Any discussion about the state of Pitt’s running game is almost forced to acknowledge the existence of Rushel Shell. His departure in the spring subtly changed the tenor of things. I’m not talking the preview magazine style of “who will run the football?” and citing the spot as a position of weakness.
It went from Pitt having a workhorse back with other backs behind him just being the change-0f-pace; to much more of a tandem or rotation of backs with Isaac Bennett leading the way but not relying on one player. But even after Shell departed there was and still is a strange confidence in Pitt fans that Pitt will get offense on the ground.
Part of it is an earned confidence. Over the last fifteen plus years it seems Pitt always has at worst a serviceable running game. Whether it was the individual talent of LeSean McCoy, the undersized but surprisingly effective Dion Lewis or LaRod Stephens-Howling. Even with Walt Harris and a pass-heavyt offense there were bursts with Brandon Miree and Kevan Barlow. Even Ray Kirkley could grind out some yards.
Then it is the system in place and the coach. Paul Chryst’s history as an offensive coordinator at Wisconsin is heavy on emphasizing a run, and adapting to the situation. Whether a workhorse, tandem or committee. So maybe Pitt won’t have a single player go for 1000 yards or more, but it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see two or three players total 1200-1500 yards.
From the spring practices to the present training camp, that confidence has been maintained even as the names have already changed. In the spring it was Isaac Bennett, Malcolm Crockett and Desmond Brown. Perhaps fullback Mark Giubilato getting some work. Now Bennett is still the lead guy (probably) but it’s James Conner, Crockett and perhaps Rachid Ibrahim. Gibilato is getting pushed by Jaymar Parrish.
Bennett started very strong in camp. Clearly establishing that he should be the starting tailback. Working hard at every opportunity.
“You keep the same goal in mind: Just to help the team get better every day,” he said.
Those Pitt fans wondering how the running game will survive without the team’s top two ball carriers from a year ago might have forgotten about Bennett.
Two years ago as a freshman, he started two games and averaged 4.1 yards per carry, carrying 42 times for 189 yards over a three-game stretch late in the season that made Pitt bowl-eligible. Last year — in only 29 attempts — he gained 4.9 yards per try.
The problem being that Bennett got banged up barely a week into camp and has been sidelined since. Coach Chryst has continued to say it is a minor injury — and no explanation of the injury beyond that. That he will be ready for the start of the season. Yet Bennett continues to be on the sideline with a brace – of varying size depending on the day — on his knee.
“Coaches told me, ‘You need to be ready because you are going to be getting the ball this year,’ ” he said after practice. When asked if he expects to be redshirted, he said, “No, I don’t believe so.”
Conner is a physically imposing running back (6-foot-2, 230 pounds) who played defensive end at a Pitt camp last summer before his senior year at Erie McDowell High School. But after Conner was named all-state at both positions by Pennsylvania Football News (end as a junior, running back as a senior), Pitt coaches decided to use him on offense.
Pitt needed help at running back even before Bennett’s injury, with only sophomore Malcolm Crockett (12 career carries), senior and former walk-on Desmond Brown and 185-pound freshman Rachid Ibrahim providing depth.
Connor had to be an attractive option for the Pitt coaches at running back at the start of camp, because he was a big physical back that would be an excellent change of pace from Bennett or Crockett. Or even Ibrahim. Bennett and Crockett are about the same size and weight — 5-10 or -11 and 205 pounds — while Connor is 6-2, 230 pounds. Ibrahim is nearly as tall as Connor, but is only around 185 pounds.
I really don’t see any way Ibrahim gets on the field this year that doesn’t include a Pitt’s own version of AIHRBG striking everyone down (an APHRBG).
Crockett seems to have been passed by Conner. Part of it certainly is that from spring practices to August, Crockett has struggled to hold on to the ball. Desmond Brown was a nice story in the spring coupled with his brother being Steelers WR Antonio Brown. Earning a scholarship and providing a needed body for some depth. But the reality has pushed him out of the picture.
Most of it, though, has to do with how well Connor has played whether with the first team or second team. He’s now got more than a little confidence to go with a chip on the shoulder.
“I plan on being the first running back on the field (for the opener Sept. 2 against Florida State),” Conner said.
Coach Paul Chryst is not ready to announce a starter, but Bennett hasn’t practiced since injuring his knee Aug. 10, the fifth day of training camp. Bennett, a junior who started two games as a freshman in 2011, ascended to the job when Ray Graham exhausted his eligibility last season and Rushel Shell left the team this spring.
Meanwhile, Conner has been one of the surprises of camp. At 6-foot-2, 235 pounds, he has displayed power and speed while trying to alter an upright running style that coaches detest.
“I have to run low to the ground to keep my balance and break the defenders,” he said.
Conner said he reported to camp weighing 250 pounds, but he changed his diet and lost between 10 and 15.
“I read something on the Internet — I shouldn’t be paying attention to that — but it said I can’t hit the long home run. So, I want to be able to break a 60-yard run and go the distance, instead of getting tripped up.
“Watching film from the first couple days of practice, I was, ‘Man, I look slow out there.’ Now I feel good.”
As for the chip on his shoulder…
Conner was an all-state selection last season at Class AAAA Erie McDowell, where he ran for 1,680 yards and 21 touchdowns. Yet, his only college offers — other than Pitt — came from four Mid-American Conference schools and Youngstown State.
That only served to fuel his desire to succeed.
“I don’t let anyone else tell me how good I can be,” he said. “I come out every day and try to outwork everybody on the field.”
Conner said he is accustomed to being the underdog. He has four older brothers, including one in the Air Force and another who is a cage fighter.
“Them beating me up all day, I have to have confidence,” he said.
To be fair, his low offer sheet had more to do with his grades. He was working hard to make them up the summer before his senior year, and he committed to Pitt in August which killed other interest. If you go back and read the his comments, his verbal to Pitt seems almost grudgingly given at that point. Annoyed that he didn’t have better offers/respect at that point. Still, if those kind of slights help him, by all means go for it.