Pitt: Coaches want more big plays from linebackers

Personnel changes, experience could help

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Pitt football coaches were worried about two units in the preseason -- the offensive line and linebacking corps -- and so far their concerns have been justified.

Coaches questioned the talent level of the interior offensive linemen and their inexperience -- three first-year starters man the guard and center positions.

The linebackers are a different story. The outside linebackers, juniors Greg Williams and Max Gruder, are returning starters and middle linebacker Dan Mason, while only a sophomore, got plenty of experience last year.

Pitt linebackers coach Bernard Clark said Friday that the group hasn't played as well as he had hoped in the first two games, but he believes the players will get better with more experience.

His main concern is production and big plays. The linebackers have yet to produce a sack or a tackle for loss.

"I've been their worst critic, probably harder on them than they are on themselves," Clark said. "We have a lot more to go, they've played good, I'll say, but not to the level we think they should play at but each week they are getting better. I thought from the Utah game to the New Hampshire game, they got better."

This week things got worse when Mason was demoted to second team because he has used some poor judgement in recent weeks off the field. Mason, according to coach Dave Wannstedt, has let his academics slip a bit and he was a passenger in the car driven by Jason Douglas last weekend when Douglas was charged with DUI and assault after he hit a pedestrian on the South Side and left the scene.

Max Gruder, who has been the Panthers' most consistent linebacker, will start in the middle ahead of Mason, Williams will flip from the weakside to the strongside and Tristan Roberts will move into the starting lineup at the weakside position.

The moves were not made solely because of the off-field incident. The Panthers had used the alignment with Gruder in the middle in the past two games because Mason has struggled, particularly in passing situations when he must drop back into coverage.

Mason is aggressive and physical and he has been good against the run -- he leads the team with 13 tackles -- but that aggressiveness in pursuing the run has been a liability on passes. Clark said Mason's problems off the field will not be a distraction and that he is confident Mason has received the message sent by coach Dave Wannstedt and will respond.

Clark said he still expects great improvement from Mason as he becomes more comfortable with all of his responsibilities at middle linebacker. He said Mason has been slow to recognize some of the crossing patterns being run by slot receivers and running backs out of the backfield on pass plays.

"I don't think [the shakeup at linebacker] really changes anything. Max is comfortable at all three spots and I tell the guys all the time to be versatile and learn all three positions because you never know where you are going to end up at," Clark said. "You can play a lot faster playing in the middle so all of them are more comfortable there. [Mason] is fine and he is practicing just as hard now as when he was the starter and that is the kind of person he is. He is going to bust his behind, we're not worried about that.

"It will be hard for him to crack the lineup again but that is the great thing about competition," Clark said.

Clark said that Williams originally got the nod ahead of Roberts at weakside linebacker because of experience, but both have proven they can play and when -- if -- Mason returns to the starting lineup and pushes Gruder back to the strongside, Roberts will play a more prominent role than he has in the first two weeks.

NOTE -- Fanie Romeus, mother of defensive end Greg Romeus, died Sunday. She had been battling cancer. Romeus, who is from Coral Springs, Fla., had back surgery last week and is out for at least six weeks.

Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com


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