Pitt defense, minus Donald, starting over
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.”