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ESPN counts Pitt among top Running Back U’s

The outlet cited James Conner, LeSean McCoy and Dion Lewis as part of its rationale for selecting the program

NCAA Football: Duke at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pitt is one of several schools that have laid claim to the title “Running Back U” over the years, as it has produced at least one star player at the position per decade since the 1970s, along with plenty of NFL-caliber talent between the best of the best of its backfield alums. Over the weekend, ESPN ranked the top 10 schools that have been called “Running Back U” over the years, placing Pitt at No. 6.

The other nine schools recognized by ESPN included Alabama, Wisconsin, LSU, Oklahoma, Miami, Texas, Oregon, Arkansas and Auburn, with Alabama coming in at No. 1 and the rest filling out the list around Pitt in descending order. The three running backs listed as justification for Alabama include Mark Ingram, Derrick Henry and Shaun Alexander. Pitt’s trio of notable running backs included James Conner, LeSean McCoy and Dion Lewis.

Conspicuously absent from consideration are Pitt greats Tony Dorsett, Craig “Ironhead” Heyward and Curtis Martin, among others, and the reason for that appears to be a specific focus by ESPN on the BCS era to the present. That also helps to explain the omissions of schools like Georgia and Ohio State, as Herschel Walker and Archie Griffin would not have been included. But both schools have legitimate gripes about their snubs, and needless to say, the list has already proved controversial for multiple reasons.

As for Pitt, the last time the school harped on its status as Running Back U was in 2018, when Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall put together an impressive one-two punch in the Panthers backfield and combined for 2,357 yards and 21 touchdowns. The two lit up ACC opponents that year and put their best performances on against Syracuse and Virginia Tech. Against the Orange on Oct. 6, Ollison rushed for 192 yards and one touchdown, and Hall ran for 107 and two scores. Against the Hokies on Nov. 10, Ollison again led the way with 235 yards and three touchdowns, while Hall had 186 yards and one touchdown.

Given the timeline under consideration, Ollison and Hall undoubtedly played a role in Pitt gaining recognition from ESPN. But with that said, Conner, McCoy and Lewis were also luminary talents, as McCoy and Lewis both amassed more than 2,800 yards in just two seasons apiece and rank among Pitt’s top 10 rushers. And Conner — who ranks second only to Dorsett in career rushing yards at Pitt, with 3,733 — had multiple 200-yard games and was known for helping Pitt knock off Penn State and Clemson in the same season with 100-yard games against both in 2016.

However, the heyday of Conner is now well behind Pitt, and references to Pitt as “RBU” or “Running Back U” have been few and far between since Ollison and Hall left, as the team fielded the 118th-ranked rushing attack in the nation in 2019. Part of that was due to the pass-heavy play-calling of Pitt offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, but it was also because of an apparent drop-off in talent.

With that said, Pitt has brought in some skilled recruits at running back over the last few years, including Israel Abanikanda, Paris Brown, Daniel Carter and Vincent Davis. Once they acclimate to the college game, they could prove capable of building on Pitt’s rich history at the position. But time will tell if the new corps of running backs is up to the task.