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Pitt coordinator House rebuilds defense with depth

| Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014, 8:21 p.m.

Matt House refuses to look behind him. Perhaps because the view isn't pretty.

Pitt's second-year defensive coordinator has the task of rebuilding a unit that was deficient in three key statistical categories last season.

• Sacks — Pitt was 11th in the ACC with 25, and 18 of those came from players no longer on the team.

• Turnovers — Last in the 14-team conference, with 16. Pitt was one of only five teams with a negative margin (minus-1).

• Third-down conversions — The opponent turned 38.3 percent into first downs, 10th in the ACC.

Change has arrived after the departure of six starters, but the plan formulated by coach Paul Chryst when House was hired two years ago remains in place, with its intended result.

Not on the field — that will be determined by the next 12 games, starting against Delaware on Saturday at Heinz Field. But the part that was a Chryst mandate: Play a lot of guys.

House did that last year, allowing 20 passing touchdowns (11th in the ACC). The good news is the two-deep depth chart is loaded with players who wear scars from last season but may be better for the experience. A total of 11 players who figure prominently in House's plans had extensive playing time, if not starting time, last year.

“Not just played but played when the game was on the line,” Chryst said.

House said the biggest lesson he learned as a rookie coordinator is to stick with the plan, no matter the noise around him.

“Don't knee-jerk react. Don't panic,” he said.

And keep looking forward.

Junior cornerback Lafayette Pitts, who has been a regular since his redshirt freshman season in 2012, regressed to only four pass breakups last season after having nine and an interception the previous year.

With his experience, Pitts will carry a heavy load, lightened a bit by House's insistence on forgetting the past.

“As far as coaching the kid, you hate to ever go backwards,” House said. “Every year is a different team. It is a different group of guys in that huddle and a different personality.

“He has gotten better. He certainly has a good approach to things.”

Pitt also will rely on senior linebackers Anthony Gonzalez and Todd Thomas for big plays. Both arrived at Pitt four years ago with backgrounds on offense. Gonzalez, in fact, scored a touchdown as a wildcat quarterback for former coach Todd Graham in '11, and Thomas was an all-state wide receiver at Beaver Falls. Now they are two of the rocks upon which Pitt is building its defense.

“In their own mind, there is a greater sense of urgency that I have to be the guy,” House said. “Which is a good thing.”

What is needed more than anything are players to step forward amidst the inevitable adversity and make game-changing plays. Other than All-American defensive tackle Aaron Donald, not enough players did that last season.

“Last year, we definitely felt like in crunch time, we knew Aaron was going to make the play,” said Darryl Render, who assumes Donald's place on the line. “And we counted on him to make the play.

“Now the senior linebackers and the older guys up front said, ‘All right. We don't have that security pocket. We have to do what we need to do.' ”

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

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