There was a sentiment around the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex last week that Rodney Hammond Jr. needed more touches.
Whether it was Pat Narduzzi saying he’d like to give Hammond 50 carries against West Virginia or Frank Cignetti Jr. saying he absolutely wanted to give Hammond — and all the running backs — more touches, there was an expectation that Pitt wouldn’t come out throwing against WVU like it did against Cincinnati.
And, to the coaching staff’s credit, Pitt came out with 11 straight runs on the opening drive against WVU. Hammond himself turned seven carries into 41 yards.
It was more work than he had received in either of Pitt’s first two games. But after that opening drive, Hammond didn’t receive another carry until the second quarter. He only received seven more carries throughout the rest of the game.
Hammond says he isn’t worried about it though.
“I mean, we got a plan, we really got a plan for me, so whatever they need me to do, I’m gonna be ready to do it,” Hammond said Wednesday after practice. “I didn’t really notice what was going on, but I know we got a plan for me, so I’m not worried.
“I’m a team player. I’m not really frustrated at all. So, whatever we gotta do to win, that’s what I’m gonna do.”
It was a hard night for Pitt’s offense. Phil Jurkovec played poorly, the offensive line wasn’t good enough and the offense never found any sort of rhythm after the opening drive. And without any sort of vertical threat, the WVU defense loaded up the box and took away the run game, too.
“When they load the box, and you’re running the ball, the defense has no layers,” Andre Powell said Wednesday after practice. “So, if you crack a run, there are no layers. Some of the things you can do is run-action pass and pass the ball. There are lots of options. And we’ve utilized some of those options. We’re just, for one reason or another, a hair off. And we’re working vigorously to get that corrected.”
It remains to be seen if the Pitt passing game is going to be able to force defenses to spread out, but without the threat of a deep ball (or any sort of passing game, really), it will make life harder for the running backs.
Hammond, once again, isn’t worried about it though.
He doesn’t care if life is harder for the running backs. He isn’t frustrated that he only received seven carries after the first possession against WVU. It’s football, he said, that’s just how it goes. He’s confident in the plan for him — which he said is helping the offense move the ball and pick up wins — moving forward.
It doesn’t matter what it is, if it helps the team win, Hammond said he’ll do it. And it appears — to my eyes — that Pitt’s best chance to win is to give Hammond carries. In the midst of offensive struggles, Hammond believes he can do more.
“There’s always room for improvement, so if something’s not working, of course I know I can always do more,” Hammond said. “If we lose or anything, I always know I can do more.”
In three games this season, Hammond has ran 25 times for 95 yards (3.8 yards per carry) and two touchdowns. And he’s added one catch for 15 yards. The light usage is inexplicable.
He was a workhorse when Israel Abanikanda missed time last season. In three games that Abanikanda didn’t play (including the Backyard Brawl) last season, Hammond racked up 69 carries for 292 yards (4.2 yards per carry) and five touchdowns — adding six receptions for 63 yards.
In two true starts, against Syracuse and UCLA, Hammond showcased an ability to be a bell cow, dominating rush attempts (67% of rush attempts against Syracuse and 69% of rush attempts against UCLA) and serving as the engine of the offense. Both of which were Pitt wins, too.
Hammond’s ability to cut and make defenders miss is hard to replicate. He’s a very different runner from Abanikanda, but he has the potential to make a very similar impact on the football field. Where Abanikanda was vertical, Hammond’s is lateral.
Hammond likens himself to a do-everything back. If you need speed, he’s got it. If you need power, he can do it. He embraces the contact, putting his shoulder down to pick up a few extra yards in the process. He felt good moving the ball against WVU, and he wants to do it more — and put up more points — this week.
It will still be a running back by committee approach though. That will not be changing this week as Pitt cycles through Hammond and C’Bo Flemister, with Daniel Carter as the third down back, against North Carolina.
“Everything we do, we evaluate and we look at it closely,” Powell said. “Nothing’s off the table, and we’ll look at it, we’ll make adjustments and those guys played well. But when you get in the situation we’re in now, we’re looking to see each person, each room — who can do more? Who can do what they’re supposed to do better? So, we’ll evaluate that stuff, and we’ll see where it goes.”
Hammond is still listed as the lead back on Pitt’s depth chart, and he does lead the running backs room in carries, but the coaching staff is going to continue utilizing all three backs. It may be frustrating for many, but Hammond says he understands Powell’s approach. He’s learned a lot from Powell.
“Coach Powell made me a student of the game,” Hammond said. “Because when I first came in, he used to always tell me, ‘You know how to play football, but you don’t know foootball.’ And I always used to tell him, ‘No, I know football. I know football.’ But as I got older, he really showed me breaking down the defense, press your gaps, trust your reads. Now when I trust my reads, everything’s right there.”
Whether it’s himself or Flemister, Hammond said he knows the offense isn’t missing a beat. But he’s also well aware of what he’s capable of doing on the football field.
“Just me being out there, that should already scare you because on any given play, I can make something happen,” Hammond said. “So if you sleep on me, that’s your choice.”
Oh, and also, today — Sept. 20 — is Hammond’s birthday.