Spring Practice Notebook: Running Backs

PITTSBURGH -- The University of Pittsburgh football program has had just one player surpass 1,000 rushing yards in the past decade, but this could be the season that mark is eclipsed again.

Junior LaRod Stephens-Howling came close last fall with 893 yards and nine touchdowns, but he isn't the only Panthers player who could break loose. Sophomore Kevin Collier showed some promise last season as well, and incoming freshman recruit LeSean McCoy is expected to do well, too.

"I was a freshman last year, a big-timer coming in, and it's all talk,'' Collier said. "You can't expect a freshman to come in and just dominate. He has to come in and learn the playbook, too, and that's why I want to seize the moment while I have the chance.''

Stephens-Howling also is taking advantage of his opportunities during Pitt's spring practice sessions at the UPMC Sports Complex, but for him it all started during the Panthers' offseason workouts.

"I just pretty much went all out,'' Stephens-Howling said. "I figured that since it's my junior year, it's time for me to get as big as I can. So, I went all out in the weight room. Buddy's really on us. He's really changed the program around, so I think I really changed my mindset.

"I know I have to work more in the weight room, to get bigger and stronger, so that's what I've been doing. And I feel a lot stronger in my legs, but that's what I needed, because I came here with little legs and a bigger body. So, I feel more powerful in my legs now.''

Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt gushed about Stephens-Howling's work ethic since he arrived on campus more than two years ago.

"LaRod's ready to play right now,'' Wannstedt said. "He's one of the guys we can count on, but the only thing with him is that we have to watch that he doesn't get banged up.

"He's not a 220-pound tailback. ... But we have enough guys now with Kevin Collier here and McCoy coming in. That can only help LaRod, but I'm looking forward to seeing all our guys run.''

Collier ran for 115 yards and two touchdowns last season, but with an inexperienced quarterback at the helm -- whether it's junior Bill Stull, redshirt freshman Kevan Smith or incoming frosh Pat Bostick -- Pitt could lean on its running game even more this season.

"The opportunity is huge for every player in the backfield,'' Collier said. "So, I'm just learning the playbook as much as I can, but every day we talk about the opportunity that you get by playing.

"And that's what we all want to do. I got a little bit last season, not as much as I wanted, but I took advantage of it. This spring, it should help me out a lot where I'll get into the games more often.''

Pitt running backs coach David Walker believed that every bit running back will get playing time, maybe in situational work, and Stephens-Howling agreed. It might mean less yardage for him, the two-time Panthers rushing leader isn't concerned about that right now.

"We should have great balance this season, a little bit of everything with all three tailbacks, so that should really help out our offense,'' Stephens-Howling said. "If I'm feeling pressure from this situation, I'm going to mess up. So, I'm just concerned about making myself better for the team, and that way we'll push each other.''

And that should make Pitt's running game a lot stronger as well, even if the program has to go another season without a back surpassing 1,000-yard rushing mark.

"Sure, we'd like to ride a guy, if he can handle a lot of carries,'' Walker said. "But our only concern is moving the sticks on offense. Whichever running back carries the load, it really doesn't matter to me. Right now, I think we'll probably use all of our tailbacks and even our fullback, Conredge Collins, but we'll see what happens when the season rolls around.''

And then everyone will know if Pitt can have a 1,000-yard rusher.

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