The Pitt linebacker corps has the potential to have some depth, but began spring bogged down by some injuries and added some more key players in the injured list as spring football continued. Even though the position added Brandon Lindsey, and from the looks of things Todd Thomas, both of those players were limited in the spring; Lindsey with a shoulder, and Thomas recovering from a knee injury sustained during the 2010 season. The position was also without Dan Mason, who suffered a knee injury in the Miami game last season, and continued his rehab through the spring.
The prognosis looks good for all three players. Lindsey was limited in the spring, but by the end was able to at least sit in on some of the linebacker drills, where he expects to start at the newly created Panther position—the hybrid linebacker/defensive end position. His position move may be the most beneficial to the defense as a whole, as he led the team with 10.5 sacks as a junior, playing in a three-point stance. Now, Lindsey has the opportunity to still be that pass rush specialist standing up.
With Lindsey out, Bryan Murphy also made the move from a down lineman to the Panther position. He worked out exclusively with the first team. Shayne Hale also moved to Panther after the first week of practices, and found a new level of confidence with his move to linebacker. Carl Fleming could also be in the mix at the Panther position, but filled in nicely in the middle when injuries started to add up. Fleming was the leading tackler in the Blue-Gold game with 12 tackles.
Opposite the Panther is the Spur position, a hybrid defensive back/linebacker position. The Spur also has a chance to impact the quarterback, but requires more coverage skills. The ideal player for the position appears to be Thomas, but that all hinges on Thomas' health when he enters training camp. He is expected to be a factor when healthy.
Filling in for Thomas was the combination of redshirt sophomore Kevin Adams and redshirt freshman Eric Williams. Adams started off with the first-team, before being replaced by Williams towards the middle of spring practice. Adams replaced Williams with the first group during the second-to-last week of spring practice. Whether it's Thomas or not, both Adams and Williams benefited from splitting the first-team reps throughout the course of the spring. There's still a chance that Greg Williams could also be at either the Spur or the Panther.
Williams was also held out of spring drills, recovering from a shoulder injury. Williams is the wild card, because depending on his health and the health at the other spots, he could move to the inside.
The inside linebacker spots took the biggest hit. It's unknown when Mason is due to return, but it was promising to see Mason at least able to take part in some agility drills during the final two weeks of camp. Mason did these drills without the help of brace, lending some hope that he might be able to participate in some contact drills in August.
Already without Mason, Max Gruder was forced to miss a considerable amount of time with a bit of a concussion. Gruder did return for the spring game, where he finished with five tackles. There's no question that his 26 career starts will help the position inside. The new defense also requires less responsibility on Gruder making the calls. Instead of making the calls at middle linebacker, Gruder and the other linebackers are already set on their positions by the calls made from the sideline.
With Gruder out for a significant part of the spring, and Mason out for all of spring, the two players who benefited the most working with the first-team defense were Shane Gordon and Tristan Roberts. Roberts worked his way into the starting lineup last season, while Gordon found his way to the field in all 13 games as a redshirt freshman, even making his first career start at Syracuse. If Greg Williams is moved to inside linebacker, and if Mason is back and ready to go, there could be a logjam. However, as the position gets its health back, a lot will fall on the shoulders of Gordon and Roberts.
Joe Trebitz missed a considerable amount of spring with a concussion, while Manny Williams was held out for the entire spring recovering from a knee injury sustained last season. With those key backups out, walk-on sophomore Emanuel Rackard had the opportunity to work with the second-team at linebacker, while Fleming was moved over to play on the inside as well.
Rackard earned praise from head coach Todd Graham following the spring game after he recovered a fumble, scoring the lone defensive touchdown of the spring game. Walk-on Adam Lazenga moved from fullback to linebacker this spring, and although it was Fleming manning the other inside spot on the second-team, Lazenga was a much needed player for the individual drills to keep the position afloat.
The position will also get some help in August with the addition of signees LaQuentin Smith and Nicholas Grigsby, two of the most heavily recruited players in the 2011 class. There's an ideal combination of experience and potential in this group of linebackers. There's veteran leadership from Gruder and Lindsey.
There's players blossoming such as Murphy and Gordon, and there's others who showed tremendous improvement such as Hale, Fleming and Roberts. There are other players with potential such as Thomas and Mason.
The coaching staff will have the opportunity to mix different packages to get the best players on the field. It all hinges on the health of a select few. Injuries tested the depth at the linebacker position in the spring. If everyone is back in August, this group has a chance to be special.