Pitts and Maddox
The defensive system Pat Narduzzi and defensive coordinator Josh Conklin are implementing is expected to free players up to make plays. They'll be able to focus on doing one thing on each play, as opposed to the system ran by Matt House and the old regime which was frivolously complex.
The perceived simplicity of the defense requires more accountability and responsibility from each member of the defense--especially the cornerbacks. Narduzzi's corners are primarily required to not only man up with the opposing team's wideouts, but also play press coverage.
Enter redshirt senior Lafayette Pitts and sophomore Avonte Maddox. Each likes his new role.
"We’re getting more engaged and letting the receiver know that we’re going to be in their face all day," Pitts said. "When he’s coming out of the huddle, there’s going to be a guy in his face not letting him get a free release off the ball."
Both Maddox and Pitts admitted they would've liked to have played more press coverage in the past. The scheme seems to suit Maddox in particular.
"I’m little but I like to run up and hit people more than I like to cover," Maddox said. "So other than that, that’s what I show when I’m playing nasty."
Most importantly, playing press-man serves a strategic purpose beyond engaging the cornerbacks in the game.
"It limits the route tree," Pitts said. "We’re trying to go to the fade and take away the outside release, so mostly inside, breaking routes we’re trying to eliminate."
Offensive line depth
If any group has been impacted by the injury so far, in a relative sense, it's the offensive line. Jaryd Jones-Smith was lost for the year with a knee injury before training camp began, Alex Bookser has dealt with some minor issues and Artie Rowell has received days down as he works his way back from the torn ACL that ended his 2014 season.
That's not to say any of these injuries are of serious concern, as Narduzzi made it clear only Jones-Smith's injury is the only one that will carry into the season at this point. Nothing else has been more severe save for a few practices missed here and there.
While no coach wants to see players hurt and missing practice, especially in this crucial early period of practice, it also affords the staff an opportunity to learn more about the depth available.
Offensive line coach John Peterson said he has seven or eight players in his group that look the part of the regular offensive line rotation, but he's been able to see what he has in other players. Notably, Brian O'Neill and Mike Herndon.
O'Neill converted from tight end to tackle over the summer while Herndon spent his redshirt freshman year as a defensive lineman but moved to offense before the spring. Peterson says the two are still learning but seems to like how they're approaching the process.
"The thing with those guys is they care," Peterson said. "When you care about something, their actions speak for it. They spend an awful amount of time training, learning and making mistakes but learning with those mistakes."
Alex Officer, who took first-team reps at center during the spring practices while Rowell was unable to practice, has continued to show off his versatility as well. Officer will likely start at right guard once Rowell is fit for full-time duty, but has shown he can do whatever's asked of him on the line so far.
"The center position is a position where you better know every position and Alex does," Peterson said. "Alex is a very intelligent football player and naturally has gone from guard to center and can even go at tackle."
There were significantly fewer orange jerseys spotted around Pitt's practice Thursday. Notably, Jordan Whitehead, Chris James and Alex Bookser all returned to practice.
Rowell was not in an orange jersey, but also not in pads as he was limited.
New on the front, though, was Darryl Render whose left arm was in a sling. He did not participate in Thursday's practice but Narduzzi said the injury is day-to-day and the starting defensive tackle will be "fine."
After he finished his radio hit with 93.7 The Fan, Narduzzi took the media through the new and improved meeting rooms inside the Pitt facility at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex. If anything stood out, it's an attention to detail unseen with the Panthers in recent seasons.
The obvious examples came from the rooms occupied by Conklin and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, featuring hundreds of terminologies pertaining to schemes, adjustment, personnel and everything in between written on dry-erase boards hung on the magnetic walls. No more than an hour after practice ended, Chad Voytik was in one
But something more subtle, but no less meaningful, was a mission of Narduzzi to outfit each room with the same equipment. That includes telestrators to simply having the same kind of table in each room instead of the potpourri of round, square and differently-sized surfaces thrown in each room.