Israel Abanikanda ran the ball 123 times last season. That was in 13 games.
He’s already more than halfway to last season’s total through three games this season. In the last two games, Abanikanda has recorded 25 carries against Tennessee and 31 against Western Michigan. He’s developed into a workhorse not because he wasn’t capable before but because he’s allowed to now
“I think in years past, we were not committed to the run,” Andre Powell said Wednesday. “And that’s no discredit to coach Whipple, and we scored a bunch of points last year. Last year, we were better geared to throw the football. So, the number of at-bats he got, he wasn’t able to get all those little nuances. He’s able to get those now.”
With a career-high 156 yards against Tennessee, Abanikanda was turned to as Kedon Slovis went down and Nick Patti picked up an injury of his own. He followed up with a career-high 31 carries against Western Michigan, and Powell only saw Abanikanda grow stronger and stronger as the game wore on.
“The thing I liked about it: he ran hard, he made people miss,” Powell said. “When there wasn’t a clear lane to run through, he was able to press it and get four yards. And if there was a clear lane, he was able to find the crack. He didn’t miss many cuts.
“As the game went, he got stronger. When you could tell the opponent was wearing down, you looked out there at him and he wasn’t fatigued.”
It’s been the busiest stretch of football Abanikanda’s ever had at Pitt, growing into his role as the bell-cow on the offense with Rodney Hammond Jr. out, and he currently leads the ACC in rushing yards (302 yards) and all-purpose yards (476 yards). However, he’s aware it’s a team effort to get to where he’s been able to go.
Hornung Award Honor Roll ⭐
ACC Rushing Leader ✅
ACC All-Purpose Leader ✅
— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) September 21, 2022
“I really want to thank my o-line, receivers and quarterback because if it wasn’t for them, none of that would be happening,” Abanikanda said Saturday night. “And I thank everybody in the running back room as well.”
No one is really surprised that Abanaikanda has taken the step forward many expected entering the season, especially not Daniel Carter — as one of the longest-tenured players in the running backs room. Carter remembers when Abanikanda, as an early enrollee out of Abraham Lincoln in New York City, busted a long run during Pitt’s 2020 spring practices.
“Never surprised,” Carter said Wednesday. “I remember the first run during spring before Covid. He broke a long one, and it was like, ‘This kid is gonna be special.’ And he is.”
Carter has seen Abanikanda grow from a raw talent with immense potential into a bonafide college football star over the last two seasons, and it’s come as Abanikanda has embraced the coaching staff and film room. When Abanikanda arrived, his head was everywhere — especially in pass protection. He’s watched more and more film, he’s slowed down to read opposing defenses and he’s let his natural gifts translate into success.
Powell has seen Abanikanda’s maturity grow since arriving at Pitt too. Some people mature faster than others, Powell said, but it’s clear ‘Izzy’ is growing faster by the day. He’s asking more and more questions, he’s taking detailed notes — and more of them — and he’s acing Friday tests.
Not academic tests. Powell’s weekly tests.
Powell will print out tests, and Pitt’s running backs will be tested upon concepts like blitz tips, what a safety will do a specific play, running back responsibilites in shotgun formations, etc. It’s a weekly test, and on during pre-game meals on Saturdays, Powell will sit down with the unit to go over the answers. Abanikanda is consistenty scoring highly.
And while the mental aspect of playing running back is coming along for Abanikanda, the physical side is too. He’s always been able to see the field, his vision has never been an issue, and he’s only gotten stronger and stronger. According to Powell, Abanikanda has a “10-pack.” And it’s not just for show.
“Some guys are naturally strong in the weight room but they don’t have functional strength,” Powell said. “(Abanikanda’s) got functional strength.”
Abanikanda has strength, power and speed. And he’s been able to stay on the field this season. Pitt has relied upon Abanikanda heavily through three important games, and he’s delivered in a big way. Through Pitt’s use of GPS tracking in games, Powell said Abanikanda ran 7,000 yards against Tennessee and he estimated it was more against WMU.
Pat Narduzzi guarunteed a 1,000-yard rusher at Pitt in 2022, and Abanikanda is well on his way to doing so.