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For now, A.J. Davis leads a crowded Pitt backfield

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Pittsburgh v Virginia Tech Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

The first depth chart of the 2020 Pitt football season was released this week in advance of the team’s opener against Austin Peay.

As expected, senior A.J. Davis is expected to be the team’s starter and appeared as a rather clear No. 1 on the depth chart. Not only did Davis not have another back at the top with him (through the ‘OR’ designation) but all of the backs behind him were all listed as ‘OR’ with each other. In other words, there doesn’t appear to be a clear No. 2 right now, if the depth chart is to be believed.

In that group, you’ve got junior Todd Sibley, sophomore Vincent Davis, redshirt freshman Daniel Carter, and true freshman Israel Abanikanda.

We’ve not seen Abanikanda yet, obviously, but early reviews make it known he’s been impressive, which sounds like part of the reason he’s been in the hunt for the backup job. We’ve also not seen Carter, who played in four games last year but didn’t register any stats. Of Sibley and Davis (Vincent), both have been impressive at times and less so other times.

When we last saw Vincent, he had an impressive bowl game against Eastern Michigan with just under 100 total (rushing and receiving yards) and a touchdown. The week before that in the loss against Boston College, he had 45 rushing yards and a touchdown with only five carries. Against Penn State and Syracuse, he had under two yards per carry on 12 total attempts, but his five touchdowns on the season were the most of any running back on the team. Some could argue that by the end of the year, he was Pitt’s best rusher.

Sibley’s big game last year came in that nailbiter against Delaware with both A.J. and Vincent were out with injuries. In that game, he racked up 106 yards on 22 carries. But aside from the Duke game the following week (12 carries, 60 yards), he was really used only sparingly the rest of the year and did not find the end zone all season.

Both Vincent Davis and Sibley seem hard to differentiate much statistically. Last year, both averaged five yards per carry (Davis was at 5.1) and had roughly the same amount of yardage (Davis had 314 to Sibley’s 250) and attempts (61 to 50 in favor of Davis). But again, the bulk of Sibley’s workload (nearly half of his season attempts) came in that Delaware game with the other guys were out and Vincent, at least by the end of last year, was pretty consistent. He averaged 6.7 yards per carry in his last five games. Seeing Sibley ahead of Davis this year would seem surprising.

To the starter, A.J. Davis had a decent season last year but did not have the breakout campaign that folks had hoped for. He had 530 rushing yards to go along with 269 receiving yards and four total touchdowns.

A.J.’s value to me, really, is his ability to catch balls out of the backfield. I look back, in particular, to his catch and run of 48 yards against Penn State. He’s got the ability to step in there and make plays on short completions that the other guys haven’t really shown yet and by losing last year’s receptions leader, Maurice Ffrench, that could be invaluable. If he can make plays in space, that sort of helps him stand out from at least Davis and Sibley (though, to be fair, it’s possible Vincent, or even Abanikanda, is able to do some of that, too).

Purely as a rusher, though, there are more questions. A.J.’s 4.2 yards per carry were okay but not special. And it’s also worth pointing out that even though he’s a senior, he has only one career 100-yard rushing game under his belt — a ‘just barely’ 103-yard output against Syracuse last year.

So does A.J. have an absolute stranglehold on the job? Not likely. Just because there are questions for the No. 2 spot doesn’t mean that one of those guys can’t challenge him for the starter. As I said, he’ll go into the season as the starter but I could see him being pushed by Vincent Davis, in particular. And who knows what the freshmen will do. As we saw last year, Narduzzi is not afraid to play even true freshmen since that’s what Vincent was. If Abanikanda gets in the mix, that really shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Further, injuries are almost always a factor with this trio and all of them have dealt with something. If a starter, A.J. or otherwise, gets banged up and someone else looks impressive, that guy could be the new No. 1 — regardless of what coaches say about guys not losing jobs because of injuries and whatnot.

It’s also worth pointing out that Narduzzi loves riding the hot hand when it comes to running back. He made a comment to the media recently when talking about those guys and said something to the effect of, if someone gets in there and falls down, someone else is going in. All of those guys, frankly, will probably be on a short leash unless someone looks as if they are clearly head and shoulders above the rest.

Expect A.J. to start but he’ll need to look impressive if he’s going to be the starter all year long. Even besides that, I think you can expect to see another ‘by committee’ approach. Thus, even if A.J. gets the most carries, we’ll almost certainly see at least two others logging quite a bit of attempts as we did last year.

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