Pitt Panthers Positional Preview: Running Backs


Once more, we are nearing the time when the entire Pitt program congregates on the South Side and prepares for a demanding next handful of months. And, once more, a smile can begin to return to a previously staggered face waiting for the season to return.

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In this piece, we are going to shed light on what should be a very strong stable of running backs taking formation behind quarterback Chad Voytik.

We shall proceed in the order of projected depth chart positioning;

James Conner – Junior

How can we really expect more from a player that ran over the ACC en route to ACC Player of the Year honors?

To recap his season, he was a workhorse that carried the rock 298 times, or, 57% of the teams rushing attempts. Along with the attempts came 1,765 yards and a mind boggling 26 touchdowns. While prolific on the ground, he wasn’t given much of an opportunity through the air as James Conner amassed an underwhelming five receptions last season, for a whopping seventy yards.

Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

But, let’s look at how he can surpass those numbers, particularly in the pass game.

As we all know, their was a glaring deficiency of production, rather appearances, from Conner on third down. Of all his carries in 2014, only 32 came on third down.

Which suggests a couple scenarios. First being that he had carries when it was two or less yards to gain. Second being, the Panthers found themselves in such long-to-go conversion attempts they handed the ball off to concede the obvious on the next down.

New offensive coordinator, Jim Chaney, could be the perfect fit to fully round out Conner’s game. Last season at Arkansas, Chaney coordinated an offense that produced two 1,000 yard backs. Not just that, but backs that produced out of the backfield in the pass game.

Including him on third down and catching the ball can be the missing cog the offense desperately needed a season ago. I’m not saying we need him to run twenty-yard out-routes or a fade pattern, but even something as simple as a leak out behind one of the mammoth tight ends would suffice to further open the offense in order to operate more efficiently in the latter stages of the game.

Conner will receive all the carries in the world in 2015 and rightfully so. After all, he is an All-American and reigning conference Player of the Year. Conner has his name linked to each and every major individual award he is eligible for this preseason, so it should be intriguing to see how the season pans out with Heisman expectations placed upon his shoulders.

If Conner can produce even three quarters of his production a season ago, we have to count ourselves as extremely fortunate.

Chris James – Sophomore

With one season in the books for the stout and physical runner Chris James, their should be a sense of ease among the Pitt faithful. Chris James is as great of a security blanket Pitt has had since the Dion Lewis and Ray Graham days.

Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re not familiar with James, he was one of the most highly touted running backs out of Notre Dame Prep in Illinois in several years. A four-star recruit by Rivals and the twenty-second ranked back in the country for the 2014 class.

The 2014 campaign delivered a bright flash in sparing yet well-earned time. We saw James march his way for 437 yards on 87 carries(third on team behind Voytik) with four trips to the end-zone.

He is a player that fully compliments everything that James Conner is as a player. Chris James is so shifty and provides such a quick burst, that it will be increasingly difficult for defenses to completely defend both backs throughout the course of the game. When one comes out, the other comes in and displays a new field of strengths and spunk out of the backfield.

I understand that I said that Conner should come close to replicating his stats from last season, but with that being said, I fully expect Chris James to contend for additional playing time. Playing time that is warranted less out of need of rest for the first team but more out of maximizing what his talents can provide and using them to change the outcome of a game. Something in which I believe Chris has the opportunity to provide; game changing moments.

Behind the James’ are two very worthy and capable players as well in Rachid Ibrahim and Qadree Ollison.

Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Ibrahim, a junior, is a player that I classify as an unsuspecting spark plug. A player that you wouldn’t expect to provide a jolt of electricity but is voltage you are thankful for when it happens.

Ollison, a redshirt-freshman, is a player in which I raved about following the spring game in April. He showed the urge and desire to deliver contact in the middle and then look for lanes on the outside once following his blocks to the second tier.

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  • Stephen Ozekoye is a redshirt freshman walk-on that we shouldn’t expect a game-changing play out of. But a player that provides extra depth.

    Darrin Hall enters this fall as a four-star freshman that will most likely be red shirting to save a year of eligibility. Even though he is down on the depth chart, that isn’t a knock on his talent. Their is just no room for him at this time on the active and congested roster.

    The Panthers boast a very capable core of running backs that handfuls of teams wishes they could possess. It’s a group that should not be under-utilized due to the varying and elusive talents each back carries with them. The opportunities ought to be endless under the new regime. A regime that cherishes and operates through the backfield and uses it in a way that opens up other weapons on the field like Tyler Boyd, J.P Holtz, Scott Orndoff, and Dontez Ford among others.

    What I have yet to mention is the offensive line. It is a retooled yet bulldozing-like line that even with the loss of Jaryd Jones-Smith for the season, should be at the tops of the ACC in means of production. They, more than anything, should be the golden reason this unit succeeds each week.

    Their are going to be challenges, we all know that. But a major key to success will be relying on Conner and Ibrahim for their veteran presence and expressing their leadership to not only take their position-mates, but the entire team over the hump and to the next level of the ACC.

    Please, feel free to express your opinion in the comments section below!


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    Next: Pitt Quarterback Preview: Voytik Leads The Charge

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