David M. Hale 503d

ACC needs new group of running backs to emerge

The way Qadree Ollison sees it, the job is highly underrated. He knows from experience.

Two years ago, Pitt’s biggest star, James Conner, went down with a knee injury in the Panthers’ opener. In stepped Ollison, a redshirt freshman with moderate understanding of the playbook, an unrefined skill set and virtually no experience. And still, Pitt’s offense looked solid. Ollison ran for 1,000 yards and, so the theory went, no one missed a beat.

But here’s the truth: Running for 1,000 yards was tough, and Ollison still wasn’t nearly prepared for the job when he inherited it.

“I had a good season, but there were so many more yards I left on the field that season,” Ollison said. “I’ve gotten better in the passing game, pass blocking, just knowing the game in general, recognizing the little things. It’s made me a much better football player, and my game is way more polished.”

That’s the thing about being a running back. The details often are lost, even if the yards are still there.

So yeah, this season, the ACC will almost assuredly add a few new names to the list of 1,000-yard rushers, but that doesn’t mean the overall performance at the position might not take a big step back.

Overall, seven of the league’s 14 teams lost their top tailback, including Florida State (Dalvin Cook), Clemson (Wayne Gallman) and NC State (Matt Dayes). Of last year’s 10 top producers on the ground, eight are gone (and one of the remaining two is a quarterback). Miami’s Mark Walton is the lone returning runner who gained more than 800 yards. A year ago, the ACC returned seven 800-yard rushers (plus Conner, who had missed the 2015 season but ran for 1,765 yards in 2014).

Moreover, the veterans who are returning don’t exactly stand out as all-ACC types. Walton rushed for 1,117 yards last season, but he failed to average 4 yards per carry in six of 13 games, including limp performances against three of the four ranked foes he faced. Dedrick Mills at Georgia Tech looks like an emerging star, but he had his share of off-field concerns last season, too. Duke's Shaun Wilson, Virginia Tech's Travon McMillian, Syracuse's Dontae Strickland, Boston College's Jon Hilliman — there are no guarantees they’ll even hold on to the starting jobs for their respective teams. In fact, the seven backs who led their teams in rushing last season and also return for 2017 wrapped up the year by averaging just 54 yards per game in November and bowl season, which is roughly half the total of the seven who departed.

That’s not to say new stars won’t emerge, of course. Tavien Feaster at Clemson, Jaylen Smith at Louisville and, of course, Ollison at Pitt all have high upside for 2017. Cam Akers at Florida State certainly appears to be the real deal, too, even though Jimbo Fisher insists there’s likely to be more of a committee approach.

“To say Cam is our guy is not necessarily -- we have a lot of guys in that group,” Fisher said. “Right now, Jacques [Patrick] and those guys with experience are playing right there with him.”

Perhaps that’s because Fisher understands the same thing Ollison does, that it isn’t just a plug-and-play system for running backs.

“People think of running back as get the ball and run the ball,” Ollison said. “There’s so much more to it. You’ve got to read a three technique, read a shade, pass protection is so complex, being able to see stuff before it happens. There’s a lot more that goes into it than running the ball.”

Not since 2012 has the ACC had fewer than six rushers finish with 900 yards, so odds are a handful of backs who aren’t big names today will have earned star status by year’s end. The job isn’t easy, but someone has to do it.

Still, last year was something of an outlier in ACC backfields. From Conner to Cook, Elijah Hood to T.J. Logan, there was a depth of talent that doesn’t come around too often.

“I don’t see it as stepping into [Conner’s] shoes but all the backs who’ve been at Pitt,” Ollison said. “And he stepped into their shoes when he got here as well. I have big shoes to fill, for sure.”

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