A Look Ahead: RBs, WRs

Pitt's offensive personnel for its 2013 finale against Bowling Green will almost be the exact same personnel for its 2014 opener.

Pitt's running game was up and down all year. After a 229-yard performance by James Conner in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, there's reasons to be optimistic for 2014.

The running game was a question mark heading into the season, and was inconsistent throughout the season. There were a lot of high marks, though.

The biggest question in replacing last year's tandem of Ray Graham (1,042 yards, 11 TD) and Rushel Shell (641 yards, 4 TD). As a team, Pitt rushed for 1,730 yards.

Pitt replaced that by rushing for a total of 1,634 yards, led by James Conner (799 yards, 8 TD) and Isaac Bennett (797 yards, 7 TD). Rachid Ibrahim also saw some limited action, with 136 yards.

The ground game fell a little bit short of its 2012 totals, but considering they were replacing an entire battery with a whole new one, the new crop of running backs didn't fare too bad.

All three return for 2014, with the addition of four-star running back Chris James, and three-star running backs Qadree Ollison and Dennis Briggs. At least one of them should see the field.

On paper, it looks like Conner and Bennett were a one-two punch. In reality, the coaching staff went with whoever had the hot hand. Both rushed for over 100 yards in the same game once, that being the win over New Mexico. In games where Conner rushed for 100 yards of more, Pitt was 3-1 (New Mexico, Duke, North Carolina, Bowling Green). When Bennett rushed for 100 yards or more, Pitt was 2-1 (New Mexico, Old Dominion, Miami).

Conner's 229-yard performance was only outdone by Bennett's 240 yards against Old Dominion.

Both backs, for the season, rushed for nearly the same total. It may not have always been in the same game, but we're seeing the direction this coaching staff wants to go with the running game. With a full year of shouldering the workload under their belts, there's reasons to be optimistic for 2014. Throw in the return of Ibrahim, the three incoming freshmen, there's enough to supplement the running game. Plus, four of five starters returning on the offensive line.

The number of returning lettermen in the ground game, and the offensive line should help boost the receiving game, led by Tyler Boyd. Even though Pitt has to replace Devin Street, Boyd (85 receptions, 1,174 yards) got enough of a taste, playing the final two games of the season with Street injured.

There was a little bit of a question as to who would start opposite of Street this past season. Boyd quickly answered that question in training camp, and as early as the first game with Florida State.

Dontez Ford will get a good look this spring, and in training camp. Redshirt freshman Chris Wuestner saw action in three games. Throw in guys who redshirted this past year--Zach Challingsworth, Reggie Green, Jester Weah--the opportunity is wide-open for someone to come in and compete for reps.

What should also help, is a group of tight ends coming back, all three who saw significant playing time in 2013. J.P. Holtz is Pitt's active leader in receptions by a tight end, with 36 catches for 382 yards. Manasseh Garner was Pitt's third leading receiver with 33 catches for 391 yards. In the final four games of the season, Garner racked up 17 catches for 227 yards--a sign he is on the upswing, ready to contribute with even more touches. Scott Orndoff didn't play in the final four games due to injury, but still factored in heavily, catching six passes for 50 yards and two touchdowns.

Pitt has a lot of pieces in place for its offense to be successful in 2014. The only new piece to the puzzle is quarterback Chad Voytik. With all the skill players coming back, the number of starters returning to the offensive line, it should ease the transition for the new starting quarterback.

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