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Pitt Football

Pitt’s Running Back Room Characterized by Depth, Led by Israel Abanikanda

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Pitt hasn’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2018, but with three starting-caliber running backs on the roster in 2022, that could change.

Frank Cignetti Jr.’s offense in 2022 isn’t going to be a carbon copy of Pitt or Boston College’s 2021 offenses, and it won’t rigidly lock players into a newly enforced scheme, but it will allow Pitt’s playmakers the freedom to play to their strengths instead of the other way around.

With Kedon Slovis and Nick Patti competing for the chance to follow up Kenny Pickett as Pitt’s next star quarterback and Jordan Addison headlining a loaded wide receiving room with the quest to be the best in the nation, the running backs have slid a little under the radar entering spring practices.

With Israel Abanikanda, Rodney Hammond Jr. and Vincent Davis all back for another season, head coach Pat Narduzzi wasn’t shy in declaring Pitt’s strength at the position.

“The thing I see is we got three starting tailbacks,” Narduzzi said Wednesday after Pitt’s second spring practice. “Izzy right now, going into spring ball, is the No. 1 guy; I think he was last year if I recall. But he wasn’t at the end of spring ball (last year). Izzy going into spring ball is the starter. But Rodney looks good, Vince looks good. We’ve got three starters and you never know when you need them.”

Abanikanda ran for 651 yards at 5.3 yards per carry and hauled in 197 yards to lead Pitt in both rushing and receiving from the backfield. With the ideal 5-foot-11, 215-pound frame and a shifty, explosive running style, he’s one of the most underrated players on Pitt’s roster.

Davis (5-foot-8, 175 pounds) isn’t the biggest guy on the field, but he led Pitt in carries in both 2020 and 2021 — running for 594 yards and hauling in 125 yards to provide a solid complement to Abanikanda. True freshman Hammond (5-foot-9, 175 pounds) emerged as a breakout option in 2021, racking up 569 yards of offense and seven touchdowns.

All three backs hit the 100 carry mark in 2021, with Pickett himself credited with 98 carries of his own, and while a lead back wasn’t able to truly emerge, Narduzzi said it isn’t about just assigning carries.

“Sometimes you don’t know by carries because you go by series,” Narduzzi said. “It’s not necessarily saying, ‘we wanna give him 15, get you 12 plays and get you eight plays.’ So, it all kinda goes, if a series goes longer and you ran a few more times, you get more carries.”

Cignetti has stressed the importance of establishing a run game identity in 2022, and while Pitt will likely run the ball more in 2022, it remains to be seen if one of the three will truly emerge as the lead back.

“Well, it’s a really good group of runners,” Cignetti said in February. “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.”

Narduzzi echoed those sentiments Wednesday, pointing to NFL teams often playing two or three guys in order to keep running backs fresh throughout games and over the course of a long season.

Abanikanda and Davis were at Pitt for spring practices in 2021, with Abanikanda using a strong spring to finally emerge as Pitt’s “lead back,” but Hammond did not enroll early out of Booker T. Washington in Norfolk, Virginia. He did enough over the summer and during the season to earn his touches.

So, Narduzzi said he couldn’t compare Hammond’s approach as he enters his sophomore season to how he approached cracking Pitt’s lineup as a sophomore.

With the strength of Slovis (or Patti) throwing balls to Addison, Jared Wayne, Konata Mumpfield, Gavin Bartholomew and top depth options, Pitt’s passing attack will be a major strength, and it should allow more carries and more opportunities for an explosive offense in the air and on the ground in 2022.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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