Pitt's Mad Max

Max Gruder is from Charlotte, N.C., so it's a homecoming of sorts for Pitt's redshirt sophomore weak-side linebacker when the Panthers face North Carolina State Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C.

About a dozen Max Gruder family members, friends and fans are expected to be there to cheer Pittsburgh (3-0) to a win, and the 6-foot-2, 235-pound Gruder would like nothing better than to make a big impact in a Panthers' victory.

"I really didn't get recruited by any of the North Carolina schools,'' Gruder said. "But it'll be nice to get back to North Carolina to see some of my old friends. (But) I really didn't need a lot of extra tickets. Most of my friends when to UNC, but there will be some people there cheering for me.''

Pitt generally doesn't recruit in the South, but got a chance to see Gruder up close and personally when he attended a prospects camp as a junior. His work ethic and solid skills caught the eyes of the Panthers' coaching staff, and the rest -- as they say -- is history.

"We liked him as a person,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "We liked his attitude, and we liked his movement. But the only question was getting some game tape to see if he was a good enough player to offer a scholarship. So, I think it was Week 4, and Curtis Bray was recruiting him.

"Once we saw the tape, we knew we would offer him if he was in our back yard. So, we offered him. I don't know how he got to our camp, but he came here. He wasn't offered by a lot of schools, Duke and schools like that. But not North Carolina or N.C. State, but he committed to us during the year.''

By the time Gruder was a senior at Charlotte Country Day School, he received much more recruiting attention. But his commitment to Pitt never wavered. And now, the Panthers are committed to him. Despite some pressure to move sixth-year senior Adam Gunn to Gruder's spot and inject freshman Dan Mason into the starting lineup at middle linebacker, Wannstedt is standing pat for now.

"Last week might have been Max's best game,'' Wannstedt said. "He played really well last week, but it's a situation with these spread offenses that we've seen ... he's our weak-side guy. So, he's the guy who's to the open side.

"And probably half the game he's covering a wide receiver, while (strong-side backer) Greg Williams and our middle linebacker probably are in the box. It just works out that way from a scheme standpoint. And Max has done pretty well.''

So, as long as everyone remains healthy, Gunn apparently will continue to start in the middle and be flanked by Gruder and Williams with Mason likely the first off the bench. Gruder gave his assessment of the situation.

"If you ask our coaches, they'd probably say that's a good problem to have, a lot of talented guys at one position,'' Gruder said. "That's what happens when Coach Wannstedt brings a lot of talent in. ... So, it's not a bad thing.

"(But) I don't worry about that stuff. I have just worry about myself and just go out to practice and work as hard as I can. I can't be worried if I start or be a backup. I just have to do as well as I can and see what happens Saturday.''

Gruder certainly hasn't been Pitt's most dynamic defensive player so far, but he hasn't had to be all that. Gruder is fifth on the Panthers' defense with 14 tackles, including six solo, but no other stats of interest. Steady and consistent are two words that could be used to describe his play.

Gruder preferred to say that he was still a work in progress.

"It's a process,'' Gruder said. "Every game I get more and more experience, and things are continually slowing down for me as I get that experience. The first game I did all right, but I had a lot of work to do for the second game. And I had to work hard to get ready for the third game, so it's been a process.

"But I worked really hard and feel like I improved a lot from the Buffalo game. We need to help the safeties out more. Against Buffalo, it might have seemed like it was the safeties' and corners' fault, but the linebackers put them in a lot of bad positions. So, we can help them out a lot more.

"We have to concentrate on the run first,'' Gruder added, "and once we realize that it's a pass then we have to cover our responsibilities there. But that's the same for all three linebackers, and we all can improve in pass coverage.

One might believe that it would be difficult for the Pitt defense not to improve on its performance at Buffalo when the Bulls had 400 passing yards and 500 total yards, but Gruder noted that there's always room for more.

"We expect an offense to score no points,'' Gruder said. "What happened at Buffalo just can't happen, but I think we bounced back against Navy. ... I don't know how many yards we held them to, but I think we played pretty well.

"We didn't make many mentals, but we have a lot of room to improve. (Mental mistakes) and being more sure with our tackles, those two areas needed to improve. And we played much better in those areas against Navy.''

Against North Carolina State this week, Gruder and the Pitt defense needs to take their play up a notch once again.

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