PITTSBURGH — Pitt defensive coordinator Josh Conklin is looking for some dog soldiers.
Looking for a way to keep his players engaged and create a spirit of competition during the sometimes moribund spring practice sessions, Conklin worked a historical reference and a play on words into a way to highlight the most productive members of his defense during practices and scrimmages.
Dog soldiers are part of the military culture of the Cheyenne Indians that were an influential part of the Native American resistance to the spread of white settlers into the west. The dog soldiers were notorious for their aggression in combat and unwillingness to cede ground. The Pitt defense has adopted the slogan “No surrender, no retreat” as a part of Conklin’s history lesson.
In practice, Conklin’s dog soldiers selected based on players that make plays, both small and large, in practices and scrimmage.
“Those are the guys that make the big dog plays,” Conklin said. “We’re really just trying to emphasize finishing and making plays.”
What’s the opposite of a dog play? Well that would be a cat — or a crime against the team. That would be a whiffed tackle or missed assignment. Add up the cats and the dogs and the player or players that end up at the top of the ledger is the dog soldier of the day and gets their photo tweeted out by Conklin. That part has been a hit with the players.
“They have a little competition between the position groups and between themselves,” Conklin said. “We thought we’d take it a step further and give them a little publicity. They’ve enjoyed it just like we thought they would and once we started sending that picture out, then they really got into it. They like it now. It’s been good.”
So far Avonte Maddox, Rashad Weaver, Jordan Whitehead, Quintin Wirginis and Elijah Zeise have been honored publicly. Zeise is the most recent honoree, earning accolades for his performance in Saturday’s scrimmage at Heinz Field.
“He’s had a really good spring,” Conklin said. “It was really unfortunate the injury he had last fall the first game. I thought his progress was going to be really remarkable. When he came in this spring, he kind of picked up where he left off. He’s bigger, stronger, he’s more explosive and he’s starting to use [his size] a lot better, which is encouraging to see.”
While the defense may have gone to the dogs, the offense won Saturday’s scrimmage on an overtime pass from Ben DiNucci to DeAndre Schifino.
“We got after it Saturday, it was a good day,” Pat Narduzzi said. “It was a great day all around. It was probably one of the best scrimmages I’ve been around.”
The coaching staff will divide the team’s seniors into two teams and then the seniors will drag the rest of the team to the Blue or Gold side on Wednesday. Quarterback Max Browne knows who he’d like to see his side take if he gets his way.
“You gotta go Brian O’Neill, I think, to protect your blind side,” Browne said.
Browne wasn’t around at this time last year, but O’Neill was the first pick then, as well.