PITTSBURGH — Israel Abanikanda has been establishing himself as the lead dog of the Pitt running back rotation, which makes the timing of his injury against Clemson frustrating.
Abanikanda left in the third quarter against the Tigers with a presumed concussion, and head coach Pat Narduzzi said on Monday that he’s questionable to play in Week 9 against Miami.
But what happened after Abanikanda left the game certainly eased the blow of his departure. True freshman Rodney Hammond Jr. came in a house afire, rushing for 66 yards on 11 carries in the fourth quarter alone.
“It was next man up,” quarterback Kenny Pickett said. “It’s Rodney’s turn. He had fresh legs and for a true freshman to come in there and do what he did, he did a heck of a job.”
Usual starter Vincent Davis and Hammond shared the load without Abanikanda down the stretch against the Tigers and would be expected to do so against Miami, as well, if the sophomore spark plug is unable to dress.
“I’m really confident,” Narduzzi said of his running back situation if Abanikanda is unable to play. “I mean, really confident. … We got really three backs, might have two this week, that we really have a lot of trust in.”
Veteran A.J. Davis, who missed some games earlier this season with injury, could have also been in line to see more playing time, but he entered the transfer portal on Tuesday. But the strong play of Hammond has changed that dynamic from one of potential worry to one of confidence.
“[Hammond] seems to be a little bit ahead of where Izzy was a year ago,” Narduzzi said. “But Izzy has been getting so many more reps, so has Rodney. When A.J. went down, those guys were forced into it. … A.J. was the smartest tailback we had back there. Those guys had to get a real lesson in trust. We all have to trust you to get the protections right, mainly.”
Protections are frequently a struggle for young running backs, and while Hammond may have some growing pains in that regard, his ball-carrying ability against a stout Tigers front-seven showed ability beyond his years.
“When Rodney runs the football, he’s hard to get down,” Narduzzi said. “That’s the difference between him and Izzy, is they just run hard, run through blocks. All good backs. BYOB, be your own blocker. Those guys are making plays by themselves, not having these gigantic holes. Nobody gets gigantic holes unless there’s a bust somewhere schematically on the defense.”
Furthermore, beyond his rushing ability, Hammond was able to enter a big-game — perhaps the biggest game for Pitt in years — and perform under pressure, seemingly without batting an eye.
“I always try to stay ready,” Hammond said. “I’m made for big games. There’s not team that intimidates me. I’m not scared of anybody.”