Pitt linebacker Max Gruder has bounced between the middle and strong-side positions this season because of injury and discipline issues involving Dan Mason.
But starting middle linebacker Mason went down with a season-ending injury (dislocated knee) in the Panthers' 31-3 loss against Miami Thursday, which means Gruder is the starter in the middle.
That means he also is a leader of the defense, a role, Gruder said, he will embrace.
The redshirt junior said he had a heart-to-heart talk with defensive coordinator Phil Bennett after the Miami game and admitted he did not feel like he was carrying his weight as a team leader.
"I brought it up, I told [Bennett] that I needed to step up with some of the things which are going on and off the field, some of the problems we have been having, disciplinary problems," he said. "I think that reflects the leadership of our team, and I think personally I need to stand up. This is my fourth year.
"Honestly, the word I would say about how I am feeling is disgusted with how everything's going," Gruder said. "It reflects my leadership and I need to step up personally, especially now that I am the middle linebacker."
The off-field incidents, he said, are a symptom of a much deeper problem with the Panthers: Too many players believed the preseason media hype about how good the Panthers would be.
Gruder said he and other experienced teammates failed to communicate to younger players about the sacrifice and commitment it takes to win.
"I don't want to say we've been living off what we've done in the past, but these incidents have been a lot of young guys who don't really know how this team works," Gruder said. "Since I've been here, I've never seen this happen. We've had guys here and there mess up, but the string of disciplinary problems we've had is unacceptable and is something that is kind of tarnishing what Pitt is all about."
Four Pitt players have faced criminal charges in the past two months.
Starting defensive end Jabaal Sheard pled guilty to disorderly conduct after being involved in a July 18 fight on the South Side and has since been reinstated to the team. Reserve freshman running back Jason Douglas has been suspended since he was arrested Sept. 12 on charges of aggravated assault with a vehicle and driving under the influence after hitting a pedestrian on the South Side.
Mason was not charged with any crime but lost his starting job because he was a passenger in Douglas' car, then was injured Thursday night in the loss to Miami.
Freshman reserve defensive back Jeffrey Knox was kicked off the team after being accused of beating up a woman at Chatham University last week, and reserve offensive lineman Keith Coleman was arrested Sept. 18 and charged with aggravated assault, harassment and disorderly conduct after an early morning fight in Oakland that left a man with a broken collarbone.
Gruder said he will lead by example and be more involved in mentoring some of the younger players, particularly linebackers.
"Everybody is a leader in different ways," Gruder said. "Scott [McKillop] and LaRod [Stephens-Howling] were great leaders to me, but they never said much," he said of two Pitt alumni. "People looked up to them because of the way they worked on the field. You knew they were going to do the right things and you knew they were going to make plays when we needed it, and that's the leader I need to be."
With Mason out of the mix, the Panthers are down to only three experienced linebackers. If one of them goes down, the coaches will have to throw a younger guy into the fire.
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said redshirt freshman Shane Gordon likely would be the first linebacker off the bench. Other options would include sophomores Joe Trebitz and Manny Williams or redshirt freshmen Carl Fleming and Kevin Adams.
Those five players combined have zero starts and have appeared in only 16 career games.
"It is huge [for me to be a leader to the young linebackers] because you saw last game, any linebacker, really player on this team, could go down on one play, in an instant, and you never even saw it coming," Gruder said.
Bennett said Gruder already has been a leader because of the way he has been bounced from position to position and has done it without complaining.
"The thing I was pleased with is, after Dan [Mason] got hurt and he got back in the middle, he really played well. Now that he is fully concentrated on one position, I think we'll have a better consistency than we did from him and earlier in the game."
NOTES -- Pitt only has one player questionable for the game Saturday against Florida International, and that is safety Dom DeCicco (hamstring). Bennett said Tuesday "we don't know where he is at, but it is one of these things where we need to make a decision and see where we are at with him.". ... Bennett also said safety Andrew Taglianetti (groin) is back to full duty and will be used in some of the defensive packages as a nickleback. ... Florida International punter Josh Brisk (41.8 avg. ranks 44th nationally) was the starting punter at Duquesne as a freshman in 2009. He averaged 39.7 yards per punt on 41 punts for the Dukes.
Paul Zeise: email@example.com or 412-263-1720.