Midway through the spring, the overriding theme of Pitt practice appears to be balls bouncing off the turf, either through errant passes or botched snaps.
Coach Paul Chryst won’t say it, but I will: The defense is ahead of the offense.
To be fair, that’s probably the case on most college teams this spring. Offense requires greater precision and more moving parts than defense. And, at Pitt, quarterback Tino Sunseri is going through his third different offensive system in three springs. Plus, the defense – mainly on the line and in the secondary – looks good and much more opportunistic than last year’s unit that recorded only 21 turnovers.
Offensive lethargy is to be expected, but it’s nothing that requires panic. Concern? Yeah, maybe just a little.
What should be most troubling to Chryst and his staff is that Sunseri has started 26 consecutive games as he approaches his senior season at Pitt, and I dare say there probably isn’t a brighter football mind on campus that doesn’t belong to a coach. He’s grown up around the game, studies it diligently and knows it as well as any of his textbooks.
Given that, it shouldn’t be as difficult to master as it looks.
Chryst remains calm, however, as well he should. The most recent Pitt coach lost his team by criticizing players, but Chryst is smarter and more aware of those around him than Todd Graham. It doesn’t even occur to him to publicly chastise college kids. That’s why, if he ever gets enough good players, he will be a success at Pitt.
Chryst also knows there are five months before the first game, and the Panthers have plenty of time to erase their mistakes. That doesn’t mean improvement is a given; it just means there is hope.
Chryst said the process already started through the marvels of video imagery: He turned on the recorder and showed them what they did wrong.
“Execution took a step back in some of the pass protection stuff,” he said of recent practices. “But it was almost needed to go forward. I thought those guys did a good job of seeing that on film and learning from it.”
Many of the problems have emerged on an offensive line that desperately needs an injection of Chris Jacobson, the sixth-year senior who is recovering from a serious knee injury but should be ready for the season.
The line is much more important this season because the players are required to hold blocks longer. Unlike last year, the quarterback isn’t looking to throw the football about a half-second after the snap. The quarterback will be much more of a target than he was in 2011 when Pitt was last in the nation in sacks allowed (64).
That said, running back Isaac Bennett has looked good, as he continues to replace the injured Ray Graham. Pitt will have some nice depth at that position when Graham recovers and freshman Rushel Shell arrives.
On defense, the line looks to be the strength of the team much as it was in 2011. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald is having a great camp, and safety Ray Vinopal makes plays almost daily. With four very good safeties, including Jarred Holley, Jason Hendricks and Andrew Taglianetti, I wonder how defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable will juggle them all.
Hmmm … maybe I’ll ask him later this week.
See, the news isn’t all bad.
Finally, Chryst gave a simple, but logical answer to a question Tuesday that, I believe, offered a glimpse into his coaching philosophy.
Asked about the challenges facing defensive end T.J. Clemmings, who didn’t play football until his junior year of high school, Chryst acknowledged that there may be a few, but he added, “I’m not going to spend a lot of time trying to overthink that.”
In other words, he can’t do anything about it, so he won’t waste time worrying or trying to do something about a situation he can’t control. Instead, he and defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield wisely will invest their time in trying to turn Clemmings into a productive player.
Now, that’s how you coach. Or, at least, it seems that way from this seat: Take what you are given, don’t worry about where it came from or why looks the way it does and just try to make it better.