If you all remember I did a series of articles in June of 2017 that looked at the departing starters from the 2016 season and who I thought would be replacing them for 2017. With that I assigned a grade of “Upgrade“, “Downgrade” or “Draw‘.
What I’ll do first is look at each position, or unit, along the offense or defense as of today and write down who I think will be the starter and why it will be that guy. Then I’ll assign a ranking of “Upgrade” if I see an upgrade in player quality, “Downgrade’ if I see a lessening of talent or “Draw” if I think we’ll match last year’s player(s) in the position or unit.
Here we go Pitt fans… this unit, along with the QBs, is always the most dissected and discussed over the offseason. Maybe that is because it is featured on the majority of offensive plays (460 runs to 362 pass attempts in ’17) or maybe it is because Pitt has had a great history of turning out superb running backs over the last four decades.
When you can boast of alumni players like Tony Dorsett, Ironhead Heyward, Randy McMillen, Curtis Martin, LeSean McCoy, Dion Lewis, Ray Graham and James Conner… to name just a few, then that’s something to hang your helmet on.
Dragging us back to the present now and I hope I didn’t raise your hopes up too much. I doubt we are going to see a star performance out of any Pitt RBs this season. For one reason the two RBs who will start off as the primary carriers this season are fair to middling players at best. rs Senior Qadree Ollison and Senior Darrin Hall have been around for years and have both started games and held starting positions so they hold trump in the experience column.
Last season Pitt’s run game was…well, poor as we were 85th nationally (in the lower third of D1 schools) and had a yards per carry average of only 3.87. In college football a good rushing average for a RB is the 5.0 ypc benchmark. 5.0 ypc is the same benchmark as for a team’s rushing on the season. To put that in recent historical perspective here are the last fous year of Pitt’s run game:
Granted having Conner carrying the ball was a different animal all together but you can see how we dipped last season.
This poor rushing offense didn’t take place in a vacuum however. Our offensive line was bad last season; 99th in the country in Tackles For Loss allowed with 79 on the season. Some of those TFLs were the 31 sacks the OL allowed also but that still left 48 times the ball carrier was dropped in the backfield. Not good. Hell, if you total up the TFLs and Sacks that is 79 negative plays. Given that our total carries were 460 that means 18% of the time we ran the ball we lost yardage (more on that below).
Combine that with the poor passing game we fielded in 2017 which was a minimal threat to complete intermediate and deep passes and all of a sudden we saw seven or even eight defenders in the box slobbering to shut down the run. Those two issues, a terrible OL and a bad passing game combined to make it hard for anyone.
But the bold truth is that both of our main ball carriers are just not that good at running the ball. Hall and Ollison have both had highlights in their Pitt careers but on the whole they are not the type of running back Pitt has had and depended on for our offensive firepower in other seasons.
Ollision had a fine rsFR year in 2015 when he went in for James Conner during Conner’s illness. That season he ran for 1,121 yards on a 5.3 ypc (there is that 5.0 benchmark) and scored 11 TDs. Then he was sat down. This is one of the biggest mysteries in Pitt football for me. The staff can say what they want about him being overweight, etc…but when he is the only back on the roster to 1) have a 1,000 yard season and 2) average over 5.0 ypc I think you have to get him the ball more often.
Hall started seven games last season and had the best showing of his time since he’s been here. He rushed for 628 yards on 4.6 ypc with 9 TDs. But he was on/off in a big way. In the first five games he played he averaged 22 yards per game on a 3.4 ypc clip. Then had a great three game stretch where he averaged 162 ypg… then dropped back down to 17 ypg on 25 carries for a 1.36 ypc in the last two matches. Down then up then down.
Still, both of the backs, along with true Freshman A. J. Davis (nine games with 16 carries for 40 yards and one TD on a 2.5 ypc rate) failed to make a strong impression for the future season. One of the problems all the young men had was one of consistency. Hall broke of two great runs in the Duke game, both for TDs to seal the win. But on the other 98.4% of his carries he had a low 3.6 ypc average. That is a glaring problem in my opinion.
This is what is meant when we say there was way too much inconsistency in the rushing game. That along with being stopped at the line of scrimmage or behind it way too much. Not only were we terrible in the numbers of tackles for loss we had allowed to happen but our “Stuff Rate”( the measure of percentage of runs where the runner is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage) was a very poor 21.5 % and put us 98th in the nation in that category.
Get that Pitt fans? On over 1/5th of our carries we were stuffed at the LOS or dropped for a loss. Pass the Bromo Seltzer please. Again, a combination of factors led to all this but as stated above, our RBs just weren’t that good.
And usually that means the door is open for new blood to get into the games and shine and that may be the case this season. But what also usually happens is that either those average backs from the year before graduate or are sat down for the better players. Therein lies the rub.
Hall and Ollison are not gone but obviously back for another year. Given the way we have seen this coaching staff under Pat Narduzzi use their personnel you can be almost sure that it will be Hall and Ollison (and George Aston at FB) to start the season and, depending if any of the young bucks break out or not, play the lion’s share of the games.
George Aston isn’t all that much of a ball carrier with 75 yards on 22 career carries but when he does he’s super effective with five TDs (!). But he’s a very good lead blocker and that will help Hall and whoever else is back there with him. Now I just read that Aston dropped 20 lbs over the offseason and kept his prodigious strength. I wonder if that will up his speed to the point that we’ll see him carry the ball more.
So we fans are keeping our eye on the young running backs: Sophomore Davis, rs Freshman Todd Sibley and true freshman Mychale Salahuddin. Davis and Salahuddin are 4* recruits and Sibley is a 3* one-time Ohio State recruit who refused a gray shirt offer there and so switched to Pitt. all but Davis are untested at the college level and all have good potential. The new NCAA redshirt rules that allow a player to partake in up to four games before he burns that year of eligibility may serve as a testing ground for Sibley and Salahuddin to get out there and contribute.
It takes a lot of the pressure off the coaching staff to be able to do this and takes a lot of the guesswork out of the decision-making on whether to play a kid or not.
And that is about all we have at this point. It is very hard to gauge anything about any players who haven’t seen playing time yet because of the media shutdown of practices. So what we fans know about these guys is really nothing more than coachspeak on whether or not these kids will produce – and that’s worth the bytes it is written in.
Because these articles are based on the talent levels of returning players as compared to those from last season this is a tricky unit to grade. If we remember last year at this time Pitt fans were excited about seeing how A. J. Davis was going to do and if Sibley was going to get carries and if Chawntez Moss could produce. Well, we saw how that went.
This season is pretty much more of the same…we all are waiting and keeping our fingers crossed that one of the three underclassmen really put it together and have a star breakout season and thus force Offensive Coordinator Shawn Watson to sit Hall or Ollison down. Until that happens though how the youngsters will do is all speculation. Which is fun to do, but again, these comparisons are based on returning players’ talents we have seen, not what could happen.
I feel I have to say this also. Our OL was poor last season and that impacted the running backs’ production. I honestly believe that this season’s OL is going to be worse than last season’s edition and maybe by a lot. That will also strongly impact the run game and whoever is carrying the football.
But looking strictly at the returning talent we have on hand in the running back unit I call this a: