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Pitt Positioned For Future At Running Back

Wednesday, September 18, 2013 8:37am
  • James Conner (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
     James Conner (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
By: Pitt Insider

PITTSBURGH – Not long ago (only last month, as a matter of fact), Pitt’s running back situation looked grim.

Ray Graham, who was tough, elusive and productive for two seasons, had exhausted his eligibility.

Rushel Shell, who set a Pennsylvania high school record and was Pitt’s prize recruit in 2012, transferred to West Virginia.

Junior Isaac Bennett, the heir apparent, was hobbled by a knee injury. Freshman camp sensation James Conner suffered a shoulder injury that appeared so bad that he let out a disturbing scream when he fell on it one day in practice.

At the same time, Pitt’s top 2014 running back target Shai McKenzie of Washington (Pa.) High School listed his favorites, and Pitt was behind Florida State, which beat the Panthers on national television by four touchdowns.

Some critics assumed Pitt would not be able to get its running game in gear this year and in the future.

Just goes to show – never assume.

The future looks much better after Conner and Bennett, both of whom have recovered nicely, ran for more than 100 yards against New Mexico in a 49-27 victory. Yes, it was New Mexico, so let’s not get too carried away.

But Conner ran for 119 and two touchdowns, and his second score – a 38-yarder – was impressive. He spun away from one defender, stiff-armed another and had enough steam left over to outrace everyone else to the end zone.

He combined all the elements of a good running back (elusiveness, toughness and speed) in one run.

“You guys are going to like watching him for the next four years,” senior quarterback Tom Savage told reporters after the game.

Conner ran with passion and purpose while dedicating the game to a high school friend who died suddenly of an epileptic seizure,

“I give it my all every game,” Conner said, “but getting in the end zone made it special, I’ll say that.” 

Conner said he and Bennett enter into friendly competition every week (Conner won, 119-101, this time).

“I just wanted it real bad,” Conner said. “It was a game we felt we could take advantage of, and coach (Paul Chryst) thought we could do some things.” 

Buffalo’s Ollison Gives Verbal

With the present handled (at least for one week as Pitt gets back into ACC action in the next two games against Duke and Virginia), Pitt also made some strides toward solidifying the future.

First, Pitt got a verbal commitment last week from running back Qadree Ollison of Canisius High School in Buffalo, N.Y. 

Ollison is a senior, but he has made an impact at Canisius since 2011, when he replaced an injured teammate in a playoff game at Ralph Wilson Stadium and ran for 180 yards in three quarters.

Last year, Ollison rushed for 1,865 yards, including a 38-carry, 350-yard effort in a game against Canisius rival St. Joseph’s.

“I said to someone that for a kid who is as tough and strong as he is,” Canisius athletic director Jim Mauro said, “he never gets caught once he gets daylight.”

Ollison, rated a three-star prospect by Rivals.com, opened this season by running for 195 yards in a little more than a half in a 42-15 victory against McQuaid Jesuit.

A good sign that a player has promise is the number of big-time programs chasing him, and Ollison has his share. Ollison chose Pitt over scholarship offers from Penn State, Rutgers, Syracuse, Wisconsin, Boston College, Maryland, Iowa and Temple. Expect a few of those schools to keep a sharp eye on Ollison until signing day in February. 

McKenzie Suffers Injury 

Meanwhile, McKenzie’s situation may change after he suffered what was believed to be a serious knee injury in Washington’s blowout victory against Charleroi.

McKenzie’s father, Sean, said his son was feeling better the day after the game.

“Not too much pain. Just a little bit of swelling,” he told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

The family hopes the injury is only a sprain, but McKenzie won’t have an MRI performed on the knee until later.

Before he was injured, McKenzie carried six times for 166 yards, including touchdowns of 64, 90 and 19 in a 66-10 victory.

What the injury means to McKenzie’s recruitment is unclear, but even before the injury, Florida State had received a yes from another running back, Jonathan Vickers of North Florida Christian in Tallahassee, Fla., back in July.

McKenzie is a four-star prospect and the 20th-ranked running back in the nation, but Vickers, a three-star and the 27th runner, might satisfy Florida State’s need for a 2014 running back. Vickers is good, holding offers from Alabama, Clemson, Stanford, Wisconsin, Alabama and Ole Miss.

A lot of variables surround the Pitt running back landscape, but if Ollison eventually signs a letter of intent … if McKenzie heals and realizes Pitt is his best bet … if Conner continues to develop, Chryst will have a nice stable of young backs.

And we haven’t even mentioned two other young running backs: Pitt freshman Rachid Ibrahim, who already has had his redshirt burned this season (five carries, 20 yards), and 2014 prospect Dennis Briggs, a two-star Western Pennsylvania player from Shady Side Academy. 

Recruit Freebeck Looking Good 

Speaking of the future, there was a bit of good news from Pitt quarterback prospect Wade Freebeck of St. Thomas Aquinas (Fla.).

Freebeck, one of 10 three- or four-stars in Pitt’s 17-man class, completed 12 of 20 passes for 155 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions last week to lead St. Thomas to a 27-13 victory against John Curtis Christian. The game matching the two national prep powers was played in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.

St. Thomas coach Rocco Casullo said Freebeck, a transfer who played at a less elite level last year, is becoming more comfortable with his new team.

“That’s something he’s getting better and better at each week,” Casullo said. “He settles in, he reads the defense and he’s making the right reads. If he does that, we’re going to be pretty good.”