Pitt draws on Cheyenne tradition to inspire defensive players

Chris Peak, Publisher

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Save for those steeped in Cheyenne history and tradition, few Pitt fans probably knew what defensive coordinator Josh Conklin meant when he started tweeting about “dog soldiers” a few weeks ago.

After each of the last four practices, Conklin has tweeted something like this:

That tweet came after Saturday’s scrimmage; clearly, redshirt junior linebacker Elijah Zeise had a strong performance - “He had a great scrimmage the other day,” Pat Narduzzi said Tuesday - but the meaning of “dog soldier” wasn’t entirely clear. Even Narduzzi said he didn’t know what was behind the tweets.

Conklin clarified things on Tuesday.

“We’ve got what we call ‘CATs,’ which are crimes against the team, and then we’ve also got ‘Dogs’ - those are the guys that are making big-time plays,” Conklin said. “So we took that a bit further and gave them a bit of a history lesson about the Cheyenne Indian dog soldier, which was a dog soldier in the Cheyenne Indian who would stick their stake in the ground and would not leave.”

The dog soldiers are almost mythical in Cheyenne tradition. Pulitzer Prize-winning Kiowa novelist N. Scott Momaday said in the PBS special The West that “the dog soldiers were elite military organizations in the tribe. They were the last line of defense for the people.”

Momaday continued that, in battle, the dog soldiers would use a sacred arrow to mark a point in the ground, a territory which they would not yield.

That’s the kind of pride Conklin and the Pitt defensive staff want the players to take, so they quantified on-field performance and made it a competition.

“Part of the hashtag we’ve been using is ‘No surrender, no retreat,’ and really just trying to emphasize to our guys the importance of finishing, making plays,” Conklin said. “So they get points for the ‘Dogs’ and they get points for the crimes against the team. They have a little competition going between the position groups and then every day they have a competition going between themselves for the dog soldier. We thought, let’s take it a step further and give it a little publicity.

“They’ve enjoyed it and, like we thought they would, when we started sending their picture out, they really got into it. They like it now. It’s been good.”

Conklin has tweeted “Dog Soldiers of the Day” for each the last four practices, including two scrimmages. Senior cornerback Avonte Maddox and senior linebacker Quintin Wirginis shared the honor after the second spring scrimmage two weeks ago. Redshirt freshman defensive end was recognized after the next practice. Junior safety Jordan Whitehead earned it last Thursday and Zeise was the top performer in Saturday’s scrimmage.

“We probably have a list of seven or eight different categories where you can get your ‘Dog’ points,” Conklin said. “The obvious one would be an interception or a fumble, but ones that may not go as noticed as the fumble - the strip attempts, the rakes, the PBU’s, ball disruption. We’re monitoring all of that, just getting guys to understand the importance of it, and then we try to show it on tape as much as we can. It does reinforce things you’re trying to get taught.”

Of course, the points go the other way, too.

“A crime against the team would be a third down and you give up the third down because you missed an assignment or you give up an explosive play. And it’s got to be a blown assignment or a blown coverage; a missed tackle would be another one. And a loaf - if you’re not running to the football, that’d be a crime against the team. We have probably eight or nine categories that we monitor there as well.”

In all, the tweets and the scoring and the competition serve a few purposes. They reinforce the need for certain on-field actions - adhering to assignments, going after the ball, not loafing, etc. - while also drawing some pride from an old tradition based on battle and standing your ground. On top of that, it gives the players an extra something to play for during spring camp, when the first game is still a long time away.

“You try to pride yourself on being a teacher and being an educator, and I used to always enjoy going to teachers and professors in college that would give you something different all the time and keep changing it up,” Conklin said. “We try to change it up and try to keep it fresh. They like that and it gives them some competition when you don’t have a game at the end of the tunnel. It just gives them something to kind of shoot for and it’s been good.”

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