PITTSBURGH — During Pat Narduzzi’s inaugural season at Pitt in 2015, he brought with him a defensive scheme from Michigan State that had helped turn the Spartans from a northern doormat to a national title contender and earned Narduzzi a Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant and eventually, a head coaching job.
There was bound to be an adjustment period. Narduzzi was teaching a new scheme, and while the bones of his 4-3, Cover 4 scheme are not complicated, several positions involved quite a bit of nuance, especially when facing multiple-receiver threats.
That, combined with the fact that Narduzzi was using players that were recruited to do different things, made it easy to explain away any warts that cropped up. The Panthers finished 57th in the nation in scoring defense and 37th in total defense, while bottoming out at 128 of 129 in red zone efficiency.
Clearly, there were some issues. The defense lacked agility and speed at linebacker and then-freshman Jordan Whitehead had a monster year to mask some inefficiencies. The expectation was that with some more athletic players in the mix and another year studying the defense, Pitt would improve in 2016.
Instead, Pitt got worse. Way worse. The Panthers’ national ranking improved against the run, jumping up to 16th from 40th in 2015. The red zone defense tightened up a hair, coming in at 119th. But the secondary was an unmitigated disaster. Pitt finished 127th in passing defense, sending the Panthers’ total defense to 100th place. Scoring defense faired no better at No. 104.
That happened despite the defense returning four players that started a good number of games in 2015 in Avonte Maddox, Reggie Mitchell, Terrish Webb and Whitehead.
This season, only Maddox will return on a full-time basis. With Phillipie Motley injured, redshirt sophomore Dane Jackson has been battling true freshman Damarri Mathis at the other corner. Redshirt junior Dennis Briggs has taken over at boundary safety, with Whitehead moving over to the field safety spot. Redshirt sophomore Jazzee Stocker and redshirt freshman Bricen Garner are battling it out to be his replacement for the first three games.
It’s a lot of youth, but the hope from Narduzzi and his staff is that the athleticism that the younger players bring, along with the fact that many of them were recruited by this staff with the intention of playing in this defense, can combine to help them overcome their significant experience deficit.
“We’re definitely an athletic group,” defensive backs coach Renaldo Hill said. “We’re going to continue to try to increase that knowledge. That’s the goal by opening day, is to have those guys playing fast and understanding every aspect of this defense.”
Other than an injection of youth and athleticism, though, don’t expect big changes to Pitt’s defense in Year 3.
“Not much, to be honest with you, in terms of just base fundamentals,” linebackers coach Rob Harley said. “Sometimes, you’re changing reads, sometimes, you’re chaining what guys are looking at, sometimes, you’re changing footwork, but the overall structure of the defense is the same.”
In fact, changing from the Cover 4 scheme seems like a non-starter for Narduzzi, who is passionate about it’s benefits. He’s called it the “mother of all coverages” because it can be used to combat a number of different types of threats. Narduzzi sees great value in doing one thing as opposed to attempting to run a plethora of different defenses to combat every single opposing threat.
“I got hired at Miami of Ohio in 2003 in March, seven days before spring ball started, I inherited the staff and when I got there, I was like, ‘Why are we doing this?’” Narduzzi said. “Well, we couldn’t stop this, so we went and started putting this defense in and so on. You can’t just keep changing defenses to stop a play, a formation or a type of offense, because you don’t get any consistency. You have to have a base, fundamental background to go from and then you tweak it.
“You have to adjust with the times. There’s always different tweaks that we have going on. We did a year ago, not that it mattered. But you’re always looking for stuff. That’s how you evolve. You’re not going to change the structure, but there’s techniques and fundamentals that you try to do a little bit better.”
That’s exactly what he’s done at Pitt. The tweaks that they’ve made haven’t made big impacts yet, but they hold most of the hope for future improvement.
The biggest one is that as Narduzzi and company have adjusted to the way that ACC offenses are attacking his defense as opposed to the ones in the ACC, they’ve changed the athletic demands of some of their positions.
Pitt doesn’t typically bring in an extra defensive back when opposing teams bring in a package with a third wide receiver. But Pitt’s old guard of linebackers like Bam Bradley and Mike Caprara didn’t have the athleticism to chase down slot receivers.
Instead, two converted safeties (Seun Idowu and Jalen Williams) and a converted wide receiver (Elijah Zeise) will man the outside backer spots. Instead of brining in an extra defensive back when other teams add receivers, Pitt is essentially playing with six from the very start.
“That’s definitely a big part of the reason that Coach Narduzzi made the decision to move guys like me and Seun down,” Williams said.
There’s another progression of athletes to the safety position, as well, particularly the field safety spot, which is typically tasked with covering a slot receiver of tight end down field. That’s meant that some of Pitt’s top athletes, including Paris Ford, Damar Hamlin and Whitehead, have been tasked with that position.
“We’re looking for guys that are more corner-type guys,” defensive coordinator Josh Conklin said. “I think that’s kind of the evolution of the teams we face here in the ACC.”
Narduzzi is going to stick with the Cover 4, but it remains to be seen if it can be successful in the spread, pass-happy ACC. This coming season may be another one where success or failure may be determined more by how the players on the field play than it is to any particular scheme. But at some point, Pitt needs to prove it can stop the pass along with the run.