Pitt’s offensive backfield features the ACC’s reigning Offensive Freshman of the Year and fourth-leading rusher from 2015. But that won’t be the player that everyone’s eyes will be on this Saturday.
This isn’t the way it was supposed to be. Qadree Ollison, a breakout star in 2015, was expected to take on a starring role after James Conner inevitably found a home in the NFL playing on Sundays.
But Conner was diagnosed with cancer this fall and Ollison, both literally and figuratively, was pushed from the limelight. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound native of Niagara Falls, N.Y., came into the offseason with high expectations, but those were quickly replaced with difficulty.
“I think personally, I had trouble learning Coach Canada’s new offense,” Ollison said. “That’s just with any new offense coming in. This will be my third offensive coordinator and this will be the third offense that I’ve learned. I think I had a little difficulty learning the offense which caused me to be a little slow in practice [in the spring]. It wasn’t the best spring, but I learned from it and I’m a better player because of it.”
Running backs coach Andre Powell offers a brutally honest assessment of Ollison’s spring — “lousy” — and said that at one point, he was fourth on the depth chart.
“I don’t have favorites,” Powell said. “We don’t sugar-coat them. We tell the truth. We don’t beat them out. When they do a great job, we tell them they’re doing a great job. When they’re performing at a standard that’s below the standard here, we let them know.”
Powell believes that after being challenged “every day” this summer, the talent that Ollison displayed in 2015 will again come to the forefront and replace the hesitant and unsure play of the spring.
“He can do a lot of things,” Powell said. “He can block well. He can run, you guys know he can run. He can catch. He can direct guys. He can fix problems when you have him. He’s playing on special teams. He’s doing a tremendous job. For a guy that’s in his second year of college football, he’s got a lot of good football ahead of him.”
The depth chart behind Conner is still fluid. Ollison, Darrin Hall and Chawntez Moss are all listed as second-team players. But there’s only one football. It doesn’t seem that another 1,000-yard rushing performance is necessarily in the cards for Ollison, but he doesn’t mind the competition.
“I’m competing with the best guys in the nation,” he said. “We have a great room. Competition will bring out the best in all of us. We push each other. It’s making us into a great football team.”
He also feels that the depth at running back will keep everyone fresh and allow for freer substitution — something that he was hesitant to do at times in 2015.
“That just means we’ll have guys that are fresh,” he said. “James’ sophomore year, he was getting 35 carries a game. His body was banged up by the end of the season. He’ll be even more fresh come game nine, game ten, later in the season. We’ll all be fresh. There won’t be one guy getting the whole load. There is no feeling that the second guy might not be as good as me. If you’re tired, tap yourself out, knowing that the guy going in for you is going to do just as well.”
Powell said that they’ll make a tentative plan for the workloads of each player, but that the in-game results will also have a big role in determining who gets what work.
“They know if you’re not getting the job done, there’s somebody behind you that’s going to get it done,” he said. “They’re motivated.”