Now that he appears to be settling in as an outside linebacker for his redshirt sophomore season at Pitt, Shane Murray is trying to get his hands on the ball just as often.
"That's a big thing for me,'' Murray said. "I try to use my head, my mental ability, and try to think about what's going to happen on a play before it happens. That's what really counts in this game.
"I just have to know where to be and when to be there. And I'll use my hands and feet when I get there. I can't afford to hook up with a blocker that could be a lot bigger. But that's the way it is for me.''
Murray is referring to his perceived lack of size, although he's filling out his 6-foot-1 frame slowly but surely. However, that task hasn't been easy for the former defensive back.
"I weigh about 212 right now,'' Murray said. "I don't want to gain too much too fast. So, I'm working with a nutritionist, and I'm working on it. But I don't want to have any unnatural weight. I'm trying to gain weight, but I was a safety just a few months ago.
"So, it's kind of hard to just bulk up and put 20 pounds on right away. I'm just worried about keeping my speed and gaining strength. The weight will come, but I mostly want to get stronger. And until I get heavier I'll keep using my head to my advantage and to make plays on defense.''
After his performance during the spring, Murray has the inside track to start at weak-side linebacker for the Panthers, but he is being pushed by redshirt freshman Nate Nix, among others.
"Coach (Paul) Rhoads keeps telling us to work hard because both outside linebacker spots are open, but we have some athletic, hardworking guys who are anxious to prove they can get the job done,'' Murray said. "We might not be as big as a normal outside linebacking corps, but we're plenty fast.
"And there's plenty of competition, so we're all pushing each other to get better. And when you do that you can bring the best out of each other, and the team will benefit from that. So, we're working hard together and trying to be as good as possible, and we're getting better all the time.''
Murray noted that while all the outside linebackers would like to earn starting spots, they realize that won't be determined for quite some time. So, until then, they push each other to improve and spend time together on and off the field to improve team chemistry.
"We're a real close group,'' Murray said. "We all hang out, so there's not any bad competition at all. There are no problems here. We want everyone to succeed and the team to succeed, and the best way to do that is for us to work together all the time.
"Probably the only sure starter right now is Scott McKillop at middle linebacker. Everybody else is competing for a starting spot at outside linebacker, and those spots are all wide open. But we're a lot deeper than some people give us credit for.''
The emergence of Murray and McKillop as team leaders on defense was crucial for Pitt this season. The two have had a positive influence on younger players like sophomore Dorin Dickerson.
"Coach Rhoads pushes us to go full speed on every play, and that was a big change for me,'' Dickerson said. "Coming from high school and playing on offense here last season, I didn't always have that frame of mind. But I do now. Everything has to be at full speed on defense, and that includes running on and off the field. That's very important.
"And the more I hang around with guys like Scott and Shane, the more I understand what it takes to play linebacker at this level. I'm also learning how to approach things now, and it's all coming a lot easier to me. I know I can play linebacker at this level, and I can't wait to get out there and show what I can do this season.''
Murray believed that the development of second-year players like Dickerson and cornerback Aaron Berry, two prospective starters, was critical to the defense's improvement and increased speed this season. But he added that there was another major factor.
"The defensive line, I think they're going to be very strong this year,'' Murray said. "More consistent play from those guys up front, that can only help the linebackers. Those guys will be bigger, stronger and faster overall.''
And it certainly can't hurt Pitt's defense to have a ball-hawk like Murray in the mix at linebacker as well.
Murray's Ball Skills Key LB Corps
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