PITTSBURGH — Perhaps the biggest story surrounding the 2019 Pitt football team as it began its training camp on Friday will be how the team will be able to replace departed twin 1,000-yard rushers Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison.
Pitt has talented running backs that have been waiting their turn to step into a more-prominent backfield role like junior A.J. Davis, redshirt sophomore Todd Sibley and redshirt freshman Mychale Salahuddin.
That group — all four-star rated prospects — will be handed the reins to a running game that was one of the ACC’s best in 2018.
But it’s a different group of runners than the one Pitt featured a year ago. Ollison and Hall both weighed in before their senior season at 225 pounds, and they had the luxury of running behind a third player that’s now in the NFL: physical fullback George Aston.
With Aston leading the way, Pitt’s big backs smashed and rumbled to a record-setting season on the ground.
In 2019, if Pitt is going to find a way to replace that production, it’s probably going to happen in a different way. The Panthers don’t have a player that projects to be a one-for-one replacement for Aston. All three players vying for the starting job are smaller than the two departed backs.
But they might bring some other attributes to the table that the previous group didn’t have. For one, speed. When adding converted wide receiver V’Lique Carter to the mix, Pitt might have the fastest group of running backs they’ve had in quite some time.
A the top of that chart is a name that might surprise some people. When the backs lined up for a pre-season 40-yard run, Sibley came out on top.
“I think I had the fastest, I’m not sure,” Sibley demurred. “We had a couple fast guys, so it was a good little competition, but I think I came out with the top fastest time.”
Running backs coach Andre Powell was the true arbiter.
“Sibley is faster than all of ‘em,” Powell said.
That speed, and that depth of speed, is going to be put to use in a different way than it was last year, as well. Pitt will probably always be a run-focused team under Pat Narduzzi, but new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple has introduced some new wrinkles to get his backs into space more often.
“We’re isolated on the linebacker, so it’s up to us to make a play, beat the linebacker for a touchdown” Davis said. “Everyone in the backfield can catch, so I feel like that’ll help us get down the field more and faster.”
Of course, which backs are going to get the ball is still very much up in the air as Pitt enters camp, but that’s not something the parties involved are particularly worried about.
“Everybody in the room can play,” Davis said. “Everyone has different things that they bring to the table. All of us have different playing types. Whoever gets into the game is going to make a play.”
“We push each other,” Sibley said. “We help each other. When I’m not out there, [Davis] tells me what he sees and when I’m out there, I tell him what I see. We try to make each other better. We’ve been going at it a long time. We’re the next Qadree and Darrin, basically.”
Pitt fans will probably be very happy with that outcome.