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Israel Abanikanda emerges as top running back for Pitt early in training camp

Pat Narduzzi: "I said last spring, Vince Davis is the guy. Well, now it’s Izzy."

Pitt running back Israel Abanikanda earned a significant nod of approval from Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi after the first day of training camp on Friday, as the coach said that he had emerged as the top performer for Pitt at running back over last season’s primary back Vincent Davis. However, his elevated status has yet to translate to the depth chart, as the coach said he would wait until closer to the season to officially name a starter.

“I said last spring, Vince Davis is the guy,” Narduzzi said during a post-practice media session on Friday. “Well, now it’s Izzy.”

“I would say what separated Izzy at this point is he’s big, he’s physical, he’s fast and he’s consistent,” Narduzzi added a short time later. “And there’s not this up and down. And again, he’s gotten better from last season."

"He’s been consistent, and he’s focused. I think he’s serious about his game. I think he wants to be the guy. And right now, he’s more serious and more disciplined. And the bench is there; Daniel Carter had a couple of nice cuts today. So we’ll see. But I’m not going to anoint Izzy the guy yet because we’ll see where they are when we get to UMass.”

As for Davis, Abanikanda’s top competitor for the starting job, he hurt his own cause by missing practice on Friday. The reason for his absence was that he was awaiting COVID-19 test results after a trip out of town. On his way back, Davis’ flight was delayed, which pushed back the test and delayed the results.

“He should have been out there,” Narduzzi said of Davis. “But his flight got delayed, Spirit Airlines and all that. Guess what? I could care less about excuses, so he’s late. If he got here when he needed to, we would have got the results and he would have been ready to go. But because of that, he missed practice.”

As a freshman in 2020, Abanikanda played a limited role in the Pitt offense despite his status as an incoming four-star recruit. All told, the Brooklyn native played in seven of the team’s 11 games, making zero starts. And in that span, he ran the ball 28 times for 95 yards and one touchdown. Davis led the team with 632 yards and six scores on 143 rushes last season, but with 4.4 yards per rush, the Pitt running game often needed more than the 5’8”, 175-pound running back could provide.

The 2021 season will be a pivotal one for the Pitt offense, as it will be Kenny Pickett’s last at the college level. Last season, the Pitt quarterback was the catalyst of the offense, but he had little help from a meek rushing attack that averaged 119.9 yards per game and ranked 111th in the nation.

With star underclassman Jordan Addison returning to anchor the receiving corps and Florida transfer Lucas Krull healthy and set to start at tight end, the Pitt passing game could take a step forward. But Abanikanda could be the key to Pitt’s offensive success, as a more balanced attack could put an end to the struggles the team has endured under Pitt offensive coordinator Mark Whipple.