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Dorsett, McCoy, Conner: Israel Abanikanda Is Pitt’s Next NFL Running Back



He’s talked to James Conner. He’s talked to Shady McCoy, too. He’s even talked to Tony Dorsett — after breaking his single-game rushing record. If there’s one thing Israel Abanikanda has picked up from the legends, it’s to keep going.

“They just tell me that there’s still work to be done,” Abanikanda said Saturday at the NFL Combine. “You get to that next level, and you just gotta keep working. You gotta be the top.”

Abanikanda reached the top of the ACC last season, pacing the conference by nearly 300 yards, and I’d argue his place nationally was severely undervalued, especially considering the overall impact he had on a largely stagnant Pitt offense.

He finished fourth in all-purpose yards (1,805 yards) and second in all-purpose yards per game (164 yards) in college football last season, and he led the nation in total touchdowns (21).

He rushed for 1,431 yards and 20 touchdowns, averaging six yards per attempt and added 146 receiving yards and 228 kickoff return yards. It was a campaign with few historical rivals. It ranks as the eighth-best single-season effort in Pitt history, and his 320 yards and six touchdowns against Virginia Tech broke and tied, respectively, single-game program records.

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

But that’s just what he accomplished in one collegiate season. Abanikanda is focused on showing that he’s ready — mentally and physically — to handle what it takes at the next level.

“You’re getting a humble, honest, mentally tough person,” Abanikanda said. “It’s how I grew up with Nigerian parents, very educated, just someone you can rely on. I’m very responsible and dedicated to my work.”

Abanikanda showed NFL teams throughout the week in Indianapolis that he’s secure in his pass protection when it comes to knowing who to block and where he needs to be. After all, he worked in pass pro (and hit the jugs machine) after basically every practice. The mental aspect of his game, while some may not think so, is a strength.

“Just showing them through the interviews that I know my playbook, I know my board work and I’m a smart player,” Abanikanda said. “So, besides physical, I know the mental part of the game.

“People don’t think that I’m really strong mentally, knowing what I can do in pass pro. They don’t think I know who to block, but I really do know everything about the game.”

He’s working at growing as a pass protector still, refining his technique and the use of his hands to stifle linebackers. It’s an area that may not yet be a strength, but it’s also an area of emphasis. But he also has plenty of areas of strength, too.

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

“I would say (breakaway speed is) probably my No. 1 thing I bring to the table as a running back, as well as ball security, breaking tackles and yards after contact.”

Abanikanda offers his own unique skillset to NFL teams, a blend of explosive speed and power, but he’s modeled his game off of NFL stars his entire life. As a kid growing up in New York City, it was LaDainian Tomlinson and Reggie Bush. As he’s starred at Pitt over the last couple of seasons, it’s been Raheem Mostert, Jonathon Taylor, Tony Pollard and Alvin Kamara.

It has the chance to come full circle for Abanikanda as he had formal interviews with the New Orleans Saints, Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins in Indy — along with the Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens — and informal interviews with basically every team in the league.

While it was a highly productive week in terms of meeting with NFL teams and advocating for himself, he didn’t partake in on-field drills in Indy. He will wait until Pitt’s Pro Day later this month to showcase his blazing speed — his 40-yard dash time was a hot topic in Indy.

Obviously, he’s expecting to run a blazing 40-yard dash time. There were just three running backs in Indy who broke the 4.4 mark, and he’s said to expect a real fast time. That kind of time, that kind of work ethic, comes in large part from being the son of hard-working Nigerian parents.

“We just gotta be at the top,” Abanikanda said. “If you were Nigerian, you’d understand everyone saying, ‘Oh, God, top.’ You gotta be the one at the top. Nigerians, we just gotta be the best we can. Try to show them we’re the best country out here.”

Pittsburgh Panthers running back Israel Abanikanda (2) Sept 10, 2022 David Hague/PSN

It’s about winning for Abanikanda. If he could level a linebacker in pass protection to allow for an explosive touchdown through the air, as opposed to breaking an 80-yard run that doesn’t find the end zone, he’d do it. It’s about the team.

So, after he ran for 320 yards and six touchdowns in a win over Virginia Tech last season, his celebration with his offensive linemen — with the entire team — in the locker room stands out as perhaps the best moment of his college career. It didn’t hurt he was able to talk to Pitt legend and NFL Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett either.

“They set up a Zoom call with us a week after that, and me and Tony got the time to chop it up,” Abanikanda said. “We were just saying it’s shocking that someone like me broke the record. He didn’t think somebody was going to break the record for a long time, and that I broke his record was shocking, but he was congratulating me at the same time. So, I was really honored.”

In his Pitt career, Abanikanda rushed 390 times for 2,177 yards and 28 touchdowns, caught 38 passes for 354 yards and three touchdowns and returned 19 kickoffs for 434 yards and a touchdown.

His 28 career touchdowns also rank eighth in team history, while he’s just one of four Pitt players to rush for at least 20 touchdowns in a single season.

Pitt’s Pro Day will be Abanikanda’s final chance to put the finishing touches upon his collegiate career, to crush his 40-yard dash and showcase his powerful frame in other drills, but there’s no doubt about it. He will be the next in a long line of Pitt running backs to reach the NFL.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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