Depth, talent aplenty at running back

Despite having only three completely healthy running backs for the spring practice period, the depth (and talent) outlook at the position is bright for Pitt.

Appearances can be deceiving, the adage goes. 

One might think a 1,000-yard rushing season and ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year performance would be enough to secure a starting job in the next season. One might think a team with two healthy upperclassmen at one given spot on the depth chart is thin at the position. Head coach Pat Narduzzi says he would like to have at least three, maybe four, backs just to play, and that's not counting reserves. 

Usually, one would be right. But not so much when it comes to Pitt's running backs. 

Qadree Ollison carried 212 times for 1,121 yards and 11 touchdowns after James Conner's season was lost to a knee injury. Yet, running backs coach Andre Powell says he might not be at the top of the depth chart if the season started today. 

Darrin Hall, who gained 257 yards and scored twice as a true freshman, is pushing Ollison this spring. 

One any given rushing play, an offense can only block 10 players on defense at maximum. Powell's emphasis to his group this spring is for the running backs to beat the one unblocked defender in one-on-one situations, and that's where Hall's excelled so far. 

"Can you make a play?" Powell said. "Do we block a four-yard play and you get four yards? Sometimes we block a four-yard play and you have to make a play."

In turn, those four-yard plays become seven-yard gains that make an offense a bit more explosive. Narduzzi promises Hall will be a player who stands out in the Blue-Gold Spring Game at Heinz Field April 16.

"I always come in with the same mindset," Hall says, "compete. But now I’m right there. Now I just have to take it over the edge and get the [starting] spot."

As far as Ollison goes, Narduzzi just wants him to remain humble and continue to improve. 

"They don’t give you a sophomore all-conference player award," Narduzzi said. "That was a year ago...Never forget how you got where you were last year.”

Ollison, a redshirt sophomore this fall, doesn't need anyone to tell him to stay humble. He does it himself.

"You can always do more," Ollison said. "I had 1,100 yards last year, but there was stuff I could have done to get 1,200 yards or even more."

Behind Ollison and Hall is Chawntez Moss, a mid-year enrollee after he graduated early from Bedford High School in Ohio. 

The transition from high school to college is tough enough for any freshman, let alone a student-athlete in the middle of the school year. Moss says the "strain" of Pitt's offseason workout program was the most arduous part of his move to college.

On the field, Moss is focused on an area that provides plenty of pitfalls for young running backs: pass protection.

"Coach Powell tells our running back room it's about being tough dudes," Moss said. "I feel like I’m a tough guy so when we do the pass blocking, I just barrel down. They’re older than me and they might be stronger than me, but it’s about heart on the field."

Another member of the Class of 2016 may join Moss in the Pitt backfield in Darrin Hall, also out of Ohio. While Hall was ranked as a 4-star recruit as a running back, he also played defensive back and there could be another battle in the coaches' room for Hall's services. Since Jordan Whitehead went to the defense last season, offensive coordinator Matt Canada's group may be in line for the next athlete. 

But with Narduzzi breaking ties with an eye towards his defense, Hall could end up with Josh Conklin as well. 

However, Pitt's depth at running back could still be rock-solid. 

Rachid Ibrahim practiced Thursday and it was the first day this spring he did not wear a yellow non-contact jersey. Ibrahim played in all 26 of Pitt's games before he suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in fall camp last year, and he commands time on the field as a weapon in the rushing and passing game when he returns to full health.

And then there's James Conner, the 2014 ACC Player of the Year who missed nearly all of 2015 with a knee injury and then was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma around Thanksgiving. By all accounts his treatment is going well, and Conner has been at all of Pitt's spring workouts save for one.

One can never say for certain where football will fall, though, when cancer is involved. But knowing Conner's attitude and personality, it would be unwise to bet against him in any endeavor.

"He had his ninth chemo [Monday] and he has two more to go," Narduzzi said. "So over a football season he’s going into the fourth quarter of his chemotherapy, and you know what we do in the fourth quarter."

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