When Israel Abanikanda was ruled out just before kickoff against Syracuse, Rodney Hammond Jr. was ready. But so were C’Bo Flemister, Vincent Davis and Daniel Carter.
It’s a tough task to replace a running back who, despite now missing six full quarters this season, is seventh in the NCAA in rush yards, but Pitt handled it well enough in a 19-9 win over Syracuse Saturday.
Pitt ran the ball 48 times against Syracuse, which happened to be as many offensive snaps ‘Cuse ran in the game, and racked up 161 yards. Hammond racked up a career-high 123 yards and Flemister ran the ball eight straight snaps on the way to his first Pitt touchdown. It was a team effort without Abanikanda. But it wasn’t unexpected.
“We really feel like RBU, whoever is in the game — there’s no drop-off with anybody who’s in the game,” Flemister said following the win.
It’s been the Izzy Show for much of the season, especially as Hammond missed a handful of games with an ankle injury, but the theme for much of the offseason was how Pitt had three No. 1 guys in Abanikanda, Hammond and Vincent Davis. Daniel Carter was Mr. Most Improved in the spring and Flemister immediately impressed upon arriving from Notre Dame in the summer.
The depth in the running backs room has been often been touted, but even with that depth, it’s become very apparant the rotation should be Abanikanda and Hammond. With Davis, Flemister and Carter mixed in when needed.
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Abanikanda has arguably been the best running back in college football this season, still leading the NCAA in all-purpose yards (177.9 yards) and total touchdowns (17), and his 135.8 rushing yards per game still rank fourth in the nation.
He’s broken his single game carries record three times this season, hitting the 20-carry plateau five times. When he’s healthy, he will get his touches. He’s too good not to. Pitt went over a month without an offensive touchdown from someone other than Abanikanda in October.
“If Izzy feels good, we want to give him his touches, Rodney, C’Bo, Vince,” Pat Narduzzi said Monday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “It’s a good problem to have, I guess.”
Pitt has options when it comes to complementing Abanikanda, but Hammond is the only clear-cut choice when it comes to legitimate impact as a rusher and receiver. And he’s ready for any level of involvement in the offense going forward.
“It felt good,” Hammond said following Saturday’s win. “I’m always ready, I’m gonna stay prepared no matter what. If Izzy plays every snap, I’m still gonna be ready and cheering him on. If I gotta come in to play, I’m ready to play.
“My group, our running back room is very, very tight. So, every time we’re making sure we’re staying up.”
Hammond initially provided the spark against West Virginia in the season opener, racking up 74 yards on the ground and 55 yards through the air — scoring two crucial touchdowns before going down with an ankle injury that sidelined him until Pitt’s road game against Louisville. He took just eight carries against Louisville and North Carolina, but he proved he’s healthy with a career-high 28 carries against Syracuse.
Hammond has shown his versatility in his brief Pitt career, but his ability to cut on a dime and explode through holes is a trait that few running backs possess. He’s quicker than he is fast. And running backs coach Andre Powell sees how Hammond is developing a la Abanikanda.
“Rodney is extremely quick, and he’s learning,” Powell said Wednesday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “His development is a lot like Izzy’s. Izzy second year, he knew more than his first year, and the biggest thing with the running back is understanding the line targeting, who they’re blocking, so you can anticipate cuts. Izzy has done that, Rodney is still learning how to do that.”
He can see a hole, put his foot in the turf and get in it. He’s not Abanikanda, but he doesn’t need to be. He has his own set of skills, skills that are still be honed and developed. Especially in pass protection.
“Going back to Izzy’s first year, Izzy had no idea who he was blocking,” Powell said. “Then in his second year, he knew who he had, but he couldn’t quite do it, and that’s where Rodney is now. He can do it sometimes but not as well as we’d like. That’s the way you learn, by playing.”
Powell said that Hammond is able to get in the way of blockers, even step up into his blocking, but he’s still a work in progress. Fundamentals, angles, what he’s doing with his hands and his feet in each assignment go hand-in-hand. It’s just the process of putting them all together.
With three games left this season, and with Narduzzi confirming after the Syracuse win that Abanikanda would be good to go against Virginia this week, Pitt has the chance to pick up four straight conference wins and even cap it with a bowl win. It won’t be possible without a running backs room that currently sits fourth in the ACC in yards per game.
Abanikanda is the workhorse, and he will get the bulk of carries per game going forward, but Hammond is no ordinary backup either. It’s a duo that should push Pitt to even higher heights on the ground now that both players are nearly 100% — for the first time since the season opener against WVU.
“Again, we know we’ve got capable guys back there, and you see it, I see it,” Narduzzi said. “We’ve got an offensive line. Change-up is not bad. We obviously want to keep Izzy healthy, as well.
“The plan is always to get those guys in there, and then you kind of see how the thing is rolling.”
Pitt’s rushing attack will fuel the offense down the stretch this season, particularly the efforts of Abanikanda and Hammond, and while the split of carries is still undecided, the offensive line likes the opportunity to block for both players — for the running backs room as a whole.
“We were all excited for coach Cignetti coming in here and establishing the run,” Jake Kradel said Wednesday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “Like I said before, we’ve always been a pass-heavy team, it’s nice to be able to establish the run and get something going in that.”