The 2015 Pitt Panthers were dealt a surprising blow when starter James Conner went down with a season-ending MCL injury in the team's opener against Youngstown State. That thrust several players into the spotlight, including eventual starter Qadree Ollison.
Despite the loss of Conner, the running backs proved to be capable. Ollison led the way with a 1,000-yard season (1,048 yards) and ten touchdowns to go along with a 5.1 yard-per-carry average (204 carries), and was named a second-team All-Conference player. His totals could actually have been a little higher if he didn't share as much of the workload as he did. Darrin Hall and Chris James added 508 yards on 117 carries and when you factor in the 45 carries given to receiver Tyler Boyd and safety Jordan Whitehead, those four players accounted for a significant part of the ground attack.
If Conner doesn't return for his senior season (likely but not an absolute gimme), the Panthers' backfield situation still looks very crowded. If he does return, look out.
Ollison, James, and Hall are all underclassmen with two or three years of eligibility left. And while Boyd is likely to leave for the NFL, Whitehead figures to take at least some of the carries at running back as well and don't rule out guys like Quadree Henderson being used on some gadget running plays, either. The wild card in all of this, too, is junior Rachid Ibrahim. Ibrahim still has two seasons of eligibility left and his return gives the team four possibilities to pick up significant carries.
The question is how this whole thing shakes out with so many players coming back.
At the time of Hall's commitment along with Dennis Briggs', I maintained that I found it difficult to see all of those guys staying or remaining at running back. Briggs has already been placed on defense, so that helped a little. But I still think it will be hard to keep all four in the backfield because they all have at least two years of eligibility left.
I don't know enough to speculate on which guy would be the most likely to leave. And to be fair to the players, I'm not even going to hazard a guess (at least on paper, er, the internet). Without directly speculating, one thing worth pointing out, however, is the diminished use of Chris James. His lack of use early was explained as a concussion, but even as the season went on James was used little. His 56 carries were behind even that of Hall and he didn't have a single touchdown to his credit. James had only one carry in the team's final two games and in five of the 11 games he was active, he had three carries or less. This year's production was a far cry from even last season when he backed up James Conner and had 87 carries with four touchdowns.
I don't envy the coaches here if all of these guys stick around. To juggle carries between Ollison, James, and Hall was enough of a handful as it was. Short of running the ball on every single play, to keep everyone happy while adding Ibrahim to the mix seems utterly impossible.
As before, I do find it hard to believe that all will stay and/or stick at running back. All are capable of contributing heavily or even starting elsewhere and it's hard to believe that they will accept reduced roles assuming Ollison holds onto the job, which I expect he will.
It's worth noting that injuries play a hand in these sorts of things as we saw this year when Pitt lost both Conner and Ibrahim for the season. If the team loses even one of these four guys, that would seem to free things up considerably and that's why I'm sure the staff would love to have them all back. But Pitt can certainly get by with even three of them and even if they would lose a second for a short-term injury, you have to believe that two of them could get the Panthers through a game or two.
I'm hoping to see everyone back because the more competition and backups you can have for injury concerns, the better. But at the end of the day, I just don't see how all of these guys fit into what has become a very crowded backfield.