Share This Page

Pitt defense, minus Donald, starting over

| Sunday, Aug. 3, 2014, 9:39 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media file
PItt defensive coordinator Matt House during practice Saturday, August 10, 2013, in the South Side.

Young, full of ideas and eager to learn, Pitt's Matt House welcomed the extra work and responsibility last year when he was promoted to defensive coordinator.

But on the threshold of his second season in charge, he didn't count on the job getting tougher about every other week.

First, junior defensive end Ejuan Price, one of the team's most gifted pass rushers, fell victim last month to his second pectoral injury in two years and is lost for the season. Depth on the line? That's a luxury House may not enjoy this season.

Then, House returned from vacation last week just in time to hear more bad news: Sophomore cornerback Titus Howard, a player willing to inject toughness into the Pitt secondary, was suspended for the season for violating a team rule. Howard was No. 1 on the depth chart at a position where numbers are thin.

House was unavailable to comment for this story, and it was no wonder. With camp starting in earnest Monday, no one on the Pitt coaching staff will be busier than the defensive coordinator. There is a lot of work to do.

Even though it didn't always play that way, that wasn't a bad defense House assembled last season, finishing 34th in the nation in average yards allowed (367.5). But six starters, plus Price and Howard, are gone from it.

All-American tackle Aaron Donald, a first-round draft choice of the St. Louis Rams, was responsible for most of the big plays. But even with Donald, Pitt managed only 16 turnovers in 13 games. Somewhere among the returning players, Pitt must find more game-changing plays while making sure players get the ball carrier on the ground a bit quicker.

“As a staff, we thought we didn't do a great job of tackling,” coach Paul Chryst said.

Still, there are players who are no strangers to the college game. Linebacker Todd Thomas (23 starts) and cornerback Lafayette Pitts (25) have been patrolling the defense regularly for the past two seasons. Senior free safety Ray Vinopal was second on the team in tackles (83) and first in interceptions (three) last year. Linebacker Anthony Gonzalez made plays while running forward and backward, with five quarterback hurries, five pass breakups and a 37-yard interception return for a touchdown against Duke.

The four-man line is the least experienced unit. Only senior defensive end David Durham has started more than two games (11). Sophomore end Shakir Soto (6-foot-3, 270 pounds) looks the part, but the reserves must grow up fast.

At tackle, Darryl Render filled in occasionally for Donald with some success, and junior K.K. Mosley-Smith could be a run-stuffer at 6-foot, 310 pounds.

Football is a team game in every case, but never more than in Pitt's first season without Donald.

“We don't have that eraser,” Chryst said, “that one guy right now. So, you go back to the base principles of team defense.”

The challenge is clear:

“Guys are going to have to do their job,” Chryst said, “and then some.”

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

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.