Pitt defense searches for 'certain swagger'
The smartest coaches deploying the most talented players can fail if the most important ingredient is missing.
After the first day of spring drills Thursday, Pitt defensive coordinator Josh Conklin called it "a certain swagger."
He didn't say pointedly that last year's defense was lacking in that area, but he did admit the apparent problems can be found on a "two-way street" inhabited by players and coaches.
"We have to coach them better, No. 1," Conklin said. "We have to find ways to put players in better position."
Then, there's swag. Conklin said defensive line coach Charlie Partridge, in his second stint at Pitt, is the man to coax it from his players.
"He's a great motivator, a tremendous teacher," Conklin said. "He brings great energy to those guys.
"For us, that's where it starts. When they walk on the field, they have to have a certain swagger to them, they have to have a certain confidence about them.
"If they don't, you are going to have troubles defending the run, defending the pass."
Pitt's defense certainly had trouble when the ball was put in the air. Of the 128 Division I teams, only Arizona State allowed more passing yards per game than Pitt's 333.2.
"We hear it from coaches, fans, everybody," junior safety Jordan Whitehead said.
The run defense was much better, ranking 16th in the nation at 119.6 yards per game. But after Whitehead went out with a broken right arm, Syracuse ran for 228 yards and Northwestern 248.
"I wanted to hit somebody," he said of watching Pitt lose to Northwestern in the Pinstripe Bowl, 31-24.
Whitehead can do all the hitting he wants now — the arm healed — but he's one of only four defensive starters returning. The others are defensive end Rori Blair, who will be pushed by Dewayne Hendrix, linebacker Seun Idowu and cornerback Avonte Maddox.
That process starts for Whitehead with the task of repeatedly watching the play in which he broke his arm. It happened early in the second half of the upset victory against Clemson when he tackled wide receiver Hunter Renfrow after a 25-yard completion. It was avoidable, he said.
"My arm got stuck under him, and it kind of snapped," Whitehead said. "I could have pushed him on the ground. That's why I keep going back (to the video). I could have done something different."
Whitehead, who missed the final three games of the season (four overall), would like to have done other tasks differently, too.
"I missed more tackles than I did my freshman year," he said.
Despite sitting out four games, he finished fifth on the team — third among defensive backs — with 65 tackles. Not good enough in his eyes.
"A couple times, I was just trying to make the play, not really focused on my assignment," he said. "Just keying on your assignment will have a better outcome than trying to do too much."
Conklin said the defense can improve if players merely finish the play the way coaches intend them to do. Many times, players were in proper position, but failed to close on the ball or beat the receiver to the catch, especially on fade passes.
"We do a study every year, and we look at how many fade passes were thrown," Conklin said.
Usually, it's about 100. Last year, the number reached 144.
"(Opponents) can't run the ball, so the fade ball becomes their best, viable option," Conklin said. "(Last) year was a 36 percent completion rate on the fades, which isn't good enough."
The situation is exacerbated by the loss of so many veterans. Even if they didn't make enough plays, they must be replaced by younger players. Conklin said 61 percent of the defenders who made the greatest impact are gone. Of the 15 players who made the most tackles, only five return.
"We have some young guys who can play," Conklin said. "That doesn't mean anything right now. How fast can we develop them? How quickly can they pick it up?"
Whitehead, who said he's ready to accept a leadership role, said the bar must be set higher.
"Everybody has to come out here with a different attitude," he said. "We can't just be OK with an eight-win season."
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.