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Kevin Gorman: New Pitt D-coordinator Randy Bates trying to get Panthers to speak same language

August 20, 2018 GMT

Randy Bates didn’t install a new system so much as he learned a language.

After a dozen years as Northwestern’s linebackers coach, Bates’ biggest adjustment since becoming Pitt’s new defensive coordinator in January was adopting new nomenclature so the biggest changes wouldn’t fall upon his players.

“It was all on me,” Bates said. “I had to learn how we communicate. I was speaking English and they were speaking French, so I had to learn how to speak French. You have to explain without an interpreter, and it’s pretty damn hard. ... My French is getting there.”

Language aside, what isn’t foreign to Bates is how to follow a 5-7 season with a 10-win campaign -- which Northwestern did in 2015 -- and something the Panthers are trying to duplicate this fall.

Pitt is counting on reversing its results, especially after allowing 18 or more points in four losses and suffering three defeats by six points or fewer. The Panthers ranked 69th in total defense (396.6 yards a game) and 105th against the pass (254.2) last season under Josh Conklin, who left after three seasons at Pitt to become head coach at Wofford.

Those defensive rankings have been the head-scratcher under Pat Narduzzi, who was notable for his defenses under Mark Dantonio at Cincinnati and Michigan but has struggled to stop opponents at Pitt.

The Panthers haven’t lacked for talent, not when names such as linemen Tyrique Jarrett and Ejuan Price, linebackers Bam Bradley, Matt Galambos and Nicholas Grigsby and defensive backs Ryan Lewis, Avonte Maddox, Lafayette Pitts and Jordan Whitehead are all in NFL training camps.

No wonder Narduzzi downplayed Pitt’s talent while talking up the depth on his defense, where he believes the Panthers can go two-deep at every position with a drastic drop-off. That has created competition for first-team reps in training camp, and Bates suggested there could be some surprises in the starting lineup come September.

But Narduzzi knows Pitt will only be as good as its defense allows.

“To me, it’s measured in, Do you win a championship or not?” Narduzzi said. “It’s not how good a guy is. You can have a great defense, but if you go 5-7 nobody cares. You’ve got a crappy defense. It doesn’t matter where those people are; it’s where the team is. When we get to a championship game, you can talk about defense and I’ll jump up and down.”

Bates already is jumping and down, with players enjoying the energy and excitement he brings and Narduzzi talking about his “fresh ideas” to a Pitt defense that is schematically the same but is concentrating more on tackling and technique. The Panthers promise to play with more aggression this fall, putting the pressure on their opponents.

“Everyone is more willing to take shots,” fifth-year senior linebacker Elijah Zeise said. “We’re not afraid to make mistakes.”

Neither is Bates, who said he has relied on Narduzzi to teach him the defense but has benefited from the freedom to figure it out on the fly, learning both a new language and from his own mistakes.

“Pat has done a great job of teaching me the defense and where to go with it,” Bates said, “and he’s kind of backed off and let me run the defense and let me fail, if you will. ...

“It’s the same defense. It’s just a different guy calling it.”

One who is trying to parlez-vous francais his way into getting the Panthers to speak the same language on defense.