Of the last three years, this may be the most optimistic a group of linebackers have been at Pitt. However, there are still questions.
Two things benefit this group. One, is having an experienced defensive line in front of them. If Aaron Donald can continue to be disruptive, and if Tyrone Ezell continues his development, the linebackers will be in position to make a lot of tackles. However they must do it. We've certainly seen missed tackles as a problem with this team in recent years.
In terms of experience, middle linebacker Shane Gordon is back as is SAM linebacker Todd Thomas.
With Gordon, who battled injuries towards the end of the season, and was held from spring ball due to a neck injury, the only concern with him is health. If he can stay healthy, he can be productive. Not to mention, he's been around. It's very beneficial to have a fifth-year senior at middle linebacker. Gordon can have an all-conference year (maybe tougher in the ACC than it was in the Big East), but only if he stays healthy. Gordon played in all 26 games in the first two years of his Pitt career, then played in 10 with eight starts last year. He finished with a career-best 48 stops.
Someone ready to blossom is Todd Thomas. Even more so than Gordon, is Thomas can make it through a whole season healthy, he will have a productive year. Of any linebacker Pitt has, Thomas has the best nose for the ball, showcasing that with an interception in the regular season finale at South Florida last year. He also went through untouched, and blocked a punt against Louisville last year. Special teams, yes, but more indicative of how he reacts to the ball.
Thomas played the final nine games of 2012, including seven starts. This is the healthiest Thomas has been in his Pitt career, being able to go through a whole spring, and now ready to go for training camp.
The new starter will be Anthony Gonzalez at the WILL linebacker. Gonzalez worked his way into the lineup late in the season. He moved back to defense last year, and was a backup safety for the first part of the season. By the time the UConn game came around, Gonzalez started working in with the linebackers. Based on his play in the spring, it looks like a move that will stick. A former quarterback, Gonzalez also reacts to the ball well. He's athletic, like Thomas. The two of them is certainly promising, but still an unproven.
There will be competition for the backup spots, and in one case, we could see one of the backups push a starter.
That one case will be Ejuan Price, coming off a pectoral injury that kept him out of service last year. Price was impressive as a true freshman--even recording two sacks in a game at Iowa. The injury set back his development a little, but that previous experience helped him in the spring, to possibly make a move on the depth chart. He played in all 13 games, with five starts, as a true freshman in 2011. Keep in mind that while Gonzalez is the guy to beat out, he's still converting as a linebacker. Price may not be as fast as him, but he does have more experience at the position. If Gonzalez holds him off, it should also speak of now natural Gonzalez is as a linebacker. Price is more of a SAM linebacker. However, Thomas and Gordon are firmly entrenched as starters.
Mike Caprara was a pleasant surprise in the spring He filled in for Gordon at the middle linebacker spot. As a result of that, we could see Caprara on the field in a reserve role. Caprara may also be tested at the SAM or WILL, if need be, strictly for depth purposes. Devon Porchia came to Pitt as an outside linebacker. He moved to the middle this spring, but could also move back to the outside for the future.
Paul Chryst and company are very grateful they didn't have to burn a redshirt on either Caprara or Porchia, or any of the other freshmen such as Bam Bradley or Deaysean Rippy, even though Rippy has transferred to Colorado. Gonzalez filling in late last season was a big help to last year's team, but also gives the position a boost immediately this year.
Bradley, or Nicholas Grigsby--who started the first game--are also in contention for those backup spots. Senior Emanuel Rackard--who was awarded a scholarship during the 2012 season--could also be in the mix. Incoming freshman Matt Galambos is likely heading for a redshirt. Depending on where other backups are, he could be in the middle or at SAM. Zach Poker was an outside linebacker in high school.