New coordinator Bates brings swagger to Pittsburgh defense

PITTSBURGH (AP) — There’s a professorial aspect to new Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Randy Bates. Maybe it’s the glasses. Maybe it’s the tidy haircut. Maybe it’s the long resume that includes stops at Northwestern and the Naval Academy.

Don’t let the package fool you, though. There’s an edge to Bates that head coach Pat Narduzzi believes will translate to a defense that needs to take a significant step forward if the Panthers want to be considered a legitimate contender in the ACC’s wide open Coastal Division.

Asked Monday if he expects the unit that runs onto the field Saturday for the season opener against Albany to take on a bit of Bates’ energetic personality, Narduzzi — a former defensive coordinator himself — nodded.

“Any time your coordinator is passionate and has energy, it’s going to play a part,” Narduzzi said. “Your kids are going to play like your coordinator, I think. So I think that will be something you’ll see Saturday whether they play with a little different swag and energy. You know, you’re hoping the lights turn on and at 3:30 (Saturday) that’s what you see. They’ve got to be ready to go.”

Though Narduzzi arrived at Pitt with a reputation as one of the top defensive minds in the country, the results on the side of the ball where he made his name have been mixed. The Panthers have bounced from solid (37th overall in 2015) to septic (101st in 2016) to so-so (69th in 2017).

Narduzzi, however, is optimistic the roller coaster is about to stop. So are his players, buoyed both by Bates’ aggressive approach and the lessons learned during a 5-7 season that saw Pitt miss a bowl game for the first time in a decade. This year’s group is older, deeper and — the Panthers insist — more talented.

“I think anyone can make a cake,” senior linebacker Seun Idowu said. “But it’s really the ingredients that you put in that make the difference at the end of the day to what you taste.”

The mixture this time around includes Bates, who spent a decade-plus as one of Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s top lieutenants, and linebacker Quintin Wirginis. The senior was forced to redshirt last season after being suspended for three games, then suffering a “non-football” injury before returning.

Defensive end DeWayne Hendrix called Wirginis the “missing piece” in 2017. Wirginis downplayed the compliment but allowed he has a greater appreciation for the opportunity in front of him after spending last season watching games on television, which he called “heartbreaking.”

“When you want to be on that field and you put in all this work and you can’t, it’s tough,” Wirginis said. “At the same time it was an amazing feeling watching these guys, my brothers, perform.”

Brothers who are more than ready to welcome Wirginis back into the fold. He is one of seven senior starters on defense, a group that has grown up on Narduzzi’s watch. They have taken to Bates and his energetic approach, one that focuses more on winning one-on-one battles than elaborate disguise.

“It’s not a shift in my mentality, it is my mentality,” Bates said. “What was in the past was in the past. We’re going to be aggressive. We’re going to be in the backfield. We’re going to make things happen.”

And make them happen by applying pressure rather than sitting back and trying to avoid giving up a big play. Bates understands mistakes will be made. He can live with them if they’re done for the right reasons. It’s a mindset that’s freeing to his players.

“We’re not in there thinking, ‘Don’t mess up,'” Hendrix said. “We’re just flying around and getting to the ball.”

Do it often enough and the Panthers believe they can play meaningful games into late November and beyond. Outside expectations are low. Not one Pitt defender made the preseason All-ACC team. That’s fine. They’re not star laden. It’s hardly a problem for Bates, who loves the options at his disposal.

“I expect when you look at the statistics you don’t see one guy with 100 tackles and 99 guys with 20,” Bates said. “It’s going to be one of those years where I think you’re going to see production from many different spots.”