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Pitt still learning Matt House's defense

| Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, 7:30 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Jason Hendricks is one of eight returning starters on defense this season.

If you think Pitt goes through head coaches at a maddening pace — three in the past four seasons — take a look at the recent list of defensive coordinators: Matt House is the fourth in as many years, having replaced one-and-done defensive boss Dave Huxtable, who was hired in 2012 after the coaching shuffle of 2011 sent Keith Patterson looking for a new job. In 2010, Phil Bennett ended his three-year term as former coach Dave Wannstedt's coordinator.

House's defense — seasoned and seemingly sure of itself coming into the season — allowed 532 yards in a 58-55 victory at Duke last week. But four interceptions, two of which led to Pitt touchdowns, eased the pain.

“Thank God, we didn't give up 59,” House said.

House, 35, seems to be a better fit for coach Paul Chryst's staff than the abrasive Huxtable, who was told to seek employment elsewhere at the end of last season and now runs the North Carolina State defense. House is not nearly as loud in practice, although he spends so much time connecting with his players that his voice is perpetually hoarse. Also, unlike Huxtable, House didn't sleep in his office during training camp.

The transition has been perilous, with Pitt last in the ACC in touchdowns allowed (16) and total defense (445). The latter number ranks 102nd among 123 FBS schools.

“The kids are still growing,” House said. “Anytime you give up that many points, you come back and take a hard look. There were some things that put us in a position to be sweating in the fourth quarter.”

Senior strong safety Jason Hendricks, one of eight returning starters on defense, said differences emerged this year.

“He wants different things,” Hendricks said. “Not me, per se, but linebackers have different jobs, different fits, the language is a little different. Guys are working hard to get better at it.”

What did work well was Hendricks' video study that led to his interception, one of Pitt's four against Duke.

“He made a great play,” House said. “We actualy had a blitz on, and we (changed the play) to coverage.”

House has retained the 4-3 alignment, although he said uses more 3-4 on third down.

“There is little bit of carryover, not much,” junior free safety Ray Vinopal said. “It's pretty much a lot of new stuff. There is a lot less man-to-man. There are more zones, which is actually a good thing. Instead of chasing guys all over the field, the idea is you pass it (the receiver) to the guy closer to you.

“It can take time to develop the feel of your teammates and how everyone plays to make that happen efficiently, but I think it's a good deal.”

Vinopal said he had “bad eyes” on one of Duke quarterback Brandon Connette's four touchdown passes, but he tries not to concern himself with criticism from outside sources.

“I can't tell people what to think,” he said. “I certainly can't go out there and explain to everyone who wants to hop on Twitter what we are doing in this coverage and that coverage and where I am in this coverage.

“I can't concern myself with the opinions of people who don't actually know what we're running, whether or not they know football or not.

“The talent is there. The scheme is there. We can do it. We have to keep our focus a little better.”

NOTES: Wide receiver Tyler Boyd said he sprained his ankle Monday and sat out practice Wednesday, but he expects to play Saturday against Virginia. “It's a minor sprain,” he said. “I should be up and running (Thursday).” ... Sophomore defensive end Devin Cook suffered an ACL knee injury in the Duke game and is lost for the season.

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