Number Four on my list of concerns, five being the least worrisome and one being the most, is our remaining talent at Running Back.
Anyone who has been following PITT football, (and letting our FSU friends in on it), has to know by now our projected starting tailback, Rushel Shell, has taken his ball and gone home. Actually, he isn’t going home as that is in the local area but going about as far away from PITT, the city of Pittsburgh, home and his fiancée’ and twins as he can get. He’ll end up in the Pac-10.
Shell was a prime recruit for PITT in that he was a local product and one who set the schoolboy record for yards gained in a high school career. Not only that, he went to the same HS as PITT god Tony Dorsett and ran to glory on “Tony Dorsett Field”. Here is a sampling of what he did in his high school career:
“Shell rushed for a state-record 9,078 yards on 1,107 carries (8.2 avg.)…scored 110 career touchdowns, the most in WPIAL history…set a national record with 39 consecutive 100-yard games, eclipsing former Oklahoma Sooners great Billy Sims’ mark of 38 set in 1975…Shell rushed for 200 yards or more in 25 games…in 44 career contests, he averaged 206 yards per game…rushed for more than 2,000 yards in each of his final three seasons” …etc, etc.
So not only did he set PA records but topped some national marks as well. Seems like he’d be a perfect fit at his local university wouldn’t he? Especially since PITT is a school with a strong track record of putting running backs into the NFL.
Not so fast though as it seems young Mr. Shell had other ideas, rather self-centered ones and, in this writer’s opinion, misguided ones, but that is part of being an 18 year old who suddenly finds oneself out of the nest and drifting about on his own in college. Of course, that wasn’t the case in Shell’s situation; he was surrounded but people who not only wished him well but were dedicated to making his transition to college as smooth as possible, to say nothing of giving him a starting role on a BCS team but hey, there has to be an excuse in there somewhere, right?
Shell came to PITT with extraordinary hype and huge expectations on the part of the PITT fans. As a true freshman, had an exemplary game against an ACC opponent where he racked up 157 yards. He ran hard and was tough to bring down, but other than one game that he had a rather average year with a lot of inconsistency. Let’s not say this isn’t a loss of talent for us – it is. It just isn’t a big enough loss to grind the teeth over.
So the coaching staff and remaining players turned the page yesterday and got right on with spring practice. It was pretty telling that when Head Coach Paul Chryst walked onto the practice field at 2:00 pm yesterday he had a big grin on his face. I’m not sure he was too disappointed with how things turned out.
So, with all that drama finished we have waiting in the wings two pretty talented running backs in JR Isaac Bennett and rsSO Malcolm Crockett. Both were recruited in 2011 by ex-HC Todd Graham to be rushers in his “High Octane” ‘spreadable’ offense and both subsequently stuck with the program after Todd Graham slithered away in the dead of night. It’s good for them and good for PITT that they did stay as they will both get the chance to shine this coming season.
Isaac Bennett has gotten more playing time of the two. He been a fill in 3rd string back and has performed well in limited action. Last season Bennett rushed for 29 times for 141 yards with four TDs on a 4.9 ypc average. That’s pretty productive for 29 carries. Over his career he’s had a 4.3 ypc with five TDs. He went into this spring the solid #2 back and so now has an edge as the starter.
Watching Bennett yesterday I had the feeling that he’s going to be pretty good for us this year. He was hitting the holes quickly and breaking LOS tackle attempts. At one point the 1st string O & D were running a “1st and 10″ drill series and Bennett picked up six+ yards on four straight plays. Then on the next snap he broke through the LOS and cut outside left for a big gain. He looked good yesterday and in my conversations with people who have watched every practice he has looked pretty consistent also.
It will help that the offensive line will be better this year than last and with that I think Bennett, when given the ball on a regular basis, will make us pleasantly surprised at the production he brings as the starter. Keeping our fingers crossed of course.
Malcolm Crockett has played sparingly. He redshirted his freshman year and had 12 carries for 50 yards for 4.2 ypc. He’s been banged up this spring and hasn’t had the chance to get into real competition reps but his place in the two deep is somewhat assured.
Behind those two we have walk-on Desmond Brown who is small and quick and converted WR Demetrious Davis. Brown may get snaps in mop up or in case of injury but that will be the extent for those two I believe.
Coming in as 2013 recruits we have two intriguing options to help fill in the Shell-less gap. 6’2” 232 lbs James Conner, who played both RB and DE in HS, is a big, bruising back who will get a chance to move over to offense and stay there. He was recruited as a DE but was impressive carrying the ball also. He runs straight up and down and will benefit by training camp and coaching but he may be called on sooner than later.
All that said, one reason why I think we can look forward with anticipation is that the transfer by Shell almost assures that our star 2013 recruit – Tyler Boyd – will have some plays designed for him carrying the ball.
Boyd was a prolific local running back and in three years of play carried 397 times for 5009 yards and 89(!) TDs. That’s a 12.6 ypc average and scoring a TD every fifth time he touched the ball. Oh Boy!!
Here’s the rub though. Boyd is coming to PITT at around 6’2” and 180 LBs. Not the ideal size to be thrown in at RB as a true FR. He’s a speed burning game changer and while he’ll start out at WR we’ll see him help out at RB also.