Pitt's Outside Linebackers

Pitt's linebacking corps was an area of concern for some Panthers fans going into this year, even though two starters and a dynamite backup return.

With sophomore Dan Mason manning the middle, along with redshirt juniors Max Gruder and Greg Williams on the strong and weak sides, respectively, Pittsburgh appears to be set for the next two seasons.

And with the backups also switching sides, now strong-side redshirt sophomore Manny Williams and weak-side redshirt junior Tristan Roberts, as well as redshirt freshman Shane Gordon in the middle, the Panthers are as deep as they've been in several years in the linebacking corps.

"Everything's going great right now,'' Greg Williams said. "We're working hard with our new coach, Coach Clark, and he's a great coach. He's really helping us understand our coverages and alignments and stuff like that. And so far, everything's going pretty good for all the linebackers.

"Max and me, we both played well at SAM (strong-side linebacker) when we played there, and we both played well at WILL (weak-side linebacker). But Max is going to do a great job on a full-time basis there. And I'm going into my fourth year in the program now.

"So, it's time for me to take my game up a notch,'' Williams added. "I think I did pretty good last year, but I have to do more. I have to have a better season if I want to continue my playing career at the next level. And Coach Clark can help me have a good season to get there if I just listen to him.''

Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt has entrusted his linebacking corps to Bernard Clark, a former Miami Hurricanes player when Wannstedt was the defensive coordinator there. And Clark appears to have the right attitude to get the most out of the Panthers linebackers.

"We're looking at a lot of the guys who have played and some who haven't played,'' Clark said. "Shane Gordon is one guy who is working real hard and playing hard right now. He has a lot of talent and desire. Some other guys, Manny Williams and Carl Fleming, they're showing some flashes.

"And they've done some good things. But they really haven't seen to much just yet, so they're not reacting as quickly as some of the older guys. (And) once the bullets start flying, we'll see what happens with them. When you come from the secondary like Manny and Carl, there's a big difference.

"Everything happens right now in front of them,'' Clark added. "It develops a lot slower for the same person in the secondary. Carl and Manny are making a good adjustments so far, and their speed is there. But they still have to do a better job getting off the blocks of 300-pound linemen, but it's getting there.''

Greg Williams now carries 240 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame, but he said he wants to slim down a bit to improve his speed and quickness. Gruder (6-2) has maintained his playing weight from last season at 228 pounds, but noted that there's a noticeable difference for him now.

"I've lost a lot of fat,'' Gruder said. "I'm much leaner and in a lot better shape now. This is the fastest and strongest I've been in my life, so I'm looking forward to having a big season. Manny, Tristan, Greg and I all switched sides this spring. Coach Wannstedt believed it was better for all of us.

"So, we weren't playing Sam half the time and Will the other half when we go to the nickel (passing) defense. We know how to play both positions, but we don't have to flip back and forth. It's working out pretty well so far, but it's a process. We're getting better every day this spring.''

With Clark's assistance, Gruder has faith that Pitt's linebacking corps eventually can be a team strength for the Panthers on defense.

"Coach Clark has a little different style than we had before, but we've adapted really well and will do everything we can for him,'' Gruder said. "I know that I'll play as hard as I can for him. Some of his philosophies and coaching styles are different than before, and he has a calmer demeanor. Don't get me wrong.

"He has a lot of fire, too, but he's much more calm in the film room and even on the field while he's explaining things to us. And that makes it easier for us to understand him and follow him when he breaks things down. So, we're learning a lot from Coach Clark. I'm very glad that he's our coach.''

Gruder told a story that Clark relayed to his players from his days at Miami. Clark said he was afraid to miss even one practice with the Hurricanes. If he did, the guy behind him would be right there to take his spot.

"I think it's getting that way here,'' Gruder said. "Coach Wannstedt and the other coaches have done such a great job with recruiting that our backups are ready to go if we can't get the job done.''

And it's that competition that could make the Pitt linebacking corps the deepest it's been in years.