PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — Ask Clairton alumnus Trenton Coles if his Bears will continue their record winning streak this year, and he’ll respond with guarded optimism.
“I don’t know,” he chuckled when we prodded him about those 63 victories, 47 of which were fueled by him. “More than likely…they’ve got a lot of work to do. I was at their camp. They should be all right. They have a lot of young guys.”
Ask the redshirt freshman defensive back if he’s ready to aid the Panthers in their secondary, and those reservations turn into resolve.
“I’m comfortable now because last year I was thinking too much,” he told the media earlier in training camp. “I’m just playing. I’m not thinking now. That’s why I’m doing better.”
Coles (6’3″, 175 lbs.), the next subject of our “Freshman 15” series, helped the “Bout Dat” Bears piled up district and state championships, and now he wants to someday lead a unit that knows a thing or two about relying heavily upon underclassmen.
Those Clairton teams featured some of the fastest athletes in the state, and Coles was no exception. The No. 43 recruit in Pennsylvania’s 2012 class according to 247Sports, he averaged nearly 20 yards per catch as an All-PIAA senior wideout and, as a junior, earned gold medals in the 100- and 200-meter dashes during track season.
He repeated as the WPIAL 100-meter champ despite a knee injury that forced him to miss part of the 2011 PIAA Class A Football Final and all of the 2011-12 basketball season.
However, as he admitted, even his innate speed didn’t prepare him for everything that awaited him at his first collegiate training camp a year ago.
“I’m studying more. I know the defense. I plant faster. Once I played on this level, it got easier to me,” Coles said after practice on the South Side last week. “The tempo is faster, remembering the plays was real tough for me, but now that I’ve gotten past the first one, everything is much easier. I’m adapting.”
According to Coles, defensive coordinator Matt House, entering his first full season at the position since being promoted to replace Dave Huxtable, has an approach of simplicity that helped him this off-season.
“Playing for Coach Huxtable was tough. His defense was a lot more complex,” he explained. “With Coach House…we have the same concepts, it’s just easier. When you know the plays, you can play faster. Last year it just seemed like not everybody knew the defense.
“It’s the same calls, just different names. It’s easier.”
Thanks to his improved football IQ, not to mention about 20 extra pounds, Coles earned the right to line up as part of a pass defense that already looked formidable entering this season after ranking 20th nationally in that category last year. Look for him as an extra cornerback in Pitt’s nickel and dime packages, and he hopes to see regular playing time on special teams as well.
“The young guys are coming along fast. All the [Clairton] guys are out there competing for jobs,” All-ACC safety Jason Hendricks said.
Friendly competition was the best thing that could have happened to Coles. Pure freshman Titus Howard, one of several Clairton teammates who impressed head coach Paul Chryst this summer, was initially placed ahead of him by Chryst on the depth chart.
“They put him ahead of me to make me work. I’ve just got keep pushing, and I’ll get better,” Coles said of his aspirations to be a full-time corner.
No matter why Howard was higher in the pecking order, the decision obviously has had the desired effect. Coles has worked religiously on improving his vision, among other finer points of pass coverage.
“I’m working on my backpedals and certain reads. Bad eyes will kill you in the secondary,” he said. “Sometimes I want to jump a route I’m not supposed to, but I’m working on my eyes and trying to get better overall.”
“He’s shown that he can make plays. The next evolution of growth for him is doing that consistently,” Chryst added.
His most valuable takeaway from Clairton’s ongoing dynasty has been playing alongside young men of Howard’s caliber since he was six years old. As they enter the next chapter of their football careers together, there’s no homesickness, and, as is the Clairton way, there’s no complacency, either.
“You do so much work to get to the first team. Once you get it, and they trust you can go out there and make plays…it’s fun. It can get a little nerve-wracking. Sometimes [your opponent] will make a play on you, and that’s nerve wracking, but the competition isn’t nerve-wracking,” Coles said.
When No. 11 Florida State rolls into Heinz Field in one week, Coles and the Panthers’ secondary must wrack the nerves of what must be an empathetic figure: novice Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston.
Like the Clairton prospects suiting up for Pitt, Winston will take the field for FSU with very high expectations for someone yet to play a collegiate game.
“I have to just keep competing and keep learning. You can never know too much,” Coles said.
We’ll know a lot about where Pitt stands when we see how well Coles and the rest of these young Bears bear that first big ACC test.
(Contact me at email@example.com and/or follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)