Earlier this week, Pitt lost backup running back Rachid Ibrahim for the season to an Achilles injury. But the Panthers still have plenty of depth and are poised to continue to make the running game a strength.
As I said yesterday, James Conner and Chris James (assuming they can remain healthy) should eat up many carries as it is. Ibrahim was largely a third-down back and last season, accounted for only 7% of the team's carries by running backs. With Isaac Bennett gone, it could be argued that he'd receive more this season. But with Chris James likely playing a larger role and the emergence of true freshman Darrin Hall, Ibrahim's impact likely would have been about the same this year as a third-down or change of pace back.
So in this situation, we look at Hall and redshirt freshman, Qadree Ollison, as the primary replacements for Ibrahim. For his part, head coach Pat Narduzzi says Hall has a similar skillset. "There is no doubt about it," said Narduzzi, when asked about that specifically. "He can run the ball, he is very good in pass protection and he's very intelligent."
Then there's the fact that Hall was already competing to take carries from Ibrahim as it was. Narduzzi said that "Rachid was getting pushed by Darrin" and it was previously stated that Hall was going to play this year as it was.
Part of the reason, in fact, that Hall was able to get so many looks in camp was because Ibrahim wasn't fully healthy, either. Narduzzi added, "Darrin has been playing very well. Rachid had been banged up prior to the injury a little bit [giving Hall increased reps]. He was sitting with a little shoulder injury and his play was a little hampered by that."
The other back, Ollison, missed some time in camp with a hand injury. But since he got back, he, too, has been logging quite a few carries in practice and is ready to go. "I feel good," the back said. "I'm taking a lot of reps because obviously everyone is banged up from camp. But that's what camp is for.
One thing that Ibrahim brought to the table was his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. While he accounted for fewer than 10% of the running backs' carries, he was responsible for more than a third of the unit's receptions, catching 11 of the 29 passes. With the team leader in that category, Isaac Bennett (12), now gone, Ibrahim may have been an even bigger factor in the passing game. But Pitt's running backs as a whole should be doing more of that. The coaches have talked about that before and James mentioned it after the Ibrahim injury.
"Yeah, absolutely," said James in response to a question about being more of an all-purpose back. "I know this year he's [Coach Andre Powell] definitely been working with all of us on the pass game, knowing how to block, knowing your assignments, and knowing how to chip and then get out on your route.
There's no doubt that Pitt would be better off having Ibrahim's experience around - particularly for a stable of running backs so young. However, it's hard to believe the unit is in trouble with so much talent.
Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter @PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.