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Pitt coach Chryst shakes up linebackers on first day of practice

| Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013, 7:15 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt linebacker Todd Thomas picks up a fumble on the first day of practice Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013, on the South Side.

Pitt coach Paul Chryst said he doesn't pay attention to depth charts.

But he does believe in lighting fires under his players, and that was behind the surprising shift at outside linebacker on the opening of training camp Tuesday. Redshirt freshman Mike Caprara replaced redshirt junior Todd Thomas as the first-team strong-side (sam) linebacker while redshirt junior Anthony Gonzalez moved from sam to weak side.

Thomas, who started 13 games over the past two seasons, said the move was unexpected but perhaps necessary.

“I did (need motivation), a little bit, little extra,” Thomas said after practice. “I am going to keep working hard and see how it unfolds. ... That's how the cookie crumbles. I have to go out and earn a spot.”

Chryst downplayed the existence of first and second teams in practice, even though there is a clear division during drills.

“Right now, everyone has to prove they can provide a role that you can rely on and play with,” he said. “Then, you find out how many of those guys you can use.”

Thomas said he used the demotion as motivation while knocking away three passes. He practiced with an attitude, getting physical in coverage with tight end J.P. Holtz and running back Rachid Ibrahim.

“The motivation worked, definitely,” Thomas said.

Chryst said before practice that Thomas can make an impact.

“I think he can give us some stuff, but he can play at a higher level than what he's been, need him to. That's not negative.”

He added, however: “I think he thinks a lot of himself, you know, and match it.”

Told after practice that Thomas used the demotion as motivation, Chryst said, “I would hope so.”

“You love the energy he brings. You love the competitiveness he brings. If you look around, a lot of players respond to Todd. That's all good stuff.”

Caprara played strictly middle linebacker in the spring while starter Shane Gordon recovered from a neck injury.

He impressed coaches with his work ethic and instincts while growing from 197 pounds last year to 6-foot, 225 pounds when he weighed in Tuesday.

“We think Mike has a chance to be pretty good,” Chryst said. “He's clearly a linebacker, but I don't know which one.”

Caprara may be shorter than the typical outside linebacker, but he welcomes the challenge of playing a new position, one that requires more pass coverage than he has done in the past.

“It's different, just because I played middle linebacker all my life,” said Caprara, who was a four-year starter at Woodland Hills and the school's all-time leading tackler. “It's another challenge I'm excited for.”

He disputes the perception that he is an overachiever.

“That's for you guys (reporters) to decide,” he said. “I have a job, and I have to do it.”

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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