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Spring preview: Running backs

Written by Sam Werner on .

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. 

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The Crazy Eight and What They Meant: A Postscript

Written by Craig Meyer on .

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The image was an enduring one, not because it happened less than 48 hours ago, but because of how powerful it was.

Karvel Anderson, Lucky Jones and Anthony Myers-Pate all sat at a table, each with a microphone in front of them that they probably had no desire to speak into. All three were visibly distraught, and understandably so. The ever-quotable Jones, the kid who carries a certain type of swagger with every word he speaks, gave answers in a hushed, dejected tone. Myers-Pate, the gritty senior point guard, had his head down the entire time, with his fingers interlocking and his thumbs pressing against the bridge of his nose. Anderson, the NEC player of the year who had been through damn near everything imaginable to get to this point, seemed to be the most composed, but even he was noticeably dialed back.

For two of those three, it was effectively the end of their college careers, with only a berth in the second-rate NIT awaiting them. Sure, there was the Kentucky game last year, but the odds of something like that happening two years in a row would be on par with Rush Limbaugh joining the Wu-Tang Clan. For all intents and purposes, it's over.

From the vantage point of Jones, the lone junior at the table, there's another year of hope, but there's also the painful uncertainty that comes with it. After all, there's no guarantee of another chance this good coming along again.

Minutes later, Andy Toole followed his players and harped back to the word "deserved" several times. To their coach, his players who had gone through almost everything this season and still succeeded -- suspensions, defections and, from that, playing with just eight guys -- a blowout loss on their biggest stage of the season was not a fitting end. In so many ways, it wasn't.

The world works in strange ways sometimes, but in sports, I'm someone that believes that people get what they deserve. There's no doubt what Robert Morris accomplished this season was remarkable. They worked hard, showed tenacity, grit and all those other fuzzy words people like to throw out. But if they truly deserved to get to the NCAA tournament, they would have won Tuesday night. Instead, they got beat decisively by a team with a better gameplan and better execution. Sure, these tournaments are a crapshoot, but it's the same kind of system that has rewarded every school imaginable in the past, including Robert Morris.

Admittedly, I'm a detached writer on this. I spend a lot of time around the team, I generally like the people I cover, but I do so with objectivity and a sense of emotional distance. I have to. There's no other way around it.

But when you hear Toole speak and process what he said, it starts to make sense, at least on his end. He was with this team through everything, every day getting a first-hand look at his group and everything that impacted it. The job of a college head coach is a glamorous one at times, but we only see about 10 percent of it at most, even those of us that cover these teams.

We all got to see the sunnier side of the Crazy Eight -- namely the wins -- but Toole was there for all the hardship and struggle that inevitably came with it. There's an emotional toll that comes with that, as all coaches are heavily invested in their players. When there are only eight of them, that feeling is magnified. They're the ones trusted with providing the players with a good home, nurturing their games and leading them to success. To ever see them fall short of those goals is crushing, especially when it means two of them will have never made the NCAA tournament in their college careers.

When all those feelings come together, particularly in such raw form, words like "deserved" have a tendency to get thrown around. And I get it.

For all this team did, I think one of its greatest impacts is seen in its coach. I've covered a couple of coaches in the young/enthusiastic mode before and I expected Toole to be the same way when I first met him. That wasn't quite the case, but not in a bad way at all. He's 33 and while many crack jokes about him looking 23, he's got the soul of someone who's 53. That's not saying he goes to bed at 9:30 every night and DVRs "The Good Wife," but he's got an old school ethos. There's an intensity to him, one that can be seen by anyone that has ever watched a Robert Morris practice. Sometimes that involves a lot of yelling and boiling blood.

But the Andy Toole I've seen this year is different -- namely, he's a lot mellower. I think some other factors played a role in that change, but more than anything, I think it's what this team did. Every sort of trial his team was put through tested him and at a certain point, when you only have eight guys to lean on, there has to be some patience, some give and take. And at 14-2, it worked, so much so that it was the most impressive accomplishment of his young career, even more than the Kentucky game.

Was the ending disappointing for Robert Morris fans? Of course. Given everything that had happened, I thought they were going to win that game. But two months before that, when they were first down to eight guys, I thought they were done (moral of the story: don't pay attention to my thoughts).

If anything, the loss to Mount St. Mary's displayed the cruelty of mid-major basketball. For all the heartwarming stories, for all the teams from the small schools pursuing their one shining moment, there is the flip side to that equation. There are the teams who see their seasons come down to a single game, only to falter, sometimes in spectacular fashion. Those games define a season, providing a thin line between a successful season and what can't help but feel like an underwhelming one. Such is life in a small conference.

But that doesn't mean that the Colonials' season of goodwill should be marred by a mediocre performance. Did they deserve the win? Absolutely not. When you allow your opponent to shoot 60 percent from the field, you kind of make your own bed. That doesn't explain the whole story, though.

In the heat of the moment, some people will say they'll remember this team forever. I'll make no guarantees as far as that, but one thing is much more certain -- 40 minutes of bad basketball shouldn't undo what was such a memorable season.

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Fox Chapel's Mathias named Gatorade Pa. Player of the Year

Written by Mike White on .

Local awards and all-state teams have yet to be announced, but Fox Chapel girls basketball player Erin Mathias already has picked up a big honor.

Erin MathiasMathias was named today as the Gatorade Pennsylvania Player of the Year. Gatorade says the award is for not only athletic excellence, but also academic achievement and character on and off the court.

Mathias is the third WPIAL player to win the award in the past four seasons. Hopewell's Shatori Walker-Kimbrough won it last year and Mt. Lebanon's Madison Cable in 2011. Walker-Kimbrough is now playing at the University of Maryland and Cable for undefeated Notre Dame.

Mathias has signed with Duke. One of the best post players in the WPIAL in recent years, the 6-foot-4 Mathias averaged 16 points, 12 rebounds and four blocked shots a game and helped Fox Chapel reach the WPIAL Class AAAA semifinals and a spot in the PIAA playoffs. She has a 3.8 grade-point average.

The Post-Gazette Fabulous 5, player of the year and all-section teams will be announced after the season. The all-state teams also will be announced after the season.

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Free Home and Garden Show tickets for Thursday, Friday and Saturday

Written by Doug Oster on .

blog doug and fansIt's fun to meet other gardeners at the Duquesne Light Home and Garden Show.

It's the official start to the gardening season as the Duquesne Light Home and Garden Show continues at the Convention Center. I'll be there today from 4-6 p.m. giving a presentation on gardening. I'll be there the same time on Friday and then on Saturday 10-12noon. The idea is, you get the free tickets and come see me speak, then you can enjoy the rest of the show. I'm on the second floor at the P-G Showcase Stage near the river side between aisles 2500 and 2600.

I'll also be giving away packets of 'Limbaugh Legacy Potato Top' tomato seeds and other seeds. The tomato is  a favorite around our area and the world. I ask people to grow out the seeds and send some back to me at the end of the season. Here's the full story about the wonderful Pittsburgh Heirloom Tomato.

Email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. if you would like some tickets.

Hope to see you there.

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Empty Netter Assists - 03-13-14

Written by Seth Rorabaugh on .

Penguins

-So far, so good for Lee Stempniak (above) on the top line.

-"I've played in the American League enough to know what the league's about. It's going to be fun to play with these guys and try to make a playoff push." - Chuck Kobasew on being assigned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

-The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins assigned forward Tom Kuhnhackl and defenseman Harrison Ruopp to the Wheeling Nailers.

-Wilkes-Barre/Scranton signed undrafted free agent forward Conor Sheary, formerly of Massachusettes, to an amateur tryout contract.

-The Nailers' home game Wednesday against the Toledo Walleye has been postponed indefinitely. Snow in Toledo prevented the Walleye from traveling.

-Happy 40th birthday to former Penguins defenseman Maxim Galanov. Claimed by the Penguins from the Rangers through a waiver draft in 1998, Galanov appeared in 51 games for the 1998-99 Penguins and recorded seven points. The Thrashers claimed him in the 1999 expansion draft.

-Happy 53rd birthday to former Penguins forward Barry Pederson. A former all-star with the Bruins, Pederson was acquired by the Peguins along with Rod Buskas and Tony Tanti in a trade that sent Dave Capuano, Andrew McBain and Dan Quinn to the Canucks midway through the 1989-90 season. Pederson spent parts of two season with the Penguins and in 84 games, he recorded 36 points. Though he didn't appear in a playoff game, Pederson did get his name on the Stanley Cup for the Penguins' 1991 championship. Because Peterson was wearing No. 10 that season, Penguins forward Ron Francis was forced to adopt No. 9 for the remainder of the season when he was acquired at the trade deadline from Hartford. Pederson might be best remembered for being part of one of the worst trades in NHL history. In the 1987 offseason, the Bruins dealt him to the Canucks in exchange for future Hockey Hall-of-Famer Cam Neely and a first-round pick used to draft future all-star Glen Wesley.

-Happy 61st birthday to former Penguins forward Blaine Stoughton. The club's first-round pick in 1973, Stoughton appeared in 34 games for the 1973-74 Penguins and recorded 11 points. The following offseason, Stoughton and a first-round pick were dealt to the Maple Leafs in a deal that netted one of the greatest players in franchise history, Rick Kehoe.

-Happy 53rd birthday to former Penguins defenseman Petteri Lehto. A free agent signing in the 1984 offseason, Lehto appeared in six games the 1984-85 Penguins and was a minus-4. In a 7-4 home win against the Canucks, Jan. 9, 1985, Lehto and Arto Javanainen became the first Finnish players in franchise history. The following season, Lehto rejoined TPS Turku in his native Finland.

-Happy 39th birthday to former Penguins forward Landon Wilson. Acquired from the Coyotes before the 2004 trade deadline, Wilson appeared in 19 games for the 2003-04 Penguins and recorded six points. Prior to the 2004-05 lockout, he signed with Espoo in Finland.

-After the Jump: Rich Peverly's season comes to an end.

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