With a few players down and out with injuries, Pitt got creative with their linebackers Saturday against Buffalo.
Some linebackers shifted around, others had to be ready to play multiple positions.
Through all that, two of Pitt's most productive linebackers in the 20-6 win against the Bulls were players who had to fight just to get on the field this year. Dan Mason and Todd Thomas, both coming off major injuries, each racked up 11 tackles.
Mason was making his first start since Sept. 11, 2010, the week before he had a serious knee injury that cost him the rest of that year and all of the '11 season.
Pitt's regular starting middle linebacker, Shane Gordon, had a high ankle sprain against Louisville, so Mason found out a few days before the Panthers left for Buffalo that he would get the nod.
In addition to tying Thomas and safety Jason Hendricks for the team lead in tackles, Mason chipped in two tackles for losses and a sack.
"Just being out there, period, making tackles as a starter, I felt good," he said after the game. "Like I said, two years was a long time."
While Mason was reassuming his starting role in the middle of the defense for the first time in two years, the man next to him was taking on a new position for the first time.
With starter Manny Williams out with an unspecified anterior cruciate ligament injury, the Pitt coaches shifted Thomas from strong-side linebacker -- where he had been practicing all fall -- to the weak side.
Thomas had offseason ACL surgery, the second of his Pitt career. Despite the injury and position change, he said he felt comfortable Saturday.
"I felt good, actually," Thomas said. "I'm not used to the linemen coming up on me quick, having to shed blocks. I'm usually out in space, so it was a little different, but it's football, so you've just got to make plays."
Defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable said the biggest challenge for Thomas -- who has more than enough athleticism to play either linebacker position -- was just getting up to speed in his conditioning after missing most of fall camp.
"Todd said to me, 'Coach, my legs are killing me,' " Huxtable recalled. "It's camp for him. Last week's practice was his fall camp."
As Thomas gets acclimated to his new position, he has his friend Mason to help him out from the middle. Thomas said he and Mason talked constantly during the game, making sure each was in the right position.
More than that, though, Thomas said Mason was a motivator as he worked through his offseason rehabilitation.
"It's a big deal having [Mason] beside me," Thomas said. "Just his story in general, it's amazing for someone to do that and come back and play. Him inspiring me, it's a lot. Practice, on the field, off the field."
They both might have struggled to overcome injuries, but Thomas and Mason showed Saturday that they are more than just inspiring stories. They both plan on being factors on defense the rest of the season.
Sam Werner: email@example.com and Twitter: @SWernerPG. First Published October 25, 2012 4:00 AM