- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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PITTSBURGH -- Todd Graham's new no-huddle, "high-octane" offense is drawing a lot of attention at Pittsburgh. But can the Panthers stop anybody?
It's a fair question, given the background for Graham and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson. When they were at Tulsa together for the previous four years, the Golden Hurricane annually had one of the top offenses in the country. But the defense never ranked above 74th in yards allowed and twice finished 107th or below in that span. They were also 74th or lower each year in points allowed and 89th or lower every season in pass efficiency defense.
Will those trends continue with the Panthers? To be fair, Tulsa faced some wide-open offenses and creative playcallers in Conference USA, including Dana Holgorsen's Houston, June Jones's SMU and Larry Fedora's Southern Miss teams. As we saw last season, a lot more Big East teams plays things closer to the vest with the ball.
Also keep in mind that Tulsa's defense played many more snaps than most because its offense scored so much and so quickly. Graham, who rose through the coaching ranks on the defensive side of the ball, says things will be different at Pitt.
"We made a conscious decision when we went to Tulsa that we we were going to score points," he said. "I knew that was going to take its toll on the defense a little bit, and it did. The difference here is that we, as a program, are far ahead of where we were at Tulsa in terms of personnel."
Graham said the defense has actually dominated most of the spring so far and that it should be a strength of the team. He and Patterson love the defensive line talent on hand. Graham called tackle Chas Alexcih "unbelievable" and also heaps praise on Aaron Donald, Myles Caragein, Tyrone Ezell and Khaynin Moseley-Smith.
"That gives us five solid guys inside," Patterson said. "We've never had this kind of depth or personnel. To me, that's the biggest difference. The game is still won up front."
Pitt will attack from more positions than it did under Dave Wannstedt, whose 4-3 philosophy was based around getting pressure solely from the defensive front. While that often produced good results -- three Panthers defensive linemen won or shared the Big East defensive player of the year award the last two seasons -- Wannsted was sometimes criticized for not mixing coverages and adapting to spread offenses well. Those problems surfaced against Brian Kelly's Cincinnati teams and against Utah in last season's opener.
Under Graham and Patterson, Pitt will use a 3-4 base with the ability to change looks. That's mainly because of two hybrid positions -- the "panther" who can move between linebacker and defensive end, and the "spur," which is a blend of safety and linebacker. Patterson said that's designed to counter offenses that have been increasingly more varied in their personnel groupings and formations and will allow Panthers to keep their best players on the field without substituting for different packages.
"We dont have to let the offense dictate to us," he said. "We control it."
Those positions can also be used to blitz from different angles, something Wannstedt's defenses rarely did.
"Everybody likes getting after the quarterback," safety Jarred Holley said. "I think this will be a good changeup for our defense."
Finding the right guys to play those hybrid positions is key. The coaches see Brandon Lindsey as perfect for the panther role, while Bryan Murphy has looked good there this spring. Todd Thomas and Greg Williams are top candidates for spur. Lindsey, Thomas and Williams are all limited by injuries this spring, which could slow their learning curve at the new positions.
One problem Pitt must address is linebacker, which is not particularly deep or decorated. The linebackers had trouble covering receivers in the passing game last year.
"In their defense, they've had four linebacker coaches in four years," Patterson said. "We've tried to break them down and get them to buy into our way of doing things.
"We've taken some of our maybe lesser athletic guys and put them in the boundary, so we've reduced the amount of grass they've got to cover. We've put our more athletic guys to the field side, so now they can make those plays in space and we don't get those matchup problems."
The bottom line is that Graham and Patterson won a lot of games at Tulsa despite the sometimes ugly defensive numbers. Graham would gladly take those results at Pitt, but he doesn't think the defense will be the low-energy counterpart to his high-octane offense.
"We're not going to go gut our defense just to come in and score points," he said.