A redshirt sophomore, Max Gruder was recruited as a middle linebacker. He moved to the strong side toward the end of training camp last fall, and now he's the starting weak-side linebacker. For performing well despite the position changes, Gruder earned the Ed Conway Award this spring as the Panthers' most-improved player on defense.
Junior quarterback Pat Bostick was the most-improved Pittsburgh player on offense.
"No one has worked harder than those two guys the last six months,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "Max has come in here, and every time I see Max he has his notebook, and he's studying.
"And he's worked himself into being a starter at our weak-side linebacker spot. ... There were a lot of players we talked about on both sides of the ball, but these two guys were very deserving.''
Gruder humbly accepted the award.
"It's a very nice honor, and I appreciate the recognition,'' Gruder said. "This award really is a credit to our coaches. ... This is my second spring and, and I just finished my second season. Coach Tumpkin and Coach Bennett really know how to push us, and they let us know what we need to work on.
"I can work on everything and need to improve in all areas, but my biggest issues are my footwork and just being more consistent with every practice. Sometimes when I get there, I'm not as focused as I could be, so that's really something they get on me about and something I'm working hard to improve.''
Gruder estimates that he got in for about 10 snaps per game in the base defense last season, which isn't too bad for a redshirt freshman. He didn't play in any nickel formations, because a defensive back replaced him, but he also was in on two special teams and recorded five total tackles.
With fifth-year seniors Adam Gunn (neck) and Shane Murray (knee) being moved to middle linebacker coming off season-ending injuries and surgery, a spot was open at weak-side linebacker. Gruder was tabbed to fill that void.
"Believe me, I'm grateful for the opportunity I was given to start,'' Gruder said. "It's unfortunate what happened to Shane, but I'm very grateful for the chance that I received this year. And I want to take advantage of it. Our linebackers, they're all interchangeable, and this is my third position.
"I thought I would be a starting linebacker going into my third season, but I thought it would be as the middle linebacker after Scott McKillop graduated. Then, I moved to Sam at the end of camp, and then after the season I got moved to Will. So, I've had some experience at all of them.''
Gruder was among Pitt's defensive leaders in the spring game with five total tackles, including four solo, and one quarterback hurry.
Gruder Most-Improved Defensive Player
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