Pitt's House gets to work on defense
By Jerry DiPaola
Published: Monday, Feb. 25, 2013, 9:21 p.m.
When he sits down in his office, opens up a notebook and starts studying the nine starters returning to Pitt's defense, new coordinator Matt House keeps turning pages.
He likes the presence of experienced athletes. Yet, he wants more. He needs more.
And, now, it's his job — his time — to find more.
A defense that failed against Ole Miss, Connecticut and Youngstown State, among others, may not be ready for the rigors of the ACC. The good news is House has six months to fix it.
Pitt's spring drills that begin March 5 will be as much as a tryout for young players as it will be a means to accentuate strengths and polish weaknesses of veterans. Most returning starters' jobs are secure, but House promises to complement them with as many new faces as are reasonable.
“The more players you can play, the more people who buy into the team,” House said. “We know what the nine guys can do, but now we have to find the roles and what other guys can do to succeed.
“If you ask about the fundamental differences between last year and this year, it's we're going to use more people.”
The possibilities are endless, but they are clouded in uncertainty. Pitt redshirted 10 defensive players last season, and other non-starters such as linebackers Nicholas Grigsby and Anthony Gonzalez, tackles Darryl Render and K.K. Mosley Smith, cornerbacks Cullen Christian and Brendon Felder and safety Ray Vinopal will have an opportunity to emerge.
“If we have five linebackers we feel can play, we have to find five ways to get those guys on the field,” House said.
He promises to keep a special eye on everyone. You never know who may excel when given an opportunity.
Consider, for example, an undersized center, who became the leader of the offensive line on an undefeated team in Harrison (Mich.) in the 1990s.
“He took charge,” former Harrison coach Dick Harris said of House. “He was 175 pounds, but he worked hard in the weight room. The most important thing he did is he made good decisions.”
After high school, House walked on at Michigan State “with the illusion I would be a player,” he said.
He quickly gave up the dream and became a student assistant under coach Nick Saban.
“If you watch me run around, I'm pretty unathletic,” he said.
House is only 34, but he's been coaching since 2001, first as a graduate assistant at Michigan State and later at North Carolina, Gardner-Webb, the University of Buffalo, the Carolina Panthers and St. Louis Rams.
With the Panthers in 2008, he was assistant special teams coach on a team that was 12-4. The staff included Pitt coach Paul Chryst's brother, Geep.
When Panthers linebackers coach Ken Flajole was named coordinator in St. Louis, he brought House with him. But when the Rams fired coach Steve Spagnuolo three years later, House started looking for a job. He was drawn to Pitt.
“I knew of Paul,” he said. “I didn't know Paul.”
But he persistently called Chryst until he was named defensive backs coach last year.
“I knew I wanted to come back to college,” House said. “In the NFL, it was like a Ph.D in football, but it's a job. I did feel like the thing about college that is pretty neat is you did feel like you were affecting society. You are not always doing that in the NFL.”
House coaches with plenty of energy, shouting instructions, reprimanding players and meting out punishment in the form of the dreaded up-downs.
“Sometimes, I do need to step back and be a little calmer,” he said.
As defensive coordinator, House replaced Dave Huxtable, who threw a sleeping blanket on the floor of his office last summer and often slept there.
His priorities in order, House promises he won't do the same.
“I got married for a reason,” he said. “Every successful head coach I've seen, they are pretty balanced. I don't think a lot of good decisions are made after 10 o'clock.”
House said he's a lucky man.
“I am one of the few people in the world where you can love what you're doing and be jacked up coming to work,” he said. “There were only seven days that I wasn't excited to come to work (last season) — the seven days after a loss.”
Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.
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