Heading into his third season at Pittsburgh, Paul Chryst has found himself making the most coaching moves this offseason.
Last year, it was a span of nearly two months before Chryst promoted Matt House to defensive coordinator--the lone move he had to make.
This time around, he had to fill two vacancies, but he also made three other proactive moves that at the very least, should make the staff more efficient.
It's fair to say that the toughest guy to replace is Bobby Engram. With that said, no one could have predicted that Engram--whose only previous coaching experience was a short stint as a quality control assistant for the San Francisco 49ers--would make the impact on Pitt's receivers the way that he did.
He can be credited in giving Devin Street a rebirth, of sorts. Street had to endure three position coaches in his first three years in the program, before finishing his last two with Engram. Street went on to set a number of Pitt records, as well as earn all-conference honors in back-to-back season. Then, there was the pleasant addition of Tyler Boyd, who set new freshman receiving records at Pitt.
You can also credit Engram as a big factor in why Street was invited to the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. Don't think that Engram, who will be at the Combine as a receivers coach for the Baltimore Ravens, won't help Street out one more time by either drafting him, or being a valuable reference for some other team. The same could also be said for Boyd when his time comes, for the NFL. Provided that Boyd can continue to develop.
There's no question that Greg Lewis has big shoes to fill. And, although San Diego and San Jose State might not be the household names that a BCS school would hope to draw an assistant from, both schools were in California, which regardless of the school, draws a high caliber of receiver. Throw in Lewis' NFL career, combined with his collegiate experience at Illinois and upbringing in the Midwest--Lewis should be able to add another dynamic to the staff, and the team as a whole as Chryst and company look to continue to build on its Midwest recruiting ties.
But lets back up to the first coaching move made, that being strength coach Todd Rice stepping down. Chryst promoted Ross Kolodziej to head strength coach, with Bryan Calhoun as his assistant. Kolodziej brings NFL playing experience, but also played at Wisconsin. The program is at a critical juncture, yet one that it's positioned for--that being the continued development of a big, physical offensive line with big running backs. There's already been some positive praise--even coming from Chryst, who doesn't get excited about much--about the positive impact Kolodziej has had so far.
The other proactive moves made were adding a new defensive backs coach, and a new running backs coach. In 2013, House coached the defensive backs, along with being a coordinator. Joe Rudolph coached the running backs, in addition to his coordinator role on the offensive side. When your top tacklers are safeties, there's some good and bad to it. It's good to know you have safeties that can tackle. You also wonder why they're the ones in position to make tackles--which either come from breakdowns in the pass or run game. There was more of a concern with the pass defense, where Pitt allowed 221.2 passing yards a game--sixth in the ACC. The Panthers produced just eight interceptions, and ranked next to last in pass defense efficiency.
That's where Chryst hopes Troy Douglas, a 22-year coaching veteran, is able to make an impact. Douglas has sent multiple players to the NFL, which can hopefully be one of the by-products of his hire. He also has a personal philosophy of getting his players to go after the ball, to play more aggressively. The bigger picture is simply his coaching experience. That, and the fact he's from Florida should bode well in terms of recruiting. You couldn't ask for a better combination of traits, at this stage of the program.
The other new guy is former NFL running back John Settle. Settle brings a unique combination of NFL experience, a successful tenure at Wisconsin where he nearly had three pupils rush for 1,000 yards in the same season, along with three other seasons in the NFL.
The cupboard isn't bare for Settle, either. Pitt returns both of its top rushers from 2013, James Conner and Isaac Bennett. Pitt also signed three running backs in its 2014 class. Settle doesn't have to reinvent the wheel with any of these guys, but there will be some added expectations with this group. Settle's background combined with the stable of running backs he has seems like a perfect match. Again, we'll let the 2014 season dictate that.
Special teams was a big factor last year. Pitt needs improvement in that area, specifically in its coverage units. Think of the North Carolina game alone, where Pitt allowed two punt returns for touchdowns. Chris Haering has the additional role of special teams coach this year. Who knows what kind of impact he will have. At the very least, it's good to have one person overseeing the entire unit. That's a step in the right direction.
Rudolph, in addition to being coordinator, was responsible for running backs and tight ends. He can go back to focusing on just the tight ends. Not that he had any problems managing the two. The chance to add someone of Settle's caliber is not only an upgrade, but should make Rudolph's job a little easier, not to mention it's his third year in the role. It should be an even easier level of comfort with his personnel, with each passing year.
Brooks Bollinger has decided to step away from football. There's no question that Bollinger did a good job relating to his quarterbacks, and he was also instrumental in recruiting efforts. Like some of the new faces coming in, Bollinger brought some NFL experience. It rubbed off on Tino Sunseri, who had the best season of his career under Bollinger. Tom Savage rejuvenated his career, and was invited to the NFL Combine. Bollinger wasn't the only factor in that, but he was a major on. It leaves a void, but what better person to fill that role than the head coach. Chryst has a background of coaching the quarterbacks in the past, so it shouldn't be much of a transition for him, even though he's got to worry about all positions on the field as a head coach, unlike the times he was a coordinator. Walt Harris did the same.
Chryst certainly didn't choose to lose Engram and Bollinger. There's a chance he has upgraded his staff. I'm not saying that Lewis is a better coach than Engram. That's unfair to say, just as it would be to say the other way around. Chryst replaced Engram with someone who brings similar NFL experience, but also one that his more collegiate experience than Engram brought when he came to Pitt. And before you know it, NFL teams are knocking on his door.
Coaching continuity is key in college football. At the same time, it's a good thing when assistants have short stays at schools. If a particular assistant, in the case of Engram, is that good because of Pitt's performance, you would hope he's good enough to draw interest from the NFL. Sure, you don't want to see him leave. But, if people aren't luring him away to the NFL or for bigger money or a bigger role, you have to wonder. On the flip side, if someone's not getting the job done, you would hope that Chryst would be quick to make a switch for the betterment of the program. That may be the case in the strength and conditioning area.
One thing is consistent with all of Chryst's coaching moves, is that he brought in either experienced guys in the case of Douglas, or guys who have a unique combination of NFL playing experience and coaching experience--a few years removed from the game.
The bright side to that in either case is having a set of new coaches who can easily relate to the players, while showing them the way of where they want to go--the NFL. Also, what Chryst has in terms of his own philosophy. If Chryst showed anything with these hires, he showed not only what he wants in an assistant, but something he wants for his players, too.
Again, not to say that Lewis is an upgrade over Engram. He may be. It seemed in this round of moves, Chryst had some more options. He hired guys who don't have to reinvent the wheel, but guys who should fit in comfortably with Pitt's personnel, in hopes of building on what has been established in Chryst's first two years.