We're just a few days away from the start of spring practice, so let's start rolling through these positional previews. Today, we'll look at the guys carrying the ball for Pitt in 2014. It's sort of amazing how much this position has developed from the end of spring practices in 2013, when there was nothing but uncertainty at the running back position. Now, Pitt has a wealth of talent to choose from with plenty more coming in.
Projected depth chart (returning starters in italics)
1. James Conner, So., 6-1, 230 lbs
2. Isaac Bennett, Sr., 5-11, 205 lbs
3. Rachid Ibrahim, So., 6-1, 185 lbs
4. Chris James, Fr., 5-9, 212 lbs
5. Qadree Ollison, Fr., 6-1, 226 lbs
6. Dennis Briggs, Fr., 5-11, 195 lbs
Barring injuries, this is a position that looks pretty solid for the Panthers heading into 2014. Conner and Bennett combined for 1,596 yards and 15 touchdowns last year and Conner, especially figures to make a big jump from his freshman to his sophomore year. The one thing about Conner last year was that, despite his obvious talent, he did have a slight tendency to try and break things outside rather than patiently wait for a hole to open up the middle and take the three or four yards that were there for him. That's not a huge knock on him, mind you, just sort of typical freshman growing pains. I expect those to decrease this season, and the addition of new running backs coach John Settle, who produced some outstanding rushing attacks at Wisconsin, should only help.
All told, the workload among the running backs should be split in 2014 fairly similar to how it was in 2013, with a couple of tweaks. First, I would expect that Conner will take over the official starting role which was, at least nominally, Bennett's for all of the 2013 season. Not a knock on Bennett, who will certainly be a contributor, but it's impossible to ignore that, especially in light of his performance in the bowl game, Conner is the best running back on the roster right now (also keep in mind that the heights and weights listed above are Pitt's official records for the 2013 season. I've heard plenty of reports that Conner has put on some more good weight in the offseason that will make him even tougher the bring down this season).
Bennett will probably assume more of a true third-down back role, though Paul Chryst obviously likes to rotate a lot of running backs in throughout the course of the game. The wild card in this group is James, who definitely has the talent to play right away this season. I could definitely see him unseating Ibrahim and possibly pushing Bennett for third-down snaps if he's as good as advertised once he gets on campus. His development will define how the rest of the position looks, too. If James moves ahead of Ibrahim, it wouldn't be out of the question for Ibrahim to take a redshirt season, or even move back to safety (the position he was originally recruited for). Or Chryst and company could just opt to use four running backs this season, though three generally seems to be the magic number.
Ollison and Briggs will almost certainly redshirt, though Ollison may be able to find a niche as a big back to spell Conner in short-yardage situations.
For all these young guys, though, it's a moot point until this summer. In the spring, it'll just be Conner, Bennett and Ibrahim. The biggest thing to watch in the spring will be what kind of formations they use these guys in. One thing we didn't see a ton of last year, and I'll be interested to watch in the spring, is if they try anything with two of those guys on the field at the same time. It could also be a big spring for Ibrahim to assert himself as the third guy in the mix before the freshmen arrive this summer.