Pitt Football: Injuries to linebackers leave Panthers in flux

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Pitt began the season with three experienced starting linebackers, but depth at the position was considered questionable.

After just one game, it appears that depth is going to be severely tested.

The Panthers (0-1) could be without both of their starting outside linebackers -- Shane Murray (knee) and Adam Gunn (concussion) -- for Saturday's game against Buffalo (1-0). Murray missed the Panthers' season-opening loss to Bowling Green last week and is listed as day to day. Gunn was knocked out of the Bowling Green game in the third quarter and didn't return.

Coach Dave Wannstedt said yesterday during his weekly news conference that he hopes both can return to practice by the end of the week and play. Meantime, he is shuffling the reserve linebackers in order to shore up the position.

If Murray can't play -- and even if the Central Catholic High School product can, it will likely be limited -- fifth-year senior Austin Ransom will get his second consecutive start at weak-side linebacker. His backup will be redshirt freshman Tristan Roberts.

Next up

Game: Pitt (0-1) vs. Buffalo (1-0), 6 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Heinz Field.

Radio: WBGG-AM (970).

It is less clear who would start on the strong side in Gunn's position, though redshirt freshman Greg Williams played the majority of the snaps after Gunn, a Kiski Area graduate, was injured Saturday. But Williams was moved from his normal spot as a weak-side linebacker to the strong-side position Saturday specifically because of the matchup against the Falcons' spread offense. Buffalo runs a more conventional offense, so his role this week is less clear.

The other two players who will be in the mix at Gunn's spot would be redshirt sophomore Nate Nix and redshirt freshman Brandon Lindsey.

It is not the kind of problem Wannstedt wants to deal with on the heels of a tough loss, but he said the Panthers will be fine regardless of who plays on Saturday.

"If that would be the case [Gunn and Murray are out], we'll play a couple of young kids," Wannstedt said. "I mean, between Greg Williams, Brandon Lindsey, Tristan Roberts and Austin Ransom -- I know they're all new names to households, but they have ability and they've been practicing hard and they're ready to play. We're hopeful, Shane Murray is better day to day, we'll see where he's at today, and Adam Gunn is better day to day, so we'll just wait and see.

"But we're capable and we're ready to play other players if need be. We moved Greg [Williams] during the game and he played pretty well. When they were giving us four and five receivers, with his athletic ability and speed, we felt like we had a better matchup with him in there than we would with Nate Nix or Brandon Lindsey, which is why we moved him in there."

Wannstedt also spent most of his news conference addressing some of the second-guessing that follows a tough loss like Saturday's. Among the highlights:

• He called punting from inside the opponent's 35 twice "a gray area" but defended his strategy of playing for a field goal at the end of the first half and said he'd likely do it again. "Sure, I think head coaches go back and re-evaluate calls," he said. "But at the time, the field position -- getting points on the field goal before the half, we do not waver on that. I think it is very important, particularly when the game is tied, [that] you want to go into halftime with the lead."

• He said he was not upset that tailback LeSean McCoy openly questioned the decision to go for a field goal at the end of the half. "I think every player wants to score. I think that's a reaction by every player of wanting to go for it and trying to score, and that's usually what makes the great ones. That's the mind-set they have."

• He said the Pitt fans probably were justified in booing the team Saturday given the way it performed. "... Let's be real," he said. "When people are disappointed they are going to express it. That's part of the business and you've got to be able to handle that."

NOTES -- Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson said yesterday that the administration still believes in Wannstedt. "No one is more disappointed than Dave and our team in the opening-game result. But no one is going to work harder to rectify this than Dave. He is dedicated to building a winning program at Pitt and he has our strongest support as he works to achieve that goal.". ... Wannstedt said he would like to get freshman receiver Jonathan Baldwin, freshman tackle Lucas Nix and redshirt sophomore safety Elijah Fields into the game more this Saturday, but he was non-committal when asked about whether he plans on using junior-college quarterback Greg Cross and the "wildcat" package.

Paul Zeise can be reached at pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720. First Published September 3, 2008 4:00 AM


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