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Friday November 21 2014
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Up Close with Pitt head coach Paul Chryst

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Paul Chryst took over the reins of a Pitt program that was reeling from an unprecedented turnover at the top, as the Panthers had four head coaches in the span of just over one year -- not including the two interim coaches who took over when Dave Wannstedt was fired in December 2010 and again when Todd Graham quit just one year later.

Chryst comes from Wisconsin, where the Badgers compiled a 60-19 record (.759) during his six seasons overseeing the offense, which annually ranked among the nation's most prolific and efficient units.  A former starting quarterback for Wisconsin, Chryst and his wife Robin have two daughters, Katy (18) and JoJo (16), and one son, Danny (14). PSR’s Tony DeFazio caught up with Pitt’s new coach before the start of spring practice last month.

PSR: Because this is your first year at Pitt, does this year's spring practice take on any more importance?
Paul Chryst:
For me, because it's the first one, I'm looking forward to just getting through. There's a little bit of anxiety just knowing guys. You want to know everyone's name, and you're working on that, but there's no more importance. Every year it's important and every practice is important because it's an opportnity for each guy to get better.

So you don't want to make more if it, but obviously it's a chance for us to start something, and begin the relationship, begin the season, begin what you hope is a long run. But spring ball is not about me, it's about us. I get to be a part of it.

Each kid's got a window... a five-year window, some four, to go out there and be the best player they can be. For them to go out there and prove something. I love it because it's the most time we can spend with them legally. Any time you get to be with a player and a football, and the football equipment... it's a great time.

Media: What's the most important thing you need to get established? Is it your way of doing things, the pace you like to practice at, etc?
Chryst:
There's that feeling out period where they need to learn, for instance, how or what Coach Hueber wants from his offensive linemen. They're going to have some anxiety of what to expect. I think the best way we can handle that is to explain it, talk to them and show them how the practice is laid out, but you've still got to go through it. So I think that's certainly a component.

I think we'll just try to make it look like football. Get guys in and out of the huddle and getting them to stop thinking and just go out and make plays. And once they start making plays, then we get an idea of who they are as players. Really for us, team-wise, we need to know what this group can do and what their strengths and weaknesses are. So there are a lot of things going through it, but I think there is a natural uncertainty -- maybe anxiety is too strong -- but certainly there's an uncertainty and the only way to get through that is to do it as a group.

PSR: There are some players at different positions. You don't know these players, so was that them coming to you or you looking at numbers and trying to fit guys where you think they belong?
Chryst:
There were guys that came to me and said they wanted to change positions, and my approach on that was, well, I don't know enough to disagree and say, "no stay here because you're a great fit or you wouldn't be a fit somewhere else." My personal opinion is that if a guy wants to be somewhere else, he's not going to do as well at that other spot. In order to give themselves a chance, they've got to be all in. FOr some they'll prove that they made the right move. Others will prove to themselves, "you know what, I tried it and now I've got some peace, so I can go back in and try this again." There's able to be some flux there.

PSR: In your meetings with these guys the past couple months, what have you learned about them off the field?
Chryst:
What I've learned the most is that they are a lot the other groups of football players I've been around. Their names are different, their backgrounds are a little bit different, their stories are a little bit different, but I'm finding that what they want are very similar things and that's very energizing to me.

We're not going to come in here and announce that we're going to do it our way and we can't wait to bring in our guys. I asked to come here. I'm fortunate enough to be here. I knew the guys who were on the roster and I'm excited to be with them. For that senior group, there's some urgency to this because we need to make this because we need to make this year the best year it can be. And there's a great group in terms of numbers and in quality of players. In terms of work, it's already begun, but this the start football-wise of maximizing this season. I'm looking forward to being with this group of seniors.

Media: Has anyone stepped up as far as being leaders?Keith Srakocic / AP
Chryst:
Yeah, there are guys that have stepped up. As a coach, I think you can help guys get there, but I think you also need to just let them do it. We'll get there. There are some guys that are natural leaders, even some of the underclassmen. It's a work in progress, but that doesn't mean that it's not going to be a positive thing.

Media: What do you hope to accomplish with your quarterbacks this spring?
Chryst:
Getting to know the system, us getting to know them, and them improving as players. More than anything, improvement is the thing. We don't have a game, fortunately, for awhile, so it's about improving individually and certainly quarterback is no different that anyone else as far as getting to know the system. It's just about going out and playing ball again. This is a great time of the year.

Media: Is there a point after spring practice where you'll sit down and reevaluate what you have, and where you are, compared to what you thought before spring?
Chryst:
Yeah there is, but I think you kind of do that as you go along. It's no different than analyzing a game: the most overrated thing is the idea of waiting until halftime to make your halftime adjustments. So we're not going to wait till the end of spring to make some adjustments. But we've done this for awhile, and we've been in different places, which I think helps. Each place is a bit unique, and we've got a lot of coaches who have been in a lot of different spots, so that part's nice.

We're not going to get impatient and scrap it after Day 1, but I think as you get going, you'll get a feel. You want to make sure you're maximizing every day, but over the last five days of practice we're not going to look at it and say, "well this is what we're doing because this is our plan." So if there are things to be adjusted, we'll adjust it accordingly. We're not splitting the atom here. It'll be fun.

Media: What are some of the biggest adjustments that the offensive linemen are going to have to make from the scheme they played last year compared to what they'll be playing this year?
Chryst:
I think it's a really valid question but I don't know if I can answer it. I didn't spend a lot of time watching or caring about what they were running last year. I watched the film and I want to get a feel for the players. I think there are some guys, some of the older guys, who have been with it and this will be similar to what they were doing before a couple years ago.

But spring ball is a great time for this. You go back and you restart everything. One great piece of advice I got was when I was coaching in San Diego, and Roman Fortin, a longtime veteran center, was talking about the length of an NFL training camp. He said, "You know, Paul, every now and then I still need it. This is my 14th year in the league and I still need to go over my first step and work on pad level." And my point to that is that if the basics are worthwhile to a 14-year NFL veteran, then certainly in college you can do that.

So I really don't care what it was. This is what we're going to ask of our linemen: to be run blockers, pass blockers, pull, all that. We're going to ask them to do it, so we're going to teach them. We believe in it, we believe it fits these guys and we really don't care what they have to do through to get to that point. That's what's fun.

They're linemen. They like any attention.

Media: How much of the playbook will you try to get installed this spring? All of it?
Chryst:
 Naw... you hear coaches say, "We want to get 60 or 70 percent of the playbook in" -- that's not real. We're going to teach the basics, we're going to see what they can handle, then we'll push them a little bit further. We all grow getting out of our comfort zone. And then we'll adjust to it.

IPitt Athletics don't even know when you get into a season if you get your whole playbook in. It keeps evolving.

PSR: Dan Mason is trying to return from what a lot of people thought was a career-threatening injury. Can you talk about his progress?
Chryst:
I'm anxious. As I traveled around to the local high schools, it was neat for me to hear all the area coaches tell me what they thoght of Dan. It was a real thing. And I don't really know him. I've gotten the history and I've seen him, and there's a guy that this is really important to. I'm looking forward to it. He's going to go out and he'll practice. I'm anxious to see how it goes, and I think hes anxious to see as well. So that'll be an on-going story this spring. He's got a lot of respect and appreciation for understanding his situation and what he's going through. It's a neat thing and hopefully it ends up being a good thing for Dan.

PSR: How many positions are open heading into the spring?
Chryst:
Eleven on offense, 11 on defense. They great thing about sports is that every game you’ve got to prove yourself.

This is not a great time for the National Football League. America's richest and most successful sports league is being taken to task by everyone from media to protest groups to longtime fans.
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From 2004 to 2011, the Steelers led the league or finished second in fewest points allowed per game five times. Those squads were marshaled by Steelers greats such as nose tackle Casey Hampton and receiver Hines Ward, who recently made headlines for calling his old team's defense “soft.”
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