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Pitt Football

Israel Abanikanda’s Unique Talent is Unlike Any Pat Narduzzi Has Seen

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When Israel Abanikanda roamed the hallways of Abraham Lincoln High in Brooklyn, New York, he was the state Gatorade Player of the Year. He expected — and achieved — 100-yard performances every Friday night.

Abanikanda wasn’t a can’t-miss recruit out of high school, despite putting together perhaps the best season by a New York high school football player in 2019, but Pitt was there from the beginning. As he ran a 4.50 40-yard dash and a 39.10 vertical jump at The Opening Regional a few months before committing, he flashed his physical gifts.

In just four games this season, it’s safe to say Abanikanda has flashed his physical gifts. Through four games, Abanikanda is the ACC’s leader in rushing yards and all-purpose yards.

And it wouldn’t be unfair to say that Abanikanda has been one of the best running backs in college football through four weeks either.

Abanikanda has ran for 479 yards and six touchdowns on 83 carries (5.8 yards per attempt), and that’s good for the sixth-most yards in college football. He’s also added four receptions for 59 yards this season.

Abanikanda has racked up 464 yards and six touchdowns on 75 carries over his last three games, breaking and then re-breaking his career high in both rushing attempts and rushing yards over the last three weeks.

With Rodney Hammond Jr. sidelined since the fourth quarter of the West Virginia game, and the quarterback situation fluid as Kedon Slovis has battled his own injuries, Abanikanda has fielded his largest share of carries in his Pitt career. And while it may appear as if Pitt is leaning more heavily upon Abanikanda, Pat Narduzzi wonders.

“Again, is he taking on more or taking on the same? I don’t know,” Narduzzi said Monday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “We’re going to hand it off to him. If we can run the ball, we’re going to try to run the ball. If they pack the box, then we’re going to try to throw it as much as we can.”

Well, Abanikanda is certainly running the football more than he ever has. That’s a fact. He is taking on more responsibility, earning that No. 1 running back spot in the Week 4 depth chart after sharing it with Hammond since Week 2.

“To me it’s not like we’re saying, ‘Oh, Izzy, we need you more than ever.’ Because again Vince goes in there, he’s productive,” Narduzzi said. “Put C’Bo in there, he’s productive. It’s a tribute to our offensive line when they do it. You put the game tape on and watch it, it’s like, we’re doing some good things. We still miss some things, there’s some things we can still get better at that we’re doing some good things offensively in the run game.

Vincent Davis has been solid, racking up 148 yards and a touchdown on 64 carries, and C’Bo Flemister and Daniel Carter have filled in when needed. It’s a deep, talented running backs room, but there is one Izzy.

Abanikanda has racked up 279 yards after contact this season, a strong 3.36 yards after contact per attempt, and that’s come in the wake of four touchdown runs against Rhode Island in which he wasn’t touched.

There’s been an elusive element to Abanikanda’s game, an area in which he worked heavily upon in the offseason, and he’s forced 20 missed tackles. And with his blend of speed and power, he’s produced 12 runs of 10+ yards and five runs of 15+ yards.

If Abanikanda’s one-quarter mark stats were stretched across the entire 12 game sample size, it would point to a season in which Abanikanda rushed for 1,437 yards and 18 touchdowns on 249 carries — without a potential ACC title and bowl appearance.

Those numbers would leave him 8th on Pitt’s all-time single season rushing totals, behind Tony Dorsett (three times), Dion Lewis, Craig Heyward, James Conner and LeSean McCoy. Some Pitt legends.

Abanikanda realizes the importance of the Pitt legends ahead of him, and while he recognizes their greatness, he isn’t intimidated by their greatness either.

Pittsburgh Panthers running back Israel Abanikanda (2) September 24, 2022 David Hague/PSN

“I wanna not live up to them,” Abanikanda said. “I want to be better.”

Narduzzi has only been around for Conner’s tenure at Pitt, but he was the defensive coordinator at Michigan State while Le’Veon Bell was building an NFL Draft stock. Bell ran for 1,793 yards and 12 touchdowns as a junior at Michigan State, and while he developed into one NFL’s best running backs.

However, even with Bell’s rushing prowess, Narduzzi sees areas of Abanikanda’s game that he didn’t see with Bell — or any other running back.

“Le’Veon Bell was one of the best I’ve been around at Michigan State, and he didn’t have that burst that (Abanikanda’s) got,” Narduzzi said. “Four of his five touchdowns I’m not sure he got touched. He might have got tagged. But there was nobody in position — it’s not like he was breaking all these tackles.

“That’s a tribute to the offensive line. When you watch it, the movement up front with the O-line and how Daniel Carter is fitting in there and cleaning stuff up. I mean, it’s some good stuff. And I haven’t seen it for a while, a run game look like that.”

It’s been an excellent start to the season for Abanikanda, and it’s coming off a season in which he led Pitt in rushing and receiving yards, but he made sure to spend more time studying this offseason.

“I just spent more time with the running backs and the running backs coach, and I spent more time studying film, studying my opponents and studying what I need to do better,” Abanikanda said. 

It’s led to being more decisive in making cut, being more decisive in choosing the holes he takes advantage of in the run game and being more decisive in identifying his assignments as a blocker.

Abanikanda’s breakout start to the season hasn’t been surprising to Pitt fans who expected Izzy to emerge as the lead back this season in Frank Cignetti Jr.’s offense, and it hasn’t been surprising for himself either.

“It’s never been an expectation, (to put up big numbers),” Abanikanda said. “I already know what I can do, and what I can prove, so I just want to keep proving people.”

And what does Abanikanda want to prove?

“(That) I’m great.”

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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