Rhoads still evolving as defensive coordinator

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It’s been nine seasons since Paul Rhoads arrived at Pittsburgh, eager to start his first opportunity as a college defensive coordinator.

It’s been a little less than three months since Rhoads, after eight years at Pitt, became Auburn’s latest defensive coordinator.

How much can change in nine years?

Rhoads’ answer can be found in a row of three-ring binders resting on a shelf in his office at AU’s athletic department. For Rhoads, the biggest difference is measured in the playbook.

His playbook in his first season at Pittsburgh wasn’t much thicker than his pinky finger, about 100 pages.

“And we didn’t get through that in spring ball,” he said with a laugh. “We may have had that much in by the sixth practice this spring.

This season, Rhoads’ defensive playbook dwarfs that slender volume. At least three inches thick, the playbook contains hundreds of plays, blitzes, coverages and much more.

It’s all part of his development as a coach, Rhoads says. There have been no shortage of learning experiences — including this spring, when Rhoads did his best to unlearn nine years of his own terminology to accommodate AU’s existing defense.

“That comes from being a coordinator for eight years,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I’m any smarter — there’s just experience, and hopefully some wisdom that goes along with that.”

The learning process went smoothly, not only for Rhoads, who has absorbed everything he needed to absorb about Auburn’s scheme, but for the players, who have not only picked up on Rhoads’ changes to the defense but have also adjusted to the new coach’s teaching style.

“We’ve got a ways to go, but they responded well,” he said. “I think they welcomed me. I believe by now, they understand me: How I teach, how I coach, my methodology.

“I think that’s awfully important if we’re going to be effective.”

Rhoads’ Pittsburgh defenses ranked among the top 10 nationally in total defense three times in his eight seasons with the Panthers. But he says he’s never had a unit with as much top-to-bottom talent as this year’s Auburn defense.

The thing that makes this unit so special, in Rhoads’ eyes, is its speed. Speed has always been a hallmark of Auburn’s defense, and speedy players like linebacker Tray Blackmon and linemen Sen’Derrick Marks and Antonio Coleman are the product of that philosophy.

But speed isn’t everything. Rhoads wants his players to continue playing fast, but he demands they also play smart.

“If I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, I’ve got no chance to play fast,” he said. “Sometimes, a guy will play like a blind dog in a meathouse: He’ll just go somewhere fast.

“Sometimes he gets lucky and makes a play, but a lot of times he ends up hurting you. If our kids become the smart, intelligent players they’re going to become in our system, they’re going to play faster and faster.”

Rhoads devoted spring practice to reinforcing that lesson. By the end of the spring, the results spoke for themselves.

“I don’t think a defense can play fast unless they truly understand what they’re doing,” he said. “I think by the end of the spring, we were playing faster as a team.”

It’s just one more lesson, nine years in the making.

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