It was after watching film of Pitt’s 31-3 loss to Miami, that Max Gruder took it upon himself to have a one-on-one meeting with defensive coordinator Phil Bennett. Even though he entered last week as the starter at middle linebacker, he was still sharing the reps with Dan Mason, while taking some additional reps at the outside linebacker spots.
This meeting wasn’t about X’s and O’s. Though Gruder had to battle through that last week--practicing at all three linebacker spots, while trying to differentiate the different assignments for each position--he was bothered after watching the Miami film, for a variety of reasons.
“Max and I had that talk on Friday,” Bennett said. “I felt it was a little unfair, in the way it works, even though Max has played. It’s a little bit different. It’s a little bit difficult to go from MIKE to SAM. The thing I was pleased with--when he got back at (MIKE), after Dan got hurt, he really played well.”
It all hit Gruder that he was taking over at middle linebacker--a position symbolic of being a leader, and one that in some cases, is the voice of the defense. If Gruder is indeed the voice of the defense, he was loud and clear in a meeting with the media on Tuesday.
“It’s tough, watching some of the players that I know have the capability, including myself--everyone on the defense not making the plays they need to make, doing what they need to do,” Gruder said. “I went and talked to (Bennett). I told him that I needed to step up. Some of the things that are going on- and off-the-field, some of the problems that we're having--disciplinary--I think that reflects the leadership on our team. I think, personally, I need to stand up more. This is my fourth year.
“Honestly, I'm disgusted with how everything has been going. It reflects my leadership. I'm not happy. I need to step up, personally, especially now that I'm the middle linebacker.”
When Gruder was a freshman, Scott McKillop was the team’s middle linebacker. Not that he feels the need to be an exact replica of a McKillop, but Gruder understood as a freshman the work ethic of the team--even though he wouldn’t take any reps until his second year with the program. He has concerns that some of the younger players don’t understand that work ethic the way he did. Instead of faulting the younger players, he is taking it upon himself to help teach them.
“Scott (McKillop) and LaRod (Stephens-Howling) were great leaders to me, and they never really said much,” Gruder said. “People looked up to them because of the way they worked on the field. You could just look at them, and you knew they were doing the right thing. You knew they were going to make plays when they needed to make it.
“I think everybody has a different leadership style. I don’t speak as much. I speak when I need to. I’m not a rah-rah guy. Coach Bennett always says that you can be any type of leader that you want. The way I want to be a leader is to show people how to work and play hard.”
Gruder believes in his younger teammates, but feels the need more than ever, to start pointing them in the right direction. He didn’t specifically mention names. Gruder just feels some of the younger players need to be shown that a 10-3 season isn’t a given. Dave Wannstedt alluded to it a little bit after the Miami game, where he held a meeting with the seniors after the game. He wasn’t questioning their leadership, as much as he was asking them to remind the younger players of every little thing that goes in to being a football player at Pitt.
“Those guys that are our senior leaders, they were here when we didn‘t win,” Wannstedt said Thursday night after the Miami game. “They went through the (running) hills, and the six o’clock in the mornings (workouts). They paid the price, and they understand what it takes to win. That’s what we were discussing.”
Though not technically a senior, it is Gruder’s fourth year in the program. He took Wannstedt’s message loud and clear.
“It’s a lot of guys that don’t really know how this team works, so far,” Gruder said. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve never seen this happen. Guys, here or there, mess up (in the past). But, the string of disciplinary problems we’ve had is unacceptable. It’s something that is kind of tarnishing what Pitt is about. We’re not that type of team.
“Coach Wannstedt brings in great kids, I can tell you that. The kids that are here are great on-the-field, off-the-field and in the classroom. They’re good kids, and I generally meant that. What’s happened these past couple weeks are not representative of how the Pitt team is.”