The Pitt football team entered training camp 2011 with a handful of position battles, but inside linebacker could turn out to be the Panthers' longest - and most productive - competition.
Pitt has returning starters in redshirt seniors Max Gruder and Tristan Roberts - who have a combined 34 career starts - along with upstart redshirt sophomore Shane Gordon, competing for two starting jobs.
In spring camp, Gruder and Roberts were the clear first-teamers, but a mid-camp injury put Gruder on the sidelines and gave Gordon an opportunity. According to the coaches, Gordon took advantage of that opportunity, so through the first four days of training camp, they have rotated Gruder, Roberts, and Gordon.
On Thursday, Gruder and Gordon took the lead reps in the rotation, working on the first-team defense throughout practice. That put Roberts on the second team with a rotating cast of younger players, but that doesn't necessarily mean that Gruder and Gordon have won the jobs.
"It goes back and forth every day," defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said after practice. "Whoever performs the best goes with the first group the next day."
So Gruder and Gordon apparently were the standouts on Wednesday, thus leading to their duties on Thursday. Gordon was a standout in Thursday's practice, so there's a good chance he'll be with the first team once again on Friday.
It's rather unique to have two redshirt seniors - both returning starters - caught in a three-man competition for two starting jobs, but Patterson likes the way Gruder and Roberts have responded to the challenge.
"Competition is always healthy; it keeps people from getting comfortable," Patterson said. "They work a little bit harder and give a little more effort, and that makes everyone better.
"They understand that you're not going to go through a season with just two linebackers. They saw it last year when Dan Mason went down and someone had to step in and play. So the competition has been good and they understand that they're all going to play a role. They all have unique abilities, all of them will be utilized, and we'll rotate to keep them fresh. That will make us better for the long haul."
In 2010, Gruder was second on the team with 84 total tackles - a near-even split of 43 solo stops and 41 assisted tackles - while Roberts recorded 40 tackles, 4.5 of which went for loss. Gordon appeared in all 13 games primarily on special teams but also as a part of the base defense at times.
Patterson said he has been impressed with the redshirt sophomore this week.
"Shane Gordon, honestly, has had probably the most consistent camp at this point," he said. "I'll be honest: Shane has been the biggest surprise. Gruder has done about what you would expect, very smart, always where he's supposed to be. And Tristan is kind of a combination of both."
The combination Roberts brings is a mix of athleticism and "smarts," to use Patterson's word. But while there is overlap among the three linebackers, Patterson says there enough to separate them as players.
"I like the uniqueness of each one of them. I like the experience of the fifth-year seniors; that makes up, sometimes, for athleticism and being able to play fast because they're doing what they're coached to do."
In previous years, Pitt could have used all three linebackers in Dave Wannstedt's 4-3 scheme, but the system Patterson has brought to the Panthers narrows that number down. The new defense is a 3-4, with specialized players at the two outside linebacker spots and more traditional linebackers inside.
The only real difference between the two inside linebacker positions is that the strong-side (SAM) linebacker works to the wide side of the field, while the weak-side (WILL) linebacker works to the boundary. Patterson said that Pitt could deploy any combination of Gruder, Roberts, and Gordon at the SAM and WILL positions.
"The top three guys are interchangeable, especially Gruder and Tristan because they're so smart," Patterson said. "We try to keep Shane to the field side where we can use his athleticism, but the other two are interchangeable."