PITTSBURGH — Pitt redshirt freshman cornerback Therran Coleman has had a significant impact on the Pitt defense this season, and his presence has helped allow Pat Narduzzi to make a critical adjustment that could mean big things for the future of Pitt’s defense.
The Brashear product wasn’t necessarily expected to have a big impact this after redshirting in 2016-17. The Panthers had a returning four-year starter in Avonte Maddox at one cornerback spot and more experienced players in Dane Jackson and Phillipie Motley set to battle for the other one.
So when Coleman went down with an injury in training camp, it wasn’t seen as a big issue for the Panthers going forward. But Motley was also injured in training camp and it took sophomore free safety Damar Hamlin a few games to finish his recover from off-season surgery.
All-ACC strong safety Jordan Whitehead was suspended for the first three games of the season and four-star freshman Paris Ford missed all of training camp and will redshirt as a result.
That meant that when the Panthers played the wide-open spread offense of Oklahoma State in Week 3, Pat Narduzzi and Josh Conklin had to game plan with significantly less than a full deck in the secondary.
Missing Coleman, Ford, Hamlin, Motley and Whitehead, Narduzzi, Conklin and company came up with the same plan they’ve always come up with against the type of spread offenses that are designed to put stress on a Cover 4: pretty much the same thing they did against everything else.
For the first two seasons and four games under Narduzzi, Pitt essentially used two defenses. The Panthers have utilized a base 4-3 in a Cover-4 or Quarters alignment on first and second downs and a three-lineman, three-linebacker, three-safety package they call “Delta” on third downs.
Against Oklahoma, they lined up in their base on first and second down and got gashed on the seams, with the Cowboys’ slot receivers taking advantage of Pitt’s safeties. I wrote about it extensively after the game in that week’s Film Study.
I wrote at the time that Pitt should be wary of copycats throughout the ACC that have similar types of athletes and play similar offenses to Oklahoma State. Pitt’s next two games were against Georgia Tech and Rice, which don’t have the inclination or the personnel to take advantage.
But in Week 7, Syracuse most certainly did. The Orange possess a high-tempo, spread offense with a number of large, talented receivers. They obliterated Pitt’s defense a year ago, scoring 61 points against the Panthers in 2016, and seemed poised to take advantage again in 2017.
That’s where Therran Coleman came in.
The second-year corner was utilized on nearly 80 snaps against the Orange as a third cornerback in a newly debuted “Nickel” package that saw the Panthers line up in a 4-2-5 alignment with three cornerbacks on the field — a first under Narduzzi at Pitt.
Narduzzi was criticized in this space and in many others for refusing to make that type of adjustment earlier. One of the reason that he hesitated was that he didn’t necessarily have the personnel available to pull it off. With Coleman and company back in the fold, he was able to surprise Syracuse with the new scheme.
Here’s Coleman on his journey back from injury to pivotal player in Pitt’s defense: