All season long, Pitt’s depth at the linebacker position has been tested. The unit’s season got off to a rough start when promising sophomore Elijah Zeise was lost to an ankle injury in the season opener.
Since then, Mike Caprara, the senior starter at the money position, has missed parts or all of the last four games with a nagging lower-body injury. Senior Bam Bradley has bounced back and forth from the money to the star position, helping at both spots, but he was injured against Virginia Oct. 15 and is doubtful to play this week.
Left to handle the bulk of the duties have been senior stalwart Matt Galambos and first-year starter Seun Idowu, with Quintin Wirginis and Saleem Brightwell putting in some work, as well. The linebacker position was supposed to be a strength of the team, with three starters or co-starters returning and Idowu and Zeise expected to provide speed and athleticism to combat spread offenses. Instead, it’s been a scramble drill nearly every week with the injuries that the unit has had to deal with.
Galambos, in particular, has taken it upon his shoulders to make sure the younger players are prepared and ready to go for gamedays.
“I’m definitely trying to help out the younger guys more,” Galambos said. “Saleem filled in and did a great job. Even Q [Wirginis] would go over and play that spot. Mike’s been absent a few weeks, but he’s been around, helping coaching up the guys. He’s been an excellent leader, as well.”
At Pitt’s practices, Caprara can be heard long before he can be seen. At a perhaps generous 6-foot, 225 pounds, he’s the smallest linebacker on the squad. But he makes his presence felt.
“He’s like a second coach, pretty much,” Idowu said. “He brings the juice in practice. Whenever we huddle up, he’s the guy. He’s a leader out there. I think he takes that leadership role. I look up to him personally. The energy that he has and the love that he has for the game is something that I can’t even match yet.”
“He’s really immersed himself as a coach,” linebackers coach Rob Harley said. “He’s going through the plays, coaching guys up. He’s helping me. … It’s probably helped him a little bit just to take a step back and see why we’re doing the things we’re doing. Obviously, it’s been emotionally tough for him in his senior year to miss a couple games, but he’s handled it extremely well.”
While Caprara is working his way back into playing shape — he’s listed as probable this week — the depth that the team has developed this season has set things up nicely for 2017. Brightwell, Idowu and Wirginis will return with a ton of added experience and Zeise could potentially be healthy be a bowl game.
Both Idowu and Wirginis have played at multiple spots and each has spent time in the third-down package this season.
While the return of Caprara will certainly be a boon to Pitt’s defense for the remainder of this season, the experience that the younger players have gained so far this season will be invaluable going forward.
Hear more from Galambos, Harley and Idowu: