Even with Pitt’s explosive offense ranking among the very best in college football last season, it came in spite of an inconsistent rushing attack throughout much of the season. Kenny Pickett and Jordan Addison led a powerful passing attack, but there was no guarantee that Pitt would consistently utilize its running backs.
New Pitt offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. wants to change that. After speaking with the media Wednesday at Pitt’s South Side facility, his next task was starting to game plan for Pitt’s rushing attack.
“We are very excited to get a run game identity here,” Cignetti said. “Not that there wasn’t one in the past, but you sit down and look at it, we want to get this run game going. So, when I looked at this offensive line and I looked at the talent of the running backs, wow, man. Really excited.”
Pitt’s entire offensive line will be returning in 2022, led by big left tackle Carter Warren, the foundation is in place. And with a stable of talented running backs in Israel Abanikanda, Vincent Davis and Rodney Hammond Jr. already in place, Pitt’s opportunity is there.
Pat Narduzzi admitted that Pitt did a poor job utilizing the halfbacks in 2021, but he’s of the same mind with Cignetti in wanting to incorporate more of a rushing attack — even if he won’t explicitly tell his coordinator that.
“It was a big focus,” Narduzzi said. “You look at Izzy and Vince, and Rodney, those guys all deserve to have carries. We didn’t really do a great job of getting them the ball. I’d like to run the ball. I’m not going to tell an offensive coordinator what to do, how to do it, when to run it … so, we’re going to try to establish a run game which is just gonna open up some more explosives with those wideouts.”
Abanikanda led the way with 651 yards and seven touchdowns last season, averaging just over five yards per carry. After being used sparingly as a freshman, he emerged as a strong runner and capable receiving threat out of the backfield for Pickett.
Davis led Pitt in carries, running for 593 yards and four touchdowns while hauling in 23 balls, and Hammond emerged as a true freshman to provide 500 yards and five touchdowns at five yards per pop.
There’s a lot of talent in Pitt’s three-headed monster, with each back providing a different set of skills, but at this point, there’s still a lot to be determined for Cignetti.
“Well, it’s a really good group of runners,” Cignetti said. “It’s going to be really competitive … if one guy rises and he can carry the load, then he will certainly be the guy. A running back by committee has its advantages because it probably means you have good depth.”
Abanikanda has the sort of skillset to emerge as a lead back in Pitt’s offense, a 5-foot-11, 215-pound back with a blend of speed, strength and pass-catching chops, but Cignetti said time will tell if one of the three emerges a true bell-cow option.
Cignetti sees the similarities already with Pitt’s 2009 offense, pointing toward the duo of Dion Lewis and Ray Graham that excelled in Pitt’s system during Cignetti’s original run as offensive coordinator.
Lewis ran for just under 1,800 yards and 17 touchdowns as the feature back, emerging as one of the very best running backs in college football, while Graham plowed ahead at nearly six yards per carry when called upon.
With the addition of Kedon Slovis to Pitt’s offense in 2022, along with Konata Mumpfield to supplement an explosive wide receiver corps, there’s no doubt that an aerial attack will once again lead the way forward — but a strong rushing attack will be a priority too.