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Pitt defense will rely on back-up plan

| Saturday, March 30, 2013, 11:29 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
PItt defensive coordinator Matt House during practice in March 2013 on the South Side.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
PItt defensive coordinator Matt House during practice March 2013, on the South Side.

A few days after he was named Pitt's defensive coordinator, Matt House sat down with a reporter to discuss his new job. Clearly, he had a plan.

He was pleased with the nine returning starters but not entirely satisfied.

To get the most from those 45 scholarships the school has handed out to defensive players, House promised to do something that fans — maybe even some opponents — weren't expecting. He said he wanted to get several players involved, not just those who played the majority of snaps last year during a 6-7 season.

Starters will have competition, and even if they win the job, they can't get too comfortable. In an ideal world — House's world — complementary players will push for playing time.

Through the first three weeks of spring drills (nine down, six to go), House's ideas are taking shape, largely because of injuries to players at or near the top of the depth chart — which was the point in the first place.

House and coach Paul Chryst don't want to be caught in November with injured starters, underdeveloped depth and a winning season on the line. Better to find replacements now and get them ready for the fall.

“You would like to play a lot of guys at a lot of positions,” Chryst said. “It means you're deep, and you can.”

To that end, free safety Eric Williams, middle linebacker Mike Caprara and cornerbacks Trenton Coles and E.J. Banks find themselves taking repeated snaps while Jason Hendricks (toe), Shane Gordon (neck) and Cullen Christian (calf) heal their injuries.

In addition, the team is building defensive line depth — something it didn't have last year — behind senior starters Aaron Donald, who has looked unblockable at times, and the much-improved Tyrone Ezell.

“Aaron and Ty have attacked the spring,” Chryst said.

But coaches also are feeling increasingly comfortable with tackles K.K. Mosley-Smith and Darryl Render, who played in 11 games with one start last year as a freshman.

“K.K. has done some things, and Darryl has got ability,” Chryst said. “We knew that. He played as a true freshman. You earn that, right?”

Elsewhere, Williams and Caprara have taken most of the snaps with the first team while Coles and Banks are building depth behind starters K'Waun Williams and Lafayette Pitts. Christian was a backup cornerback last season and made two starts, but now he has competition.

Among Williams, Caprara, Coles and Banks, perhaps none of them will find their way into the starting lineup Sept. 2 against Florida State. But the result might be House having experienced players behind starters and seasoned ones he can count on to compete for starting jobs in 2014.

After all, the future extends beyond 2013.

“If we are going to be a good defense, we don't want to have just 11 starters,” House said. “We need a whole bunch of guys who are starters in different ways. It will be fun to see where we go with it.”

In the deep secondary, Williams is adjusting to safety after starting 11 games at strongside linebacker and making a key interception against Notre Dame in 2012. Last week, he picked off passes in three consecutive days, once snatching a pass from senior wide receiver Devin Street while tiptoeing the sideline.

At 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, Williams, a redshirt junior, said his skills lean toward playing safety where, at Pennsbury High School, he was an All-Class AAAA selection by the Pennsylvania Football News. At linebacker, he struggled to gain enough weight to be effective in the long term.

“I usually use my speed to my advantage, because I obviously don't have much size,” he said. “I guess (coaches) picked up on that, so they decided to move me back. With Jason being hurt, it does give me the opportunity to show coaches I can play safety.”

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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