East Xtra: Central Catholic grad on the rise as coach

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After finishing his football playing career at the University of Wisconsin in 1994, Todd Orlando had to figure out his next move.

"I didn't really know what I wanted to do," Orlando said. "I had talked about maybe being a graduate assistant there [Wisconsin]. I just thought it was time to get back home and start my life."

He quickly found what he wanted to do was teach the game he had spent his life playing.

Orlando is currently in his first year as the defensive coordinator at Utah State University, leading an Aggies defense that finished the 2013 regular season ranked seventh in scoring defense and 12th in total defense in NCAA Division I-A nationally. As a result of his defense's stellar play, he earned a nomination for the Broyles Award, given to college football's assistant coach of the year.

But it was back home, in Pittsburgh, where Orlando laid the ground work on his way to becoming one of the top assistant coaches in the country.

Orlando, who grew up in Squirrel Hill, played guard and linebacker for the 1988 Central Catholic football team that won the first-ever PIAA championship. He led the team in tackles that season, earning The Pittsburgh Press Defensive Player of the Year award.

"He was very intense and very knowledgeable about the game. He studied the game," former Vikings coach John Fischetti said. "You knew back then if he didn't make it to the next level playing, then he could be a good coach."

Fischetti considers Orlando one of the toughest players he has ever seen, fitting his defensive mindset. Early on he saw the passion and intensity Orlando had on the field.

"I think if you asked him he would prefer defense," Fischetti said. "He was a guard on offense and a linebacker on defense, one of those throwback guys."

Playing under coaches such as Fischetti and Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin enabled Orlando to become a student of the game. Upon returning home from Wisconsin, Orlando stumbled upon a coaching opportunity while visiting Central Catholic.

"I was just approached and asked 'Would you like to help out?'" Orlando said. "Dealing with the younger kids and having the experiences I had from all the coaches that had me, I thought I could do it."

He served as the Vikings defensive coordinator for one year before jumping to Fox Chapel under coach Joe Naunchik.

"[Naunchik] really got me in the door in terms of knowing how to do this as a profession, the film study part of it, the training," Orlando said. "He gave me a lot of responsibility when probably a lot of people wouldn't."

Orlando moved up to the college ranks after one year at Fox Chapel, moving to the University of Pennsylvania as a linebackers coach. He also stopped at Connecticut and Florida International prior to taking his current role at Utah State.

The Aggies stand at 8-5 under first-year coach Matt Wells, looking for a victory in the Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 26 against nationally ranked Northern Illinois.

"[Todd] has been a great asset to me as a first-year head coach in stabilizing the defensive side of the ball and the defensive staff room," Wells said. "He's a self-starter and he's a great motivator. He's been a great, great addition to our staff.

"He's no maintenance. Give the guy a cell phone, give the guy a laptop, and give the guy a practice plan, and he can do the rest of it by himself."

Wells first noticed Orlando when playing against Connecticut in 2009. Wells was the quarterbacks coach for Louisville at the time while Orlando was the Huskies defensive coordinator. Orlando helped the team capture two Big East championships during his time at Connecticut, including a Fiesta Bowl berth in 2010.

"Todd came highly recommended from several people throughout the country," Wells said. "He was a really good fit for me personally and what I was looking for in a defensive coordinator to fill that void. We brought him in and interviewed him, and he knocked it out of the park."

Orlando has also knocked opposing offenses off their game. Utah State stifled some of the best scoring attacks in college football this season, including defeating San Jose State, 40-12, (the Spartans are ranked sixth in passing yards per game nationally) and narrowly falling to Fresno State, 24-17, (Fresno is fifth in points per game nationally).

The Aggies will face a different kind of challenge on the ground against Northern Illinois. Senior quarterback Jordan Lynch leads a Huskies run game that is fourth in the nation in rushing yards per game.

"You need to be multiple nowadays because of so many different offenses going on," Orlando said. "The spread, there's a lot of triple-option concepts. We just try to keep everything under the umbrella of what we do."

"Todd has been able to tweak the scheme each and every week to fit different types of offenses," Wells said. "We've seen every bit of the gambit on offense against our defense. They've adjusted really well each and every week."

While currently being focused on the upcoming bowl game, Orlando admits he would like to eventually run his own program given the right fit and right people behind him.

"If you do this for a living, I would be concerned if someone didn't want to be a head coach," Orlando said. "As a positional coach, your main goal should be to be a coordinator. If you're a coordinator, your main goal should be to be a head coach."

If his track record is any indication, Orlando could be in charge of more than just the defense in the near future.

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