Spring Practice Notebook: Linebackers

PITTSBURGH -- Floridians H.B. Blades and Clint Session dominated the linebacking corps at the University of Pittsburgh in recent seasons, but now that they've graduated the WPIAL has taken charge.

The starting backers during Pitt's initial spring workouts at the UPMC Sports Complex, as well as the second team and two players in the third unit, played scholastically for WPIAL schools.

"It just happened to work out that way, but it's pretty interesting,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "We all know how good the football is around here, and this is the perfect example. That's why we're recruiting heavily in our own backyard. There's a lot of talent in the WPIAL.''

The veteran among Pitt's linebackers this season, ironically is redshirt junior Scott McKillop at middle linebacker. He's played in 23 games with no starts for the Panthers. Fellow Kiski Area High School teammate and Pitt classmate Adam Gunn has been starting at one outside spot opposite redshirt freshman Nate Nix from Thomas Jefferson.

Redshirt freshman Greg Webster from Woodland Hills is in the middle, while redshirt sophomore Shane Murray from Central Catholic and sophomore Dorin Dickerson from West Allegheny comprise the second team OLBs. The third unit has redshirt freshman Dan Loheyde from Gateway and frosh Justin Hargrove from Baldwin matched with the lone outsider, redshirt sophomore Brian Kaiser from Hightstown High in New Jersey.

"We certainly have more experience at some positions, game-time experience, but not at linebacker," McKillop said. "Everyone is saying that we've got a lot to prove, and it's a great motivation for everyone at linebacker. We have some great shoes to fill.''

Along with Blades and Session, Pitt has to replace Brian Bennett, a part-time starter the past three seasons, and junior Tommy Campbell from Aliquippa. Campbell split time with Bennett and was expected to be a starter this year, but he has been suspended indefinitely. So, other than McKillop and Gunn, who at most played 25 snaps at linebacker last season, every player in Pitt's linebacking corps needs play to gain experience.

"You can't show much until we get a few more scrimmages with pads under our belts,'' Nix said. "Guys can be different when they get pads on. The guys who can play when they are going full speed, that's who we want in our lineup. They'll be able to make a difference.''

Dickerson is the most intriguing player among the Pitt linebackers. At 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, he's the biggest and strongest. But he spent his first season at Pitt last fall as an offensive player. So, even though he's with the second group right now, Dickerson should get some serious playing time.

And he hasn't looked too bad during the initial practice sessions.

"I haven't tackled in a while, since high school, so I'll see if I can get my form back,'' Dickerson said. "I think I'll be able to come up and hit a guy when I get the chance, but we'll see what happens. I'm just looking forward to the opportunity. I'll do anything I can to get on the football field.''

It will be defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads' task to find enough snaps for all of Pitt's inexperienced linebackers, the young ones and upperclassmen alike, but that isn't the only key to their success this season. Rhoads believed the more experienced Panthers on defense needed to take their games to another level to make up for what's lacking in the middle of it.

Oh, and those guys are Rhoads' responsibility as well since he moved from the secondary to the position coach for the linebackers.

"We have seven returning players up front, so we finally have some experience there,'' Rhoads said. "And our starting secondary, other than one corner, has played a lot of snaps over the years as well. So, if we can come together as a unit, our defense has a chance to be good this year.''

And it's a certainty that the WPIAL will play a key role in that success.

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