In his first spring as running backs coach at Pitt, Desmond Robinson preaches one simple thing to his running backs—‘be the best they can be.'
"The main thing I'm concerned about is attention to detail and effort," Robinson said. "The teaching part, that's my job. The athletic ability part, that's a gift from God. The only thing I'm concerned about is trying to take their skills, develop them and let them be the best that they can be with the athletic ability. That's what I'm trying to develop with them right now."
He does know what he says when Graham comes back, when Rushel Shell gets here in August, and with Malcolm Crockett—who has been limited this spring, that there will be more bodies in the mix, which might result in some difficult decisions. Robinson has taken a look at some of Graham's film, but he's trying not to let the film dictate his impression of Graham.
"I've watched him on film, but I haven't had a chance to evaluate him like I've had a chance to some of these other kids," Robinson said. "I do know this—he's working as hard on the mental part of the game. He can't do the physical part. I'm excited because I like his work ethic, even though he's not in pads or dressed right now."
Instead, it's been Bennett taking a bulk of the reps with the first-team, with Davis getting the bulk of the second-team reps, with a few first-team reps mixed in. That's not to say that Bennett is firmly ahead of Davis. It's also not to say that Bennett does things that Davis can do, and vice-versa.
"Both of them are young kids," Robinson said. "I think both of them have great speed. I think their vision is what you expect from a young kid. I do think they are on the right track to developing into being a decent player. I can't compare them right now. We've only been in pads two or three days. It's kind of hard. At the end of spring, you can ask me that question, and I still might not answer it, but I'll have a better idea."
Bennett rushed for 237 yards on 58 carries in five games played last year, including two starts. He also caught 14 passes for 88 yards and a touchdown. Davis played in all 13 games, carrying the ball 17 times for 48 yards. He made a bigger impact on special teams, where he averaged 21.1 yards a kick return, including a season-high 104 yards on five returns in a loss at Rutgers. The plan this spring is not to get them pumped up to beat Ray Graham for a starting spot, as much as it is for them to just make themselves better.
"I think the mentality we're trying to develop—they're not competing against Ray," Robinson said. "They're competing to be the best that they can be. The benchmark has to be set high. You don't want to base it off somebody else, but what if you want to excel and be better? I'm trying to get them in the mindset that you're competing to be the best that you can be. I'm not going to say that's going to be better than Ray. If you have a chance to set a higher goal than the guy before you, the only way you're going to do it is have your benchmark higher. I think that's the mindset we try to have with these guys."
One of the things that might be challenging for either of them, is the addition of having a fullback in there. Mark Giubilato, Derrick Burns and Adam Lazenga are all working in at fullback. That part of it isn't much of a transition for Bennett and Davis. The biggest part for Robinson, is just like the running backs. It's getting the fullbacks—most of who have a new shot at getting to the field—to buy into his ‘be the best they can be' mentality.
"We got some (fullbacks) not on scholarship playing football that are doing some good things," Robinson said. "It's a long spring. We got to see how things shake out, how they hold up. I really believe this—we've got guys that are in the program that we can develop and be able to do the thing that Coach Chryst wants us to do with this offense."
If you ask the players, they seem to be buying in so far.
"I love his old-school way of coaching," Bennett said of Robinson. "He is a ‘one cut and go' guy. He doesn't like a lot of dancing by his running backs. He is a smart man and I'm enjoying learning from him."
Running backs aside, working with new ones, returning starters, Robinson says he is enjoying being back in Pittsburgh. He was a linebacker and defensive end from 1974-78, and got his collegiate coaching career started as a graduate assistant at Pitt in 1981.
"It has been really exciting to be back at Pitt," Robinson said. "There is something special about coaching at a school that has meant so much to your life and that you are emotionally invested in. I love working with these kids and this coaching staff. I'm a big believer in what Coach Chryst is doing here and it is a privilege to be part of that plan."