Rachid Ibrahim swung out of the backfield on a wheel route during Pitt's scrimmage Saturday at Heinz Field. Manny Stocker delivered a perfect ball to him and, as two defensive backs caromed off one another, no defender stood between Ibrahim and the end zone.
A year ago, before his Achilles injury, it would've been no problem for Ibrahim to sprint the 60-some yards between himself and the goal line for a touchdown. But Saturday, in some of his earliest work against live contact since returning to health, Ibrahim wasn't certain he'd make it.
Mainly because he hadn't run that far in almost eight months.
But Ibrahim calls himself a playmaker and, for the first time since fall camp, Ibrahim made a play. When he reached the end zone, Ibrahim completed a 68-yard touchdown pass on which he did most of the work on the ground.
"I thought I was going to get tackled from behind but I saw myself pulling away," Ibrahim said. "That’s something I hadn’t seen yet, but I didn’t have that opportunity to run that far so that gave me an opportunity to see where I’m at and I felt great about it."
Ibrahim's yellow non-contact jersey was removed by the staff during practice last week. He responded to make the biggest play Saturday.
The coaches are still counting his reps, but Ibrahim's making the most of his chances. While Ibrahim would've preferred to avoid his Achilles injury, the silver lining of such an injury occurring in August was that it allowed him to recover in time to participate in Pitt's offseason "Fourth Quarter" conditioning program.
Winter workouts provided Ibrahim an early crack at developing trust in his healed tendon, so much so he was sure in his ability to change direction and do everything else required of a running back at full speed.
Ibrahim saw the field in each of Pitt's 26 games during his first two season as a Panther, but mostly as a third-down back in passing situation. Ibrahim carried 60 times for 399 yards and caught 20 passes for 161 yards in those two seasons.
He looked forward to increased playing time as James Conner's backup in 2015 before he was injured in a non-contact drill during fall camp.
Ibrahim was even more excited at the coaching staff's intent to use him as more than a pass-catcher out of the backfield. Head coach Pat Narduzzi made it clear he wanted his backs to do everything, even making it a point to use James Conner more in the passing game during the fall camp.
"The NFL isn’t drafting a ton of third-down backs," Narduzzi said. "They want a complete back like a Le’Veon Bell who can do it all. He can catch it out of the backfield, but he can run too."
Had Ibrahim remained healthy for the 2015 season, Narduzzi thinks he would have put his playmaking ability on full display--especially after Conner went down for the season with a right MCL tear.
"I’m guessing [Ibrahim] probably would have been the starting tailback and we wouldn’t have even known who Qadree Ollison is if he hadn’t gotten hurt," Narduzzi said. "I’ve got a lot of faith in what he can do."
As much as Narduzzi wanted his backs to excel in all facets on offense, Ibrahim wanted to do so even more.
"I love that he thinks that because the first two years I was kind of used more in the passing game," Ibrahim said. "When coach Narduzzi said he wanted everybody to do everything and I love that because it’s always what I wanted to do."
Ibrahim's return gives the Panthers at least three reliable running backs in the stable between the redshirt junior, 2015 ACC Rookie of the Year Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall. Running backs coach Andre Powell said last week that, if Pitt played that day, Hall would probably sit atop the depth chart.
Narduzzi says he will use as many running backs as he can if they prove themselves worthy, and offensive coordinator Matt Canada has already installed packages with two, even three backs on the field at a time, Ibrahim said. He doesn't quite know yet where he would fall on the depth chart, and will keep his head down then let the chips fall where they may when it's time to decide who's on the field.
"I’m going to just keep working," Ibrahim said. "Wherever the coaches put me on the field, I’m glad to do it and help the team out.