PITTSBURGH — If you’re a Pitt fan that has spent the better part of the last three seasons bemoaning the defensive matchups presented by head coach Pat Narduzzi and defensive coordinator Josh Conklin’s reliance on their 4-3, Cover Four zone, there’s some good news.
The first part came during the 2017 season, when Conklin and Narduzzi debuted a nickel defense by substituting a linebacker for an extra cornerback when opposing teams when to a three- or four-wide receiver look. The Panthers primarily utilized Therran Coleman and Phillipie Motley to cover the slot receivers, a role that seemed to suit them.
In evaluating his defense’s performance in 2017 to prepare for the 2018 season, Conklin said that’s the area he wants to place even more focus on next year: winning those matchups with athletic players.
“In my personal opinion, where we can really advance is we have to find the matchups,” Conklin said. “We’re going to play three linebackers the majority of the time. Can we find a nickel (back) and play some more nickel? We thought about that over the course of the season.”
With that priority in mind, Conklin and his defensive staff went out on the recruiting, looking to find more athletes in the secondary, and specifically ones that could help out as a third cornerback.
“When you look at a guy like V’Lique Carter, when you look at Marquis Williams, they give you some different matchup issues in terms of us being able to match up against other guys,” Conklin said.
But Pitt isn’t planning on adding a whole bunch of extra scholarships to the secondary. They lost Avonte Maddox and Jordan Whitehead from that group and added Carter, Judson Tallandier II and Williams. That’s only one more player, so if Pitt is going to recruit to a new position on the field, they are also going to need to have cross-trained athletes that can play any number of positions.
They started that last season by playing Whitehead at both safety positions. Damar Hamlin could be in line to do the same in 2018. Coleman has played nickel corner, outside corner and worked out at field safety. That seems to be the blueprint that the Panthers will follow with Carter and Williams.
The reason for that is clear. If Pitt plays a smaller, but athletic corner like Williams, on a slot receiver, it’s easy enough for the offense to move their smaller, athletic receiver to the outside and put a bigger player in the slot.
“You have to teach them and get them to learn the field safety, the field corner, the boundary corner in order to get the matchups that you want,” Conklin said.
The first part of that process was Pitt essentially bumping every position down a peg. They’re playing guys recruited as high-school corners like Coleman, Bricen Garner and Paris Ford at field safety. They’re playing guys that played corner or free safety at boundary safety like Whitehead and now possibly Hamlin. Players like Seun Idowu, Henry Miller and Jalen Williams have moved from safety to linebacker.
So when Pitt goes to a nickel in 2018, they will have three cornerbacks on the field by where they’re lined up, but they might have four or five guys that can play the position.
“We’re looking for more guys who are versatile,” said defensive backs coach Renaldo Hill. “The way you see guys trying to attack scheme, a lot of times, you need three or four corners on the field. That’s what it’s kind of turning into.”
Pitt’s unwillingness to play extra defensive backs has been a consistent criticism of Narduzzi and Conklin’s tenure. But now that they’ve built up the secondary with additional athletes, it looks like that’s what the team plans to do in the future.