Pitt Spring Practice No. 6

Pitt's veteran linebacking corps took a huge hit when returning starters Adam Gunn (neck injury) and Shane Murray (knee) were lost to injuries basically from the outset last season, but after some growing pains with some younger players the group could be a defensive strength this fall.

While Shane Murray is still battling back from his surgery, Adam Gunn looks like he's nearly all the way back after receiving a sixth season from the NCAA. Gunn has moved to the middle this year to replace Scott McKillop.

"Adam has been, actually, a little better than I anticipated,'' Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt said. "He's not participating in any full scrimmage work, but he's doing everything else. And he's doing all the other full-speed work. The team period, 7-on-7s and the blitz drills, he's done all of those.

"So, he's had enough contact with it being full contact, taking someone to the ground, to give himself and us an indication where he's at since the injury. And I'm very encouraged because, one, he's adjusted after coming back from the injury. And two, he's adjusted to playing middle linebacker.''

Gunn is flanked on the strong side by redshirt sophomore Greg Williams, who was thrust into action there to replace Gunn after his injury in the season-opener. The athletic Williams, who moved to linebacker from running back last spring, had worked at the weak-side spot before being forced to play the strong side. But now he's up to about 235 pounds and should have a bright future.

"He had a great offseason in the weight room, and he's probably 10-15 pounds heavier, bigger, and good weight from what he was a year ago,'' Wannstedt said. "He's going to be a player, because of his athleticism, who's going to make a lot of big plays for us.''

The weak side is manned by redshirt sophomores Max Gruder and Tristan Roberts, who have come a long way since they stepped onto the campus. Fifth-year senior Steve Dell and Murray are middle linebackers, while redshirt junior Nate Nix and redshirt sophomore Brandon Lindsey are on the strong side.

"Last year,'' Wannstedt said, "our backup linebackers were all (redshirt) freshmen. ... Nate Nix, he probably was the only guy who had played some. But he was just a sophomore last year.

"Now, we still have some young guys, but they've at least played some. And I really get the feeling that they're going to get in there and make some plays for us this season. I truly believe that.''

Another basically new player to the starting lineup, but one who has played quite a bit in some stretches in his career and then disappeared in others is redshirt junior safety Elijah Fields. He appears to finally be settled in at free safety, alongside junior strong safety Dom DeCicco, after three years of on- and off-field problems, as well as academic issues.

"(Fields) has matured, and he's been through a lot the past three years,'' Wannstedt said. "Everything we talked about when he came here, he still can accomplish. He can get out of here with his degree, and he can be as good as he wants to be. But his time is right now.

"He worked hard in the offseason and will be in line to play more this year. He's seen guys squander opportunities before, and he doesn't want to be that guy. Physically, he's got as much talent as any safety that we'll play, but he just needs to get out and play. So, we'll give him that chance.''

An area Wannstedt said he is most concerned about right now is with the team's specialist. The Panthers lost three-year starting place-kicker Conor Lee, two-year starting punter Dave Brytus and four-year starting long-snapper Mark Estermyer, so that whole operation needs to be replaced.

"Our whole special teams unit with our snapper, punter and field-goal kicker, that whole (operation) probably concerns me more than any on our whole football team,'' Wannstedt said. "Not that we don't have guys who can do it, but because we have guys who haven't done it.

"We've done everything we can to provide full-speed, pressure situations for them. We're doing field goals live every day, and we're bringing pressure on the punts the best we can. Also, Conor and Estermyer have been out here trying to help. So, we're working at it very hard, but we still have decisions to make.''

Wannstedt said that redshirt sophomore Dan Hutchins could do both, punt and kick field goals, but redshirt freshman Kevin Harper has a strong leg and is battling for the field-goal job as well as kickoffs. There are two walk-ons also competing for the punting job, but Hutchins in the front-runner at this point.

Recruits Malcolm Carter from St. Joe's Regional and Manasseh Gardner from Brashear were in attendance at Thursday's practice. Pitt expects up to 30 prospects in town for its blue-chip day, which coincides with Saturday's scrimmage set for 1:30 p.m.

Tony Tucker, Max Gruder and Greg Williams all crashed in on quarterback Bill Stull for sacks in team drills. The defense got the upper hand in the red-zone portion, keeping the offense off the board more times than not.

All three quarterbacks were fairly sharp in the other drills, but the defense -- led by Mick Williams in the middle of the front line -- provided pressure to force their play a bit.

Pitt has its seventh spring practice Friday at 4:15 p.m. and then passes the midpoint for the spring workouts with Saturday's scrimmage.

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