, they understand what they have to do, then they can operate kind of at an unconscious level, just in terms of the defense and the package.”
Losses on the defensive line have forced shuffling and resulted in the emergence of junior defensive tackle Shane Roy, who was repeatedly recognized by coaches for his efforts in camp. Roy also needs seasoning, but he may start next to redshirt freshman Keyshon Camp.
Pitt needs a pass rush to offset deficiencies in its secondary, but not even Ejuan Price’s 13 sacks could help last year. With Price in the NFL, that task is passed on to Dewayne Hendrix and Edwards. Hendrix is another of those players whose potential — due to injury — has been talked about more than put on display.
Both players are transfers, which says something about Pitt’s recruitment of defensive linemen before Narduzzi arrived in 2015.
With so many questions on defense, fans can’t be blamed for wondering if scores such as 42-39, 45-38, 37-36, 37-34, 45-31, 39-36, 51-28, 43-42, 56-14 and 76-61 will become the norm this season. Those scores made up 10 of Pitt’s 13 games last season and six of its eight victories. But can the offense keep up this year? Quadree Henderson (an All-American after last season and before this one) is the most dangerous player on offense, and the line again looks solid.
New offensive coordinator Shawn Watson will try to get the ball in Henderson’s hands and look to throw the ball downfield more often. Narduzzi has said he would like wide receiver Jester Weah to approach 70 receptions after getting 36 last year.
But will Max Browne do for the quarterback position what Nathan Peterman did last year (60.5 completion percentage, 2,855 yards and 27 touchdown passes, only seven interceptions)? Will Weah’s 24.2-yards per catch average just draw more double teams his way? Is there really a wealth of talent at running back, or just several hard runners with plenty to prove?
And what about fullback George Aston’s leg injury that will cost him several games, if not the entire season? Coaches are not talking about Aston or his injury, but he scored 10 touchdowns last season.
Can tight ends Matt Flanagan and Chris Clark somehow fill the void?
Narduzzi has been largely upbeat this month, but he hasn’t seen his players confront another team. In college football, the gulf between production in practice and success in games can be a wide one.
“It matters what you do Sept. 2,” he said. “That’s when we will find out.”