As part of a series looking at individual units we will try to patch-up, rebuild or strengthen in time for the 2017 opener against Youngstown State I’ve switch between offense and defense articles taking closer looks.
But I have some real concerns about our running game and would like to take a closer look at the Running Backs – maybe researching this piece will make me feel better.
To recap last season’s rushing production here are the final stats for our run game in total and the reason we were #28th in the nation at 225.1 ypg with a nice 5.4 ypc average.
That was a pretty big jump from our 2015 production that saw us at #44th with only 186.6 and a 4.77 ypc… and a jump up of almost a yard adds up over the season.
For our leading ball carriers we see these players as our main rushers:
Those guys were our Top 10 yardage producers in ball carrying. There are some interesting things to point out with this. First is that two of our three yardage leaders have departed. RB James Conner (1092 yards) and QB Nate Peterman were very effective in taking the ball downfield.
After coming back from a year out of football to take care of his illness James Conner had a very respectable 5.1 yards per carry and of course lead the team in TDs again with 16. Peterman was sneakily much more productive in tucking the ball and taking off downfield then at first glance.
One statistic I feel is both hidden and not appreciated as much as it should be is a QB’s rushing yardage with the sack yardage removed. In other words it is how effective the QB was when his intent was to carry the ball forward (including pulling the pass down and scrambling across the LOS obviously).
Readers comment sometimes the “stats lie” and in this case I do agree. With that here is what Peterman’s numbers look like with sacks taken out (remember “intent to move ball forward“).
If you factor in that Pitt was 3rd in the nation with the lowest “Sacks Allowed” with only 10 for (-)75 yards Peterman had 62 carries for 456 yards with a 7.4 yards per carry average (!) with 3 TDs. Fun with numbers maybe but it goes to a point.
We all watched him take off and get big chunks of yardage in tight spots but that 7.4 ypc is pretty surprising and, as stated, hidden. To keep on Peterman’s skill for a moment his two-year rushing production was (this is ballpark) 119 carries for 882 yards with a 7.4 ypc and 4 TDs.
What is pretty amazing is that our sacks allowed went from 29 for (-) 193 yards in ’15 to only 10 for (-) 75 yards last year. Well done OL!
So when discussing the running game I think you have to look at the QB position and factor that loss of personnel and production in. I’m not sure what Max Browne will do under Shawn Watson as the OC but his past rushing record at USC was 13 carries for 10 yards on no TDs which means, I think, we won’t be seeing him tuck and run on purpose much if at all.
So much for the QBs. The meat of the any school’s running game is almost always the running backs on the roster but we did that with a twist last season. Looking back at that table above we see that departed OC Matt Canada made much use of our non-traditional runners with his reliance on WRs and DBs to carry the ball:
WRs, DBs and the FB had 987 yards out of our total 2926 is 33.8% of our total rushing production.
But wait!! There’s more!
Add in Peterman’s 72 carries for 381 yards and 3 TDs and you have the ‘other than’ runners doing this: 186 for 1368 for a 7.4 ypc and 15 TDs which turns out to be 47% of our rushing total. That is pretty amazing to me.
(BTW – I think my math is correct this time but who knows?)
I’d venture to say that hasn’t been seen at Pitt before and the nice thing is every one of those ‘different’ ball carriers, save Peterman, are returning for 2017 – now the question is how well will Watson learn to use them now that he doesn’t have a Heisman-worthy QB behind Center?
He’ll have some traditional backs returning for action of course. JR Rachid Ibrahim transferred out after seeing the handwriting on the wall. He just never fit in to either Chaney or Canada’s offenses and with that serious injury was left on the outside looking in.
We’ll have rsJR Quadree Ollison, SO Chawntez Moss and JR Darrin Hall as the primary running backs and they did OK last year. You can see they were pretty effective but nothing like the ‘surprise I got the ball’ runners we deployed. Ollison’s production dropped pretty drastically from his superb 2015 year when Conner was hurt and Ollison had to carry the load.
Chawntez Moss stepped in and did well with a 5.4 ypc on only 42 attempts and showed flashes of what he could do if featured. Billed as a break-away threat with the ball he didn’t live up to that with a long run of 41 yards against Marshall. In his other games he had long runs of 4, 13, 13, 16, 2 and 3 in the bowl game.
I’ve little faith in Darrin Hall being anything but a reliever in the backfield this year. His 4.17 ypc over 100 rushes in his two years of play is unimpressive and he has only two TDs to show. I think he’s been recruited over already.
Pat Narduzzi apparently loves small RBs and it has shown in his recruiting. Ollison is the only big back at 6’2″ / 230. Hall and Moss are both 5’11” /225 & 210 respectively.
Our incoming RBs, very highly rated and recruited 4* Anthony Davis; 5’10” / 198 and 3* Todd Sibley at 5’10” / 211 are of the same mold. I don’t necessarily like that much because I don’t think these RBs on pour roster are going to see anything like the holes created for them on the left side of the LOS by Dorian Johnson and Adam Bisnowaty – both All-Americans and future NFL players.
That is a big deal to me and thus I think it would be a good thing to get the ball to Ollison early and often and get him in a groove. We’ll have WR Quadree Henderson for the lightning, he struck big home runs last season, but I think we’ll need also need a back in the mold of Conner for the thunder and Ollison is the only one on roster big enough to do that.
This is a real position of concern for me because so much of a running game’s success depends on the offensive line – which I don’t think is going to be anywhere near as effective as it was in 2016.
Here is who we had on the front line at the end of 2016 . With Reese and Baker gone how will we match the departed Left Guard and Left Tackle? We ran the ball down the left side a ton last season and that is the QB’s blind side.
We may get lucky with Sibley and/or Davis for a big year and that would be nice especially because we’ve seen that in the recent past with RBs hitting the scene hard like McCoy, Graham, Lewis, etc.
But our existing running backs don’t thrill me all that much and without a strong passing game to take some heat off – and we don’t know anything about Browne and that yet at all really – the run game will have to produce early on and it most likely take some time to get really rolling.
Hopefully that will take place after YSU and before the Sept 9th at PSU game but I’m worried about that.