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Plenty of opportunity for Pitt running backs with James Conner departure

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Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

With the news this weekend that James Conner is jumping ship to the NFL, it got me back to thinking about Pitt's depth at running back. That largely wasn't an issue this season since, after a somewhat slow start, Conner kicked it into high gear and was clearly the dominant back assuming most of the carries.

That all changes next year, however.

Conner's departure isn't a good thing for Pitt, obviously. Even though it can be called a position of strength for the Panthers, there's little doubt that Conner has been the best option in the backfield for the past three years. But what is helpful is that Pitt has plenty of options back there to begin the work of replacing him.

As of right now (like, this minute), here's where I'd rank Pitt's top three returning backs.

3. Qadree Ollison

Man, I have zero idea where Ollison stands. Typically, a former conference Rookie of the Year and 1,100-yard rusher would appear to be an excellent backup option, but Ollison was barely used this season. Part of that was because Conner ate up so many carries, but even when carries were to be had, Ollison wasn't the first guy off the bench getting them. Or, most of the time, even the second. He had only 27 carries all year long and there were five games where he didn't register a single one. With 103 yards on the year, there's no doubt that his lack of playing time was a surprise.

I'm not even confident that Ollison can establish himself going forward, either. Sure, there's no Conner but can Ollison really go from fourth on the depth chart to the top of it? Seems far-fetched, considering the other two guys ahead of him will be back as well, barring a transfer.

2. Darrin Hall

Hall, surprisingly, was used more than Ollison this year. That wasn't expected since Ollison was the one that had the big 2015 and seemingly won the game of tug-of-war with Hall after Conner went down with the MCL injury in the team's 2015 season opener.

Hall got only eight more carries than Ollison this year, so it's not like he's the slam dunk No. 2 guy, either. But Hall was also seeing some regular carries in both the beginning and the end of this year - something that Ollison didn't receive. In games where he actually got on the field, Hall averaged nearly five carries per game. In terms of the overall hierarchy, he seems to have the edge on Ollison right now.

1. Chawntez Moss

Of the three rushers, Moss was clearly the one that showed the most potential this year. Now, he was virtually non-existent in the second half of the year (24 total yards in the last six games) but that was more about some injury stuff and the reemergence of Conner as it was about his actual ability. There was a short stretch in the first half of the year, in fact, where Moss looked like Pitt's best back. His work in the ground attack against North Carolina, Marshall, and Georgia Tech (189 yards, 7.0 ypc, and a touchdown) easily topped what Conner did over that time (160 yards (3.9 ypc, two touchdowns) and proved he can be an effective rusher at this level. Perhaps things change in the offseason but for now, anyway, Moss looks like the clear leader in the clubhouse.

Others

Those three guys aren't the only players that could make an impact in the running game, though. Rachid Ibrahim still has another year of eligibility and with nine touchdowns, fullback George Aston showed that he can be a difference-maker if utilized properly. None of that even considers what the new offensive coordinator will do with the utilization of guys like Quadree Henderson, Maurice Ffrench, or Jordan Whitehead in the running game.

But assuming he still signs with Pitt after the Matt Canada fiasco, incoming freshman Todd Sibley is the player to watch along with those three returning backs. He's a four-star running back who had offers from Ohio State and Michigan. Sibley didn't just hold an offer from Ohio State, he was actually committed there before he flipped to Pitt. And based on what we saw this past year with Moss, the coaches won't hesitate to use him in his first year if they think he can help.

Part of the reason for Sibley's decommitment is that Ohio State reportedly wanted to grayshirt him (not putting him on scholarship immediately and having him enroll/join the team later). There's no doubt that he wants to play right away and you have to think that he'll be in the mix this fall for carries. Again, what Moss did served as a blueprint to other freshmen. If you can play, you'll get an opportunity.

One final note here that shouldn't be overlooked is that Pitt could also decide to simply go with a by-committee approach and heavily split carries. I have no doubt that several guys will be in the mix to get carries, anyway. But the team could also take a very balanced approach to things, heavily split things, up, or ride the hot hand as they've done before under Narduzzi.

Whatever direction the team goes, there is plenty of depth left with the departure of Conner.

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