With the loss of running back James Conner to the NFL a year early, the Pitt football program will be turning to a new starter in the backfield in 2017. As I wrote at the end of last season, there's plenty of opportunity with all of Conner's carries now available. One of those guys hoping to land the job? Qadree Ollison.
The entire trio, consisting of returning contenders in Ollison, Darrin Hall, and Chawntez Moss, of course, is hoping to be named the starter. But it's Ollison who probably has the most work to do in terms of catching up.
Ollison had, by most measurements, a great 2015. After taking the starting job as a freshman, he won the ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year award and ran for more than 1,100 yards. Last year? With the return of Conner after he had missed most of 2014, Ollison had only 38 carries and saw his yardage per carry drop to only 3.8. Ollison wasn't only behind Conner, but he also fell behind both Hall and Moss - two guys that are returning. Add in a pair of talented freshmen backs coming in (A.J. Davis and Todd Sibley), and you can see that he will have to fight off many players for the job.
Pitt is only two days into spring practice but head coach Pat Narduzzi is at least encouraged by what he's seeing so far.
"He's looked good," said the head coach. "Again, it's in shorts and we are letting them run through the line of scrimmage, so they all look good when no one is getting tackled. The good winter is going to transfer onto the field for sure."
So, what's different? Well, with practices mostly closed (Narduzzi is again allowing only a small portion, mostly consisting of warmups, of the actual practice open to the media), it's hard to say. But Ollison talked a little about how he wants to approach this season.
"I'm smarter now," Ollison said. "I am the oldest running back in the room going into my redshirt junior year. The new me is really trying to be a leader. Last year, we had James [Conner] and Rachid [Ibrahim] who were both older guys, leaders in the room. Now, I'm that older guy who is trying to be a leader for the younger guys in the room, not only for my position, but for the team as well."
We'll see how it plays out. It was weird to see Ollison, who had such a big year for a freshman in 2015, relegated to the No. 4 back on the roster only a year later. I'm not sure I can recall that happening before on a Pitt depth chart. And as mentioned, he not only has the two returnees to worry about but also the incoming guys. Even if the freshmen don't contend to be a starter, they will be contending for playing time. And, similarly, if Ollison isn't named the starter, he'll be battling those guys for backup time.
Heck, you can even argue that there's more competition since Davis and Sibley are two players as opposed to just one with Conner. Neither is as good as Conner, obviously, but you get the point. There are a lot of bodies here.
Based on how quickly he was buried last year and how much competition there is this season, I'm not sure I can see him winning the starting job back. But if he shows improvement, hopefully the opportunity is there for him to get some carries. The more capable guys that Pitt has, the better. And if he's in the mix, Pitt will hopefully be able to redshirt at least one of the two freshman they have coming in since there's just no need to play five guys - especially when all three returning players are pretty good.