The linebacker position will be one under watch this season. Though the group lost a senior starter in Adam Gunn, they return a corps of players that includes three members of the 2007 recruiting class--Tristan Roberts, Greg Williams and Max Gruder. Roberts points out that the defense is affected by his recruiting class, with six of the starting spots represented.
"It's pretty exciting because we all came in--scout team as freshmen, other than Dom (DeCicco), in our class, and Jabaal (Sheard)," And now, pretty much, the entire defense is our class, except for maybe three or four guys."
Gruder and Williams were starters last year. Even though Dave Wannstedt was pleased through camp--referring to this group as having four starters, or four players capable of starting, it's interesting that Roberts seems to have pushed past incumbent Greg Williams.
One of the reasons for that, is first-year linebacker coach Bernard Clark. Clark isn't concerned with who did what in the past. He's only concerned with what he sees now, and what he saw in the spring, when he came in. Roberts started his progression towards the end of the spring.
"What Tristan has done in the past is not my concern," linebackers coach Bernard Clark said. "He is a young man that is eager to learn and eager to grow. He has gotten better, since the spring, with his speed of the game and his knowledge of the game. Those things have improved--that's what I've seen."
Roberts came to Pitt, as sort of a late offer in his senior year. After hearing from a few other schools, when the Pitt offer came for him, it was an opportunity he wanted to jump on--kind of like the opportunity he has to start.
"My very, very first offer, was Bowling Green," Roberts said. "Nobody else was really talking to me seriously, like, 'We're really interested in you,' type of thing. I looked at Bowling Green, then Army was talking to me. I was talking really seriously to North Carolina, then they changed up their coaches. I was talking to Stanford a little bit, then they lost half their coaches to the NFL.
"(Pitt), I honestly could not remember when they offered me, but it was a surprise. They definitely seemed interested, but I didn't know that they were actually going to offer me. Then, I talked to (former defensive coordinator) coach (Paul) Rhoads, and then Coach Wannstedt. They just said, ‘We're really interested in bringing you in here, we really want you to contribute to the team.'"
Roberts has battled injuries, especially last year, where at the end of training camp, he suffered a shoulder injury that forced him to miss the entire season. Who knows how he could have impacted the linebacker position last year, as freshman Dan Mason was pressed into duty in the middle, and Elijah Fields was brought down as a hybrid safety/linebacker in certain situations.
Roberts, no question, has made a big jump on the depth chart from where he was, but considering he didn't even play last season, his jump is all the more remarkable.
"It's actually kind of a big jump--missing the whole season last year, then I came back," Roberts said. "I was trying to get back into it in the spring. I guess that's how it turned out. I took some reps in the spring, and I came out of the spring, starting."
On top of that, a lot of his practice time was spent with strength coach Buddy Morris. From having no time at his position, the time he spent with Morris, put him on some sort of fast track to be competing for a starting job.
"I didn't get out to practice, so I was working out with Buddy (Morris), even from before when I was hurt," Roberts added. "Once I got back out there, I started out, and tried to test myself--see what I could do. I'm just kind of hitting people harder, and never really stopped, which helped with the coaches."
At this point, the injury is far from his mind. There's no tentativeness when making contact, but also, Roberts has to remind himself that he had shoulder surgery a year ago. From the sounds of things--all the time he spent with Morris, rehabbing from injury, was so intense, that it might just propel him into the starting lineup, ahead of a Greg Williams, that has the most career starts (21) of any redshirt junior on the team.
"Actually, honestly, I even forget that I had surgery on (the shoulder), other than the thing that's on my arm, that I wear below my shoulder surgery," Roberts said. "I definitely feel stronger, faster. We do speed work with Buddy all the time. I feel like I'm usually pretty good condition, when we run (Flagstaff) Hill (in the summer). I haven't missed any time on that. Whenever we do conditioning, it's either me or Max (Gruder), or (Dan) Mason--we're just kind of leading the group, and get our linebackers to keep up with us if they're having any trouble."