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Communication is Key in Pitt Taking Out The Godfather Dontay Corleone



Pitt offensive line.

I don’t know if Dontay Corleone has ever seen Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. But he must have an idea where his nickname ‘The Godfather’ comes from.

Corleone, the real Corleone, would’ve towered over Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone and Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone on the movie set. And while he isn’t a New Yorker, just a kid who grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, his impact on the football field is undeniable.

A certain quote stands out today. Diane Keaton’s Kay Corleone tells Pacino’s Michael in The Godfather Part III, “I don’t hate you, Michael. I simply dread you.” Pitt doesn’t exactly dread Corleone, but the coaching staff — and its players — respect the immense challenge that Corleone brings from the noseguard position.

“He lines up over the center in a 0 technique, and he just causes havoc in the backfield,” Narduzzi said at his weekly press conference Monday. “He’s explosive. He’s only about 6-2, maybe 6-2 and a half. He just causes havoc in the backfield. It starts with him.

“You’ve got to control the line of scrimmage, and it’s really a key to victory every week is really just to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the football, and that’ll be a lot of focus on what he’s done in there.”

Corleone — a redshirt sophomore defensive tackle from Colerain High in Cincinnati, Ohio — put together a breakout campaign last season, earning third-team All-American honors and checking in as PFF’s top-rated defensive player in all of college football. And he earned first-team preseason All-American honors this offseason, too.

At 6-foot-2, 318 pounds, he’s a load. He plays that 0 technique in Cincinnati’s 3-4 defense, and he didn’t always stuff the stat sheet with tackles for loss and sacks, but he wrecked game plans by simply being on the field. If two or three linemen slide to help the center on any individual play, it opens up blitz lanes for his fellow linemen and the linebackers waiting to burst through the gaps.

The Corleone Effect is something that Pitt will need to account for Saturday.

Corleone was on the field for 152 pass rush snaps last season, generating 16 hurries, 11 pressures, three sacks and two more quarterback hits (with a 15.3% win rate against opposing blockers showcasing his ability to pressure the quarterback from inside), but it wasn’t his pass rushing ability that really caused problems last season.

It was Corleone’s ability to draw double and triple teams and still make plays in defending against the run.

Corleone was nearly unguardable in 176 run defense snaps last season. He recorded 30 tackles, 15 assists and missed just two tackles — an exceptionally low 4.3% miss rate. He recorded a run stop (27) on just over 15% of his run defense snaps last season. It’s not hard to see he’s a problem inside.

And it’s an even bigger problem when ironing out A-gap pressure (the pressure that’s generated between the center and the guards) was one of the teaching points in the Pitt win over Wofford last week. The coaching staff felt it needed to be cleaned up, and there wasn’t much time as Corleone was coming to town.

“Penetration inside for quarterbacks is an issue,” Narduzzi said. “When you see some of these bad balls (against Wofford), if you go back and look and rewind it, a lot of his throws are when there’s pressure and there’s someone in the A-gap. You don’t mind edge pressure when a quarterback can step up in the pocket, but when he can’t step up in the pocket…

“It will get cleaned up. (Wofford) did just a couple of things that maybe we didn’t prepare for, whatever, but we’ll definitely be a lot better prepared for that.”

Pitt has a veteran offensive line, one with well over 6,000 career snaps entering the 2023 season, but it’s still a unit that is working new faces into the lineup. And communication needs to be sharp across the entire line. Especially when it comes to limiting pressure in the A-gap.

“Sometimes it’s communication, it’s across the whole line,” Blake Zubovic said after practice Wednesday. “There are things that sometimes one of us needs to see or another, sometimes it’s just different sets and stuff, gotta work on our depth. Interior, I think it’s mostly just communication for the most part.”

Zubovic said it was an issue last week against Wofford, but after a week of practice to iron it out, he thinks the unit will be better equipped to deal with an interior rush against Cincinnati. Even though the Bearcats boast a strong defensive front.

It starts with Corleone in the middle, but Jowon Briggs and Eric Phillips are both stout ends. Briggs, a 6-foot-2, 297-pounder who began his career at Virginia, earned first-team All-AAC honors last season. And Phillips, who is also from Colerain High, broke out last season alongside Corleone and Briggs.

Corleone lines up as a 0 technique, which means he’ll be directly in front of Jake Kradel Saturday, but Zubovic will matchup with Corleone quite a bit himself. The doubles and triples are inevitable.

Zubovic pointed to Corleone as a natural leverage kind of guy. He’s not the tallest lineman out there, but he is powerful. Narduzzi likened his quads to tree trunks Thursday. Corleone is thick, powerful and hits his strikes very well. That’s the No. 1 with him. Pitt’s linemen will need to get their hands on him before he can get his hands on them.

Corleone is powerful, using his natural leverage to generate strength against bigger, taller linemen, but the Pitt linemen have had some experience matching up against undersized dynamos over the last handful of seasons.

“I had this guy named Calijah Kancey last year that was pretty good at pretty much that thing,” Zubovic said.

Walk-on defensive tackle Thomas Aden (6-foot-1, 280 pounds) has been running at noseguard in practice this week, matching up physically with Corleone physically, and it’s given Pitt’s linemen the chance to hone in on playing low and maintaining leverage, making sure that a defensive tackle can’t strike inside.

But again, it’s not just Corleone either. The defensive line as a whole is stout. There were a number of losses in the linebacking corps and in the secondary, but it’s a defense that led the AAC in points (20.6) and total yards (335.5) allowed in 2022.

The starting defensive line trio combined for 144 tackles (52 solo), 18 tackles for loss and nine sacks last season, and with an added season of familiarity, the pre- and post-snap movement should be even more refined.

“They bring pressure all the time from three down to four down, they like to switch up their fronts,” Zubovic said. “They play a Joker front with three down and a lineman walked back. They do a ton of movement, nose tackle and end tackle type of twists. Tons of things like that.”

The twists will require the Pitt linemen to read and react quickly, adjusting on the fly as the play is unfolding, and communication — as it’s been stressed — will be important not just from Kradel at the point of attack but the entire line. If a lineman sees something, it’s paramount to call it out.

“They’re big and physical,” Narduzzi said Thursday. “Their nose tackle, the Godfather there, Corleone, he’s an All-American. And Kradel will have his hands full. But I’ve got faith in Jake and our offensive line to do their job with him. I mean, every week, we’re facing good players. It’s not going to be one week, it’s every week.”

If the Pitt offensive line is able to contain Corleone and Briggs and Phillips, giving Phil Jurkovec time in the pocket and opening rushing lanes for Rodney Hammond Jr. and the running backs, the offense should be able to exploit the second and third levels of the defense. But that’s a task easier said than done.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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