Final journey at last for Pitt's senior linebackers

A year ago today, Todd Thomas was not a member of Pitt's football team.

This senior linebacker, who is entering his fifth season, quit the team after the first practice of training camp last season before ultimately returning a week later.

Now Thomas prepares for the 2014 season as a potential key player on a defensive unit hoping to make up for the loss of do-everything defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

"Certainly [in the last] calendar year, we've had a little difference," Chryst said of Thomas.

"One of the neat qualities of Todd is, I think, who he is and emotion. I think you've got to go through things and it's how you handle them and that's all of us. What can you learn from how you handle it? He's been great with this team and he's been fun to be around."

Thomas, too, admits there was a definite shift in his demeanor in his time away from the program.

"I came back a whole different person," Thomas said. "You see me now on the field, I make a play, I'm not really saying much. Before, I would've thrown my helmet somewhere or something and been crazy. But I'm good now."

Thomas will be one side of a linebacking unit that could be the key to Pitt's overall defensive success this year. He will have fellow redshirt senior Anthony Gonzalez at the other outside linebacker spot, and sophomore Matt Galambos, who played regularly last year, in the middle.

The trio combined for 189 tackles in 2013, and that figure should increase as Galambos steps into the full-time role.

"We've got to be the leaders of the group," Gonzalez said. "We all played last year. Me and Todd started all the games, Matt played a lot, but the linebackers just need to be vocal. To be a great defense, the linebackers need to step up big."

Gonzalez, too, has taken a unique path in his five years at Pitt. He originally committed as a quarterback, then moved to safety before finally settling at outside linebacker at the tail end of the 2012 season.

Even still, he admitted he faced a bit of a learning curve at times last season.

"From the first game to the last game, I think I got better each game, so there's always new things you can learn," he said. "Right now I'm still improving, so still things I've got to learn and that's really it."

Part of that learning curve can be attributed to the intricacies of the outside linebacker position. Particularly at Gonzalez's strong-side position, his duties range from playing in the box to stop the run, to dropping back and covering tight ends or even wide receivers.

That can take some time to learn, but linebackers coach Chris Haering said Gonzalez has done a good job adjusting to his different roles in the past year.

"I think in our defense, there's a lot of moving parts and guys have to understand what their responsibilities are," Haering said. "But as far as the outside linebackers are concerned, he's going to be out in space, walked away in certain formations, and then in other formations, he's going to be an in-the-box player and get physical in there and be a presence. I think our guys have done a good job, but it's a work in progress."

Sam Werner: and Twitter @SWernerPG.

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