Pitt RBs go from question to strength

It was around this time last year that former Pitt running back Rushel Shell, the team’s leading returning rusher and expected starter for 2013, decided to transfer, leaving the Panthers’ running game a complete unknown. Isaac Bennett was an unproven junior thrust into the spotlight, and an unheralded freshman named James Conner, who was originally recruited as a defensive end, was still in high school, getting ready for his senior prom.

What was once one of the biggest question marks on Pitt’s roster, however, has now become one of its greatest reasons for optimism.

This spring, the Panthers return all three leading rushers from a year ago -- Bennett, Conner and Rachid Ibrahim, who was also a true freshman last year. They’ve got a new position coach in John Settle, who coached with Paul Chryst at Wisconsin. Bennett has matured and is now a veteran starter, while Conner had a spectacular rookie season, leading the team in rushing yards (799) and rushing touchdowns (eight). He also is coming off an MVP performance in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl win over Bowling Green. With four returning starters on the offensive line, those within the program have high hopes that the running game can be even better this fall, alleviating some pressure on a first-year starting quarterback.

“It’s a lot stronger,” Conner said of his position group. “I love the position running back and all of us -- Rachid got playing time, I did, Isaac did -- everybody is a lot more comfortable now. I think we can really make some noise this year with me and Rachid having a year under our belt, and Isaac being a senior; he wants to go out with a bang. And we’ve got two rookies coming in, so we’re going to have a lot of depth at running back. It’s going to be a great year.”

They already have a solid foundation to build on.

Bennett and Conner combined for 1,596 yards and 15 touchdowns last year. There has been no animosity between them, only a mutual respect for their collective success and a good-natured competition that continues to make them both better. Conner capped his season with a 229-yard performance in the bowl win, setting a school record and surpassing former Pitt legend Tony Dorsett’s 202 rushing yards against Georgia in the 1977 Sugar Bowl. Conner averaged 5.5 yards per carry, and had four 100-yard rushing performances. Bennett had 797 rushing yards and seven touchdowns last year, while Ibrahim was used as a change-of-pace back and in third-down situations.

As to how the carries will be divided this fall, and what each of their roles will be, Chryst said he probably won’t know until summer camp. The biggest difference is the meaningful experience Chryst has to choose from.

“There’s a lot more known, and I’m excited because you’ve got two of the three that this is their first spring,” Chryst said. “There’s a lot of growth that can still be made and improvements. We juggled our staff a little bit, and I’m excited for them to be coached by John Settle, whom I worked with at Wisconsin. … I’m excited for them. I thought Isaac has settled in, and has matured as a player and a person. I certainly feel better there, and I’m excited about the two freshmen coming in.”

Those two freshmen - Chris James from Chicago Notre Dame College Prep and Qadree Ollison from New York Canisius were two of the top players in their respective states, and will only add to the depth and competition.

Settle, who spent the past three seasons coaching running backs in the NFL, has already had an impact on his players. He spent five seasons as running backs coach at Wisconsin (2006-10), where Chryst was the Badgers’ offensive coordinator.

“Everybody has the mindset of going out and getting better every day with Coach Settle,” Bennett said. “His experience and his resume, with him coaching us, you can tell that he knows the position and he’s pushing us to get better every day. That’s what it’s all about every day, just progression in some area. We really listen to him and take in everything he says. We’re just trying to come in here and get better every day.”

They’re already starting light years ahead of where they were last spring.