There's a lot of question—to varying degrees—about this year's group of Pitt's linebackers. The biggest is the health of now redshirt sophomore Dan Mason. Mason suffered a devastating knee injury that ended his 2010 season, in game three against Miami. Mason was off crutches by the time the team traveled to Birmingham for the BBVA Compass Bowl. By the end of spring practices, he was able to participate in agility drills. The next step will be seeing if he is ready to go full contact in training camp.
If Mason is not ready to go, the position still has a couple of seniors that could be paired up with Max Gruder to fill the inside duo. With Pitt shifting to the 3-4 this year, Pitt is able to keep Gruder and Mason both on the field and on the inside, which both are naturally suited for. Though Gruder and Mason have played outside linebacker at times in their Pitt careers, both are more comfortable on the inside. If they are the top two linebackers, the 3-4 allows Pitt to keep both on the field at the same time. Again, this all hinges on Mason's health.
If Mason is not healthy, or at least not fully ready to handle contact to start training camp, Todd Graham could go with a couple of other seniors at that starting inside spot opposite of Gruder. Tristan Roberts ended the spring with the first team. He too has played in a lot of games in his career, but has never affirmed himself at any of the linebacker positions. He had the opportunity to lay claim to that spot in the spring, while Greg Williams missed the entire spring practice due to injury. He competed with Greg Williams for a starting spot at outside linebacker; a job that Williams eventually won by default.
If it's going to be one of the two seniors starting alongside Gruder, this is all assuming that they are able to hold off Shane Gordon, who is also adjusting well to the new scheme. Like Gruder and Mason, Gordon has made a start at the WILL position. He's a more natural middle linebacker. When Gruder graduates this year, a healthier Mason a year from now with a more experienced Gordon already looks good for the future. Then again, Gordon could blow everyone away and beat out Roberts and Williams, to start alongside Gruder this year. He was certainly a candidate for the Ed Conway Award in the spring, based on his improvement from the end of 2010—a year where he progressed—to the spring session.
While Greg Williams is back, he too has one last shot to make a move. The good thing for him is that the coaches seem to be impressed with his abilities, and they could move him to one of the outside spots too. In years past, however, the knock on Williams has been his coverage skills from the outside linebacker spot. If he were a Panther—the pass rush specialist—he'd be more suited for that, but he'd have to contend with Brandon Lindsey and Bryan Murphy for a spot there.
There's also a logjam of younger players, who will be battling for the backup inside linebacker spots. Leading the way will be redshirt sophomores Carl Fleming and Emanuel Rackard. Both finished the spring game as the top two tacklers for the game. Rackard even drew praise from head coach Todd Graham following the spring game, for his efforts. Fleming's prognosis for the future looks good, but with other redshirt sophomores Mason and Gordon also at his position, is he better off moving to one of the outside linebacker spots.
Juniors Joe Trebitz and Manny Williams are also listed here. Trebitz worked his way up to second team linebacker, once the position got buried with injuries deep into spring. Williams missed most of last season with a knee injury. Both Trebitz and Williams have been career special teams players, and have already been passed by players like Gordon, Mason and Fleming, all a year younger than them. Freshmen Nicholas Grigsby and LaQuentin Smith are expected to start off at the inside positions. Both of these freshmen are considered the type of players that are capable enough of contributing right away. They'll have to push hard to get by some of the upperclassmen ahead of them. The addition of these two freshmen at the inside spots, at least adds to the depth that is stacked amongst the younger classes.
Bryan Murphy was one of the defensive stars of the spring. One possible scenario would be to keep Brandon Lindsey at defensive end in the 3-4 scheme, while still keeping Murphy on the field. Though Lindsey is one of Pitt's superstar players, Murphy is too good of a player to keep on the sidelines. He showed that in the spring the way he made plays, including several interceptions during 7-on-7 situations and full 11-on-11's.
Shayne Hale has also moved to the Panther position from his down position as a defensive end. There's a newfound confidence in Hale that hasn't been seen since he came to Pitt. How much we will see of him. Ejuan Price and Devin Cook are both going to start their careers off at Panther. Price has an excellent opportunity to be the Panther of the future. Cook will start at the Panther, but has the potential to develop into a defensive end.
Another one of the position battles for camp. If Greg Williams isn't moved here, then it's going to be a three-man race between sophomore Kevin Adams and freshmen Todd Thomas and Eric Williams. The SPUR position is a hybrid linebacker/safety type position—almost an extra safety coming up, sort of like what the previous staff did with Elijah Fields and Dom DeCicco in years past. This position must have pass cover skills first, then a convenient ability to hit and tackle like a linebacker.
Of the three, Thomas is the most gifted athlete. Though he was limited in the spring coming off a knee injury suffered last year after his move to defense, the coaching staff seems to have a lot of faith in Thomas. Adams and Williams split time with the first-team during spring drills. Though they both played well enough, neither separated himself. Former walk-on Mark Giubilato is also a candidate here. The former walk-on might try both the SPUR and Panther positions before settling in on one.
There's certainly a lot of questions at this position. At the same time, moreso than any other group on the Pitt roster, there's ample room for playing opportunity. If you're a player at this position—whether you succeeded or not under the old staff, or whether you were brought here by the new staff—everyone at linebacker is starting from square one. This will be an interesting position to follow during training camp, because there are a lot of different things and different positions that certain players could be tried at to solidify a starting four.
2011 PRESEASON LINEBACKER DEPTH CHART
Dan Mason/Tristan Roberts/Greg Williams
SENIORS – Max Gruder, Tristan Roberts, Greg Williams, Brandon Lindsey
JUNIORS – Manny Williams, Joe Trebitz, Emanuel Rackard, Shayne Hale
SOPHOMORES – Shane Gordon, Dan Mason, Carl Fleming, Bryan Murphy, Kevin Adams
FRESHMEN – Todd Thomas, Mark Giubilato, Eric Williams, Ejuan Price, Nicholas Grigsby, LaQuentin Smith, Devin Cook