(This is the second of a longer series looking at our individual positions that need to be re-filled in 2017 and whether we will meet the PRODUCTION we had in those positions. We will not factor in true freshman at this point as we have no idea what they can and cannot do).
Much like in 2016 when we were faced with the prospect of having to put out a passing game without Tyler Boyd, we are revisiting that situation with this season’s loss of James Conner at running back.
At the risk of being unpopular (again) I’ll say this. As I wrote many times during last year’s offseason that we wouldn’t miss Boyd much at all – and I took major heat, some of it from the more mainstream media, for saying that I’ll repeat that thought for this year’s running backs.
We won’t miss James Conner’s 2016 production as much as fans think. I love Conner, have had great personal conversations with him and feel that as a human being he’s one of the finest men I have ever met – and that is saying a lot given my professional career. Pitt and his peer players will miss his wonderful human traits and his friendship no doubt. Those are the intangibles James Conner brought to the Pitt football program and will continue to bring to any organization he is affiliated with for the rest of his life.
Unlike Tyler Boyd’s leaving, Conner’s departure is going to cost us big time in the leadership and role model areas.
I truly wish he’d have stayed at Pitt for his 4th year of eligibility but understand completely why he declared – and what a grand decision that was given the relatively high round in which he was picked and by the Steelers to boot. Pittsburgh fans will have a lot more time to watch Conner play football I’m sure, just not in a Panther uniform.
But as a running back on our team last year, and the production he had out on the field, he’s replaceable and it will most likely be by committee. Again I’m speaking of what he did out on the field production wise.
We’ll make up for Conner’s statistical production, especially rushing yards and TDs by this year’s batch of RBs, although his 20 TDs all told last season won’t be met by one player, that’s (maybe) for sure.
And I’ll also say there are other aspects of his play at RB he did very well at that will be missed such as situational short yardage plays, those short 1st down and red zone TD attempts will have to be given elsewhere and that might present a problem.
If we were coming off Conner’s 2014 season then my opinion on this would be 180° different than now, but we aren’t. We are coming off his 2016 year where he did this:
That is all pretty good so don’t get me wrong – Conner was a fine running back for us last year and contributed in both rushing and receiving.
Now here is the rub. Our returning backs other than Conner didn’t do hardly anything eye-catching last season. Our halfbacks that is, rsJR George Aston at fullback is the starter there again. The HBs combined for this production:
Here you see that they combined for only 111 carries – about half of what Conner had last year and their combined yards per carry was only 4.6. Now that ain’t great on its own but shows only a separation of .5 yards between them and what Conner did. That is certainly able to be bettered given that two of them will get a ton more carries… even factoring in WR Quadree Henderson’s carries from scrimmage that he’ll get.
I do think Henderson’s passing game presence is going to rise and he may not get the number of rushes he had last season. We’ll see on that.
Personally I want to see rsJR Qadree Ollison get his starting job back and be given an even-steven chance to build on his very good 2015 season. That year he rushed for 1,121 yards and 11 touchdowns on 212 carries (5.3 avg) and also caught 14 receptions for 77 yards (5.5 avg) and a TD.
Stack that ’15 year Ollison had against Conner’s ’16 season and Ollison’s is actually statistically better save for the TDs. 5.3 yards per carry over full 212 carries is a darn good bit of work and regardless of why he didn’t get much playing time last year I think he could, and will, rebound in a big way.
Honestly, handing a RB like Ollison the ball a few times a game isn’t going to get you the results you want, especially if he’s more muscular and stronger than he was last year as the staff has been saying. Make him the featured back, give him carries to build his in-game and season momentums and let him prove he belongs in the starting lineup. If he fails you have the two other guys waiting to pick up the slack.
I think the fan’s favorite is SO Chawntez Moss because he’s the biggest breakaway threat we have existing on the roster today and fans love the big runs. Actually he had a total of one play over 21 yards and that was the 41 yarder against Marshall… but given his small number of carries that will change if he becomes a more featured back this season. He is the fastest pure RB we have on roster.
Here is his game-by-game breakdown of last season:
As far as JR Darrin Hall goes he may have been recruited over and since watching him in Paul Chryst’s 2014 spring and fall camp open practices I have never been all that impressed with him. Ollison has always shown more to me but the staff seems to like Hall and Hall has had had some flashes of being able to play well. He did have a 4* ranking coming out of high school, but that and $2.00 will get you a cup of coffee somewhere.
In 2015 he had a career-high 103 yards on 12 carries (8.6 avg.) against Miami, including a 35-yard touchdown run. Here is a nice interview with him after that game.
So, who knows? That might mean he’ll be the guy this season. I’d bet on Moss and Ollison getting more carries before him though.
So that’s who we have returning – and since these articles are about returning players only I have purposefully left out any incoming true freshman because that truly is pure speculation at this point. Come mid-August we may be talking about Todd Sibley and A. J. Davis but for now the three guys mentioned above are who will most likely fill James Conner’s big, bronzed, football cleats.