PITTSBURGH — Avonte Maddox is always smiling. Always. The Pitt senior cornerback can’t pinpoint the origin of his relentlessly sunny good nature and he doesn’t particularly car,e either. It’s a character trait that doubled as a pretty good defense mechanism at times in 2016 as Maddox and the rest of the Panthers secondary spent far too much time chasing opponents to the end zone.

“Corners have to have a short memory,” Maddox said. “If something bad goes on, it won’t last forever.”

It only seemed that way at times last fall. Pitt finished an impressive 8-5 under Pat Narduzzi almost in spite of a pass defense that gave up 333 yard a game, second-worst among the 128 members of the Football Bowl Subdivision. It made for some long film sessions as head coach Pat Narduzzi, defensive coordinator Josh Conklin and secondary coach Renaldo Hill tried to pinpoint what went wrong.

Yet Maddox refused to give in to negativity. Where’s the joy in that?

“It definitely is hard,” Maddox said. “But being a leader on the team, when you’re down and they’re looking at you, it changes the atmosphere. They don’t want to see someone they look up to down. So I always keep a smile on my face. It’s not that I’m faking it. It’s that I know what I have to do to get better.”

To get there, Maddox decided during the offseason it was time to add another level of accountability. So beginning in the spring, Maddox began keeping tabs on how many times the secondary was beaten deep during a given practice. Each time equaled 10 pushups or situps payable by the entire secondary before leaving the field. And Maddox didn’t just count full 11-on-11 scrimmages. He counted 7-on-7 drills too.

Asked if that’s fair to the defense considering quarterbacks don’t face a pass rush in 7-on-7s, meaning they can take their sweet time before deciding where to go, and Maddox just laughed. Making it hard is kind of the point.

“You’ve got to make it a challenge,” he said.

One Maddox expects to face on a weekly basis starting in the 2017 season opener on Saturday against Youngstown State. The Penguins reached the FCS title game last fall and have plenty of experience coming back. It’ll be a warmup of sorts for what looms in mid-September when the Panthers face No. 6 Penn State and welcome No. 10 Oklahoma State in consecutive weeks.

Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley threw for 332 yards against the Panthers last fall, though a late end zone interception by Ryan Lewis preserved a Pitt win. Mason Rudolph then hung up 540 yards on the Panthers the following Saturday, one of five games in which Pitt gave up at least 400 yards through the air.

Yet Narduzzi didn’t panic or deviate from his plan to rely heavily on man-to-man defense. Sure he tweaked a little, but developing cornerbacks who can win one-on-one matchups became his calling card when he was the defensive coordinator at Michigan State. Narduzzi sees no reason why it can’t work at Pitt as he enters his third year.

There has been progress during training camp, not just physically but mentally.

“Even if a ball goes over their head, I see them come back the next play and make another play,” Narduzzi said. “And that’s going to happen for a secondary. But I feel some little different swagger out of those guys that I didn’t really feel a year ago.”

Still, the Panthers will be forced to play the first three weeks without star safety Jordan Whitehead while he serves a suspension for violating team rules. Highly touted freshman Paris Ford will most likely be redshirted after getting a late start to training camp for undisclosed reasons. Maddox is the only senior in the secondary. Seven of the other eight on Pitt’s two-deep depth chart are freshmen or sophomores recruited by Narduzzi.

That’s a lot of youth. That also might not be a bad thing. Narduzzi brought them in because he believes they can play the system that served Michigan State so well.

“If that’s how they want us to play, that’s how we’re going to play,” sophomore corner Dane Jackson said.

An improved pass rush by the defensive line would certainly help the secondary grow up a little more quickly, and Narduzzi is bullish on his front four. Yet once the ball is in the air, the secondary understands the success or failure of a play is entirely on them. That’s fine. It’s what they signed up for. Maybe last year wasn’t great. It was also last year, not this year.

“It’s been tough times,” Maddox said. “But I feel like things are going to get better now.”


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