Spring Football Assessment: The Running Backs

Desmond Brown was a spring football hero, winning away the prime backup spot to Ray Graham. With Graham poised to be Pitt's money maker on offense, the biggest thing to watch for out of this running back position between now and September 3 will be to see if Brown holds on to that backup spot, or if one of the incoming freshmen take it away from him.

The two positions on the field where there is a clear number-one are at quarterback and running back. Though it didn't look productive, Ray Graham played in just four series in the spring game, and for good reason—why risk injury in monsoon-like conditions, but also why risk injury when you're as confident in Graham as the Pitt coaching staff is.

Graham finished Saturday's Blue-Gold scrimmage with five carries for 10 net yards, and an additional 33 yards on three receptions. The coaching staff took the opportunity to give a couple of the walk-ons some additional carries, in Desmond Brown and Randy Morris.

Brown led all rushers Saturday with 64 yards on 15 carries. Morris also added a touchdown, adding another 27 yards on the ground for the Panthers.

Brown was one of the camp heroes. He will have junior eligibility in 2011, and right now has the edge on incoming freshmen Jeremiah Bryson, Malcolm Crockett and Corey Davis just because of familiarity, and a full spring in the system. Though redshirt freshman Derrick Burns began the spring as a backup at running back, and one that also practiced with the team during bowl game preparations in January, Brown was able to work his way past Burns to at least lock up that second-team spot for the spring.

At the same time, with Brown having the good spring, the three true freshmen will each be given an opportunity to show how good they really are. Isaac Bennett is also technically recruited as a running back, but head coach Todd Graham has already indicated that he will start off as a three-back, which is the hybrid tight end/fullback position. That three-back, ideally, has the opportunity to run the ball as Tulsa's Charles Clay did in 2010. We won't see too much of that while Pitt has Hubie Graham and Brock DeCicco at the three-back spot—at least not yet. Bryson put up record numbers at Smyrna (TN), leading his team all the way to the Tennessee Clas 6A state championship game. Bryson rushed for 1,515 yards and 19 touchdowns, and also added another 260 yards receiving on 20 catches with four touchdowns. Crockett rushed for 810 yards and five touchdowns as a senior at Friendship (DC) in seven games—big numbers despite being limited by an ankle injury in his senior year. Davis rushed for 1,800 yards and 31 total touchdowns as a senior at Gladewater (TX), on his way to second-team Class 3A all-state honors.

If any of them were to make a move, it's too tough to predict which one of them it would be, which is one of the beauties of having a new system in place. As opposed to the pro-style offense, which is more complex with more checkdowns for a quarterback for example, the toughest thing for the running back in this new system is getting the exchange with the quarterback under control. From there, it's about following your blockers, and showcasing your speed. The system is designed for all offensive players to make plays with little worry of having to remember multiple assignments. On the surface, it really looks like it asks the running backs to just run. If that's the case, whichever of these freshmen running backs showcases the most raw ability, will be in best contention to see the field in 2011. At the same time, they also have the challenge of unseating Desmond Brown as that top backup, which will really be what this running back position is about heading into the start of the 2011 season.

Much like the quarterback position, the starting position is in good hands—arguably better hands because of the return of Pitt's most heralded star on either side of the ball, Ray Graham. There will be room for at least one other running back to get some carries, and depending on situational plays there are, room for one more.

The biggest thing to watch for in August will be to see if Desmond Brown holds off the three running backs coming in. There's reason to believe he can. If he doesn't, then we'll immediately have an idea of how good a judge of talent that Todd Graham and his staff are, by bringing in running backs that are able to contribute to the system right away.

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