Welcome back to Chas Rich of The Pitt Blather! He just posted a nice article about Pitt’s WR corps status going into the season opener which is a main topic of conversation given that the only bona fide offensive star on the Pitt team who played last season departed from that unit.
I say don’t take the time to worry about that part of Pitt’s football team this year. We have old and new talent there that by the force of circumstances had been hidden by Tyler Boyd’s long shadow.
In a sense we fans are in the same spot with that as we were going into last season’s second game with us wondering about what would occur with the run game after James Conner tore up his knee and looked to be lost for the season.
What happened then is what will we will experience now, and what is also the beauty of college football, there are players waiting in the wings for the chance to shine and they will. We saw that last season with Quadree Ollison filling in at the RB1 position and doing a bang-up job.
So that part of the offense is what I want to talk about today. It is easy for the eye to be drawn to the passing game’s questions because of Boyd’s departure, but I think we may just have as big a question mark in the running game this year.
First off let’s talk about expectations. We Pitt fans love them to death – expectations that is. Every single year we expect grand things then are genuinely surprised with what Reality has on the plate when it comes out of Hell’s kitchen.
“Hello, My name is Reality and I’ll be your waiter today. What can I start you out with… perhaps a key injury to dash your hopes for the season?”
We had that as a first course last season when Conner went down late in the 1st half in the opener, yet pulled it together enough to work on to an eight win season. But as happens we had another RB who stepped up and produced in Quadree Ollison – to the tune of 1121 yards and a 5.3 ypc average on the year.
I find it interesting that over this offseason fans seem to downplay what Ollison did in relief when tasked. I think that was because his track record over the course of the 13 games was as spiky as the Rockies.
He kicked out an initial 207 yards in that first game (12.9 ypc!!) then followed that with 81 yards (3.9 ypc), 17 yards (4.3 ypc on only four touches) then bounced up again with 122 yards and 6.4 ypc. It went that way all season. When the bell rang at the end of the bowl game Ollison had five games with over 100 yards yet he also had four games with under 50 yards rushing.
It is that inconsistency that has led the coaching staff to keep floating out the idea that Ollison may not be either the 1st or 2nd string RB coming out of fall camp. Which on the face of it is a shock given that good statistical production he had.
And is also a strong argument for the old saying that stats sometimes lie.
As it stands right now it looks like the two deep for the running backs might be James Conner (it’s hard to think it won’t be him as the true starter given the emotion surrounding his illness and recovery) then SO Darrin Hall up next. Following him would be Ollison and the much discussed true Freshman Chawntez Moss.
Darrin Hall is an interesting story. He came onto the roster as 4* recruit and the 22nd ranked RB in the nation out of Ohio. He had offers from 13 Power Five schools including Nebraska, MSU, Arkansas and WVU. So he’s not one of these flying under the radar kids but has an established track record of success – including a 107 yard game against Miami last season as a true FR.
But it was iffy that Hall would have stuck with Pitt after Paul Chryst and RB Coach John Settle left after the 2014 season. But he’s here now.
Now – who I think is an interesting wildcard in the RB’s meeting room is FR Chawntez Moss. The staff has been throwing his name around with more regularity than you’d think given his FR status and the quality of the other RBs we have. The fact that Moss graduated HS early to be able to report to Pitt in January and attend Spring Practices must have made a big impression.
He’s 5’11” and 202 lbs and can fly. As a 3* recruit he had only had a few FBS offers but he tore up the field in HS, especially in his JR year when he ran for over 2,000 yards (9.4 ypc) with 28 TDs. These are his HS totals and notice the good average gains he had receiving out of the backfield also:
Here are some of his HS highlights and I have to say his running style reminds me a bit of Dion Lewis as he’s got the ability to make the first would-be tackler miss then take proper running angles to open up distances between the next wave.
So – we have a full complement of quality RBs who, I believe, all could go in and produce if needed. But which ones will we actually see get the loins share of carries?
The first name in that conversation has to be James Conner. His history is well know but for the sake of clarity let me remind you of his 2014 season, his first as a featured back. In his SO year he ran for 1765 yards on 298 carries (5.9 ypc) for 26 TDs. That is the 3rd best season in yards gained of any Pitt RB and a record-setting TD total.
Here – maybe it is best to see just what impact he had on the running game that year with this:
So, are we expecting a repeat by Mr. Conner this season. I’m not and here is why. First we truly don’t know what shape he is in and if he’ll be able to carry the load as he did two years ago. All reports from every angle, the staff, his doctors, the media – they are all glowing and positive. I’ll not say here that isn’t the case because I want it to be true. My point is that things change in the heat of battle. My belief though is that he’ll be fine and contribute well this season.
But I don’t think we’ll see those crazy 2014 numbers out of him because we won’t have to.
In 2014 his fellow running backs contributed this to our rushing totals (less QB Chad Voytik as we are discussing RBs now):
Very well done across the board especially Ibrahim’s YPC. Usually when you see a number like that above 6.0 it means the RB didn’t have many carries but 8.0 on 33 carries is a good thing.
Last season with Ollison in as a reliever our RBs; James and Hall, didn’t break the 300 yards or 5.0 YPC benchmarks thus we dropped from 15th nationally in rushing with 249 ypg to 44th with 186 ypg. That is 63 ypg less and the equivalent of six 1st downs at least… which translates into points left on the field.
As to expectations of the ground game for this year I’ll say this. I don’t hold the same thoughts other fans do that we will run the ball at every opportunity and then only pass as necessary. I have heard some say that we’ll see a 65/35 or even a 70/30 split toward the run in play calling for 2016.
Never in the last 11 years have we run the ball a full 65% of the time (see end chart below). The most we have done with the run is 64% and that was with 1st year starting QB Chad Voytik and Conner’s monster year in ’14.
That huge run first and run a lot assumption they hold that isn’t based so much on who we have running the ball but who we don’t have catching the ball – namely Tyler Boyd. Well, I beg to differ. We’ll be fine in the passing game and it is semi-ridiculous to think we’d abandon something that gives us more yards per play on average than the opposite number does.
Last season we had 5.3 yards per carry and 7.8 yards per pass play. Granted some of those pass plays fell short and gave us nothing – but you don’t every minimize the opportunity to get years in any way possible.
In 2014 with Conner we had 918 total plays (6.2 ypp) with 610 runs and 308 passes – a 64/36 split. Heavy, heavy on the run and 12th nationally in that aspect.
Last year we had 852 total plays (5.8 ypp) with 509 runs and 343 passes – a 59/41 split…. which put us about 35th nationally.
Now we have a new OC and a 2nd year HC who has seen what his starting QB could do last season. Narduzzi will have more faith in Nate Peterman than the fans seem to have so I think we’ll see something closer to the same 60/40 split which is a bit above par for the course for Pitt football as we average a 55%/45% split historically.
I do think Conner gets over 1,000 yards but will not produce the killer year he had in ’14. A couple of reasons come to mind – first is what I said above, we don’t need to run him 23 times a game like we did two years ago. Hell, he had four games where he carried over 30 times.
There is no way this staff should do that unless we have major injuries to three other RBs.
I also feel that we’ll see a big increase in our running productivity overall. I don’t know what is going on between Ollison and the staff because we are hearing nothing but bland reports coming out of camp about him. That, and some allusions to his being dropped down the depth chart… which is surprising given his production last season.
So maybe we see Hall or Moss have a breakout year like Ollison did last season. Regardless of who it is they will be running behind a strong and experienced OL this year and will produce well over what we saw in ’15.
BTW – as will the passing game also…
Fun with Stats – here is our recent history Run/Pass Ratio numbers: