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More Horsepower: Israel Abanikanda Once Again Proves He’s a Top RB at Pitt’s Pro Day



It may have been the first home run of Israel Abanikanda’s Pitt career. He took a handoff, burst through the line and exploded into the secondary for about an 80-yard gain — or however long Pitt’s indoor practice field is.

He wasn’t Izzy the All-American back then though. Just Israel Abanikanda the early enrollee. He had just arrived on campus and he, admittedly, was lacking in many ways at the position. He didn’t know how to pass protect, never learned it in high school, and he wasn’t very good coming out of the backfield as a receiver either.

But he knew how to run. He’s always known how to run.

“You saw that carry for 80 yards, that was just me running, showing them that I could run the ball,” Abanikanda said Wednesday after his Pro Day performance. “But now, I’m a complete back, I can do anything any coach wants me to do.”

It’s been about three years to the day since Abanikanda broke that long touchdown run inside the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, and while he’s shouldered certain expectations since busting that big run in spring ball, he’s exceeded them all.

He was the leading rusher during Pitt’s ACC championship campaign, part of a three-headed rushing attack that sometimes-complemented Kenny Pickett’s heroics, but he took a massive leap forward in 2022 — almost as big as his broad jump Wednesday.

Abanikanda was an All-ACC, All-American running back in 2022, serving as perhaps the best all-purpose weapon in college football, finishing 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.

And despite being just 20 years old, with a couple of seasons remaining under his belt, he declared for the 2023 NFL Draft before the Sun Bowl. As an underclassman, he wasn’t invited to any all-star games, but the NFL Combine came calling.

A minor hamstring injury during his training led to him being unable to compete at Combine, which led to some self-doubt and an added level of motivation. He watched guys run at the Combine and knew he could show off.

“Today was just a day for me to show out,” Abanikanda said. “I was motivated after not participating at the Combine, so I know today was a big day for me.

“Definitely did (open some eyes), but it’s nothing new to me.”

How did he open more eyes across the country? He recorded times and numbers that would’ve led all running backs in Indianapolis earlier this month. He measured in at 5-foot-10 (and 5/8ths) and 217 pounds.

“41-inch vertical, and I look at his back, and I was like, ‘Whoa.’ Maybe I just haven’t looked at him with his shirt off in a long time, but he was a beast over there jumping,” Pat Narduzzi said Wednesday. “And the way he ran at 218 pounds, that’s a big man running fast.

“Most guys getting skinnier for Pro Day, so they can run faster. He put on more horsepower and went out there and ran really well.”

Abanikanda almost leaped out of the facility Wednesday, recording a 41-inch vertical, and how fast did he run?

“I believe they said between a 4.26-4.32 on the last one,” Abanikanda said.

Abanikanda has come a very long way since he stepped on campus as that early enrollee from Abraham Lincoln High in Brooklyn.

While he wants NFL teams to know he’s a dedicated, disciplined and humble man on and off the field, he also wanted to show that he’s not just a runner anymore. He knows what to do in pass protection, and he can catch the football out of the backfield.

In fact, he’s not just a breakaway threat. He can hit home runs on every carry, possessing that true breakaway speed, but he was determined to show that he’s grown into a player who is able to handle the workload of a lead NFL running back.

“People don’t really look at how I burst through the holes, how I break through the tackles,” Abanikanda said. “Just me and my speed breaking through tackles. A lot of people don’t really realize that, they just see, ‘Oh, he’s a breakaway runner, he doesn’t really have the ability to catch outside the backfield.'”

He may be young, the youngest in the draft, but he’s been kind of preparing to be in this position his whole life. He’s been playing up a division his entire life, and he only has one way to go now. Up.

He’s been hearing from about 20 NFL teams — a number that he hopes will rise to 32 after his performance Wednesday — in the buildup to the draft, being asked about his film study, his ability to process the game in terms of pass protection.

But the feedback Wednesday was more about how he performed on the field. “They said I was rolling, so I was like, I appreciate that,” Abanikanda laughed.

At 217 pounds, with nearly unmatched speed (4.26-4.30 40 time) and explosion (41-inch vertical and 10-foot-8-inch vertical), he possesses a mix of speed and power in a young, lightly-worked body. A big, powerful body, sure, but he hasn’t had much wear and tear.

He’s headed back to Brooklyn to work with his trainer and catch up with his family before the NFL Draft next month, but he has his eyes on the goal.

Of course, he wants to be drafted, but he doesn’t care what he does when he reaches the NFL. It doesn’t matter if it’s a starting running back or just a special teamer, he just wants to be on the field.

Abanikanda will be the new kid on the block in the NFL, once again an early enrollee, but if he’s proven anything, it’s that he’s able to make a strong early impression.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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