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Eyes on Texas: Learn Pete Kwiatkowski’s name, because his defenses usually spell trouble

Overshown on PK: ‘If I could get coach in a couple of armbands, I’d call this a successful year.’

Agent Zero loves the new defensive coordinator, even if he’s gun-shy about pronouncing his name.

“PK, he’s a good dude. He’s a great coach. I love him to death,” Texas linebacker DeMarvion Overshown said. “I tell people all the time, he sets people up for success.”

PK stands for Pete Kwiatkowski, which phonetically sounds like quit-COW-ski. Learn his name properly, Texas fans, if you’re going to yell at him on Saturdays.

We won’t be hearing much from Texas' defensive coordinator this season, though. UT assistants won’t be doing in-season interviews, per coach Steve Sarkisian’s request. But we should be hearing a lot about the defense, if PK’s history is any guide.

At least Overshown is ready to get Kwiatkowski dressed for success. If PK wore plaid, you’d swear he was a lumberjack on body type alone.

“If I could get coach in a couple of armbands,” Overshown said, “I’d call this a successful year.”

New Texas defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski was the architect of some of the Pac-12's top defenses over the past seven years, and he likes what he has at Texas. "He puts us in position where everybody on the field can make a play," defensive tackle Keondre Coburn said. "There’s no excuse that you can’t make a play. If you can’t make a play, it’s on you.”

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At Washington the past seven seasons, Kwiatkowski was the architect of some of the Pac-12’s best defenses. His units ranked No. 1 in the league in scoring defense from 2015 to 2018, third in 2019 and second in the four-game pandemic season in 2020. During that time, the Huskies had 17 defensive NFL draft picks, 10 of those going in the first two rounds. 

Kwiatkowski is also widely admired in the Pacific Northwest for being selfless.

After the 2017 season, Washington coach Chris Peterson believed he was about to lose up-and-coming assistant Jimmy Lake to another team. 

Kwiatkowski and Lake weren’t just colleagues. Lake played for Eastern Washington at the same time Kwiatkowski was there as a defensive assistant in the late 1990s. Kwiatkowski encouraged Lake to get into coaching when his playing days were over, and he’s been a mentor ever since.

So when it looked as if Lake would leave the Huskies, Kwiatkowski voluntarily gave up defensive play-calling duties for Lake to advance in Seattle.

During his seven seasons in Washington, Pete Kwiatkowski coached defensive units that were typically among the Pac-12's best. They ranked No. 1 in the league in scoring defense in 2015-18, third in 2019 and second in the four-game pandemic season in 2020.

“You have to be around (Kwiatkowski) to find out how unique and special he is,” Petersen told the Seattle Times in 2018. “A guy that’s as good as anybody in the country to say, ‘Yeah, I don’t care about calling the game; I just want to coach ball and be around good guys.’ How many guys say that and really mean it? Those are few and far between.”

Up to that point, Peterson had leaned on Kwiatkowski something fierce. In four seasons at Boise State and the first four at Washington, Kwiatkowski’s defenses allowed 18.7 points per game. But PK happily shared the defensive coordinator title, and Washington kept winning.

“I put a lot of value in who I work for and work with,” Kwiatkowski said last month in his only interview thus far at Texas. “As we all know, it’s hard to win football games. And I want to do it with good people on a common cause. Win, lose or draw, it’s about the process, and you get back at it. And so I place a lot of value in that.”

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When Peterson abruptly retired after the 2019 season, Washington made Lake the head coach. Kwiatkowski logged one more season, and then Sarkisian called.

“Texas is known for its big-time high school football, and I just wanted a new challenge,” Kwiatkowski said. 

He grew up a big Notre Dame fan and was amazed by Heisman winner Earl Campbell when the Irish and Horns met in the 1978 Cotton Bowl. 

“I became a huge Earl Campbell fan when I was young when he played for the Houston Oilers. Saw him take Isiah Robertson’s soul on ‘Monday Night Football,’” Kwiatkowski said. “It was curiosity. When Sark called, it was time to make that move.”

PK almost wilted in the Texas heat, and players said initially he wasn’t all too vocal. Yelling and screaming works only to a point, though. 

August:Quiet Pete Kwiatkowski hoping to crank up volume with Texas Longhorns’ defense

“When I was younger, I was always a lot more vocal,” Kwiatkowski said. With age comes maturity. The players all want to perform well, the 55-year-old noted. “The one thing that will get me fired up is the lack of effort, lack of focus.”

During practice windows open to reporters, defensive coaches had the Horns work on rugby-style tackling with a donut-shaped tackling dummy that rolled downfield. That alone isn’t new, per se. Proper tackling requires repetition and, ultimately, it’s up to the players.

Kwiatkowski does hammer home the importance of pursuit and gang tackling. 

From 2014 to 2019, Washington ranked in the top three in the Pac-12 in forced fumbles. Turnovers, who creates them and who loses them, usually determine who wins most games nowadays.

“Most of the fumbles that are forced, we call them chase tackles,” Kwiatkowski said. “You’re coming from the side or behind where the runner is focused on somebody else. The next guy is the one that’s getting the ball out.”

Kwiatkowski and his defensive assistants found plenty of workable parts upon arrival in Austin. The defensive line might be the strongest unit on Texas’ entire roster. Keondre Coburn and Moro Ojomo are the starting tackles with Jacoby Jones, Alfred Collins and LSU transfer Ray Thornton coming off the edge. 

“I’m actually excited to see how this defense actually runs against another team,” says Texas defensive lineman Keondre Coburn, pressing Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders in 2019.

“I’m actually excited to see how this defense actually runs against another team,” Coburn said. “For us, we’ve been practicing for nine months, going through all types of stuff with coach PK. Different styles and different offenses, and I’ve seen it work against them. He puts us in position where everybody on the field can make a play. 

“There’s no excuse that you can’t make a play,” Coburn added. “If you can’t make a play, it’s on you.”

Kwiatkowski is like all modern-day defensive assistants — just win the game, no matter how. “Our goal is to hold an offense to under 20 points,” he said. “It might be a high goal, but that’s our goal, and we’re going to achieve it or not.”

Like Sarkisian, Kwitakowski is low flash, high substance. To maintain an even keel, PK will call defensive plays from the press box on game day. Sarkisian will call the offensive plays directly from the sideline. 

Defensive line is clearly important to this coaching staff. The Horns landed two four-star commitments Monday: Marlin’s Jaray Bledsoe and J’mond Tapp, an edge rusher from Louisiana. Both were considering SEC offers.

Texas’ defense started strong under previous defensive coordinator Todd Orlando in 2017 but faded over the next few seasons. Chris Ash’s unit wound up seventh in Big 12 total defense last season. 

None of that matters now. Kwiatkowski has energized the defensive players. With a fresh set of eyes looking at Big 12 quarterbacks, PK knows he’s got a clear challenge ahead.

“The staff’s been awesome; the kids are awesome. It’s all what you make of it,” Kwiatkowski said. “Austin’s a great city, it’s a great university. I’m looking forward to the challenge of defending Big 12 offenses.”

Contact Brian Davis by phone or text at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com or @BDavisAAS.

Saturday's game

No. 23 Louisiana at No. 21 Texas, 3:30 p.m., Fox, 104.9