April 26, 2007

Spring wrap-up: The biggest question

Coming out of spring practice a year ago, the Pitt football team counted the linebacker corps among its strengths. The group featured senior starters H.B. Blades and Clint Session, sophomore speedster Tommie Campbell, and experienced senior reserve Brian Bennett. The group was laden with players who had talent, players who had experience, and players who had both. Even if the defensive line struggled again, the logic went, the linebackers would be able to pick up the slack.

My, how perceptions changed over the course of the season.

By the end of the year, Session and Campbell had been exposed as athletic players whose non-physical limitations were almost too much to overcome, while Bennett's hard work, dedication, and couldn't make up for a deteriorating body. Of the group, only Blades played up to expectations, recording 147 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 2 interceptions, 7 pass breakups, 2 quarterback hurries, 2 fumble recoveries, 1 forced fumble, and 2 blocked kicks.

But while the linebackers of 2006 had their issues and shortcomings, they at least brought experience to the position. Entering spring camp 2007, Blades, Session, and Bennett had moved on with their life's work and Campbell was serving an indefinite suspension from the team that isn't likely to end. The result was that the Pitt coaches would need to create an entirely fresh group of linebackers for the 2007 season.

One benefit to Project Build-a-Linebacking-Corps '07 was the move of defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads. Rhoads had previously worked with the defensive backs, but for this season the decision was made to shift his focus into the front seven, and he took over the linebackers. Not only did the move allow Rhoads, as coordinator, to become more actively involved in the run defense, it also paid dividends for the linebackers, as his fiery style and clear passion for defense went a long way in developing the young players at the position.

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