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Pitt’s Usual Strength Has Become a Question Mark

By Dave Holcomb
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The lack of faith in the reigning Coastal division champions can mostly be pinned on the giant holes Pitt needs to fill at running back.

This time of year, college football conversations usually center around the quarterbacks. Normally, the teams predicted to compete for division and conference titles have the position settled while other hopeful contenders must answer questions behind center.

If that’s a rule, though, Pitt is an exception to it. The Panthers are returning starting quarterback Kenny Pickett along with their top five receivers from a statistical perspective from 2018. And yet early predictions have Pitt returning to the middle of the pack in the ACC Coastal.

The lack of faith in the reigning Coastal division champions can mostly be pinned on the giant holes Pitt needs to fill at running back.

The backfield tandem of Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall both graduated. Each back rushed for more than 1,100 yards, scored at least 10 touchdowns and posted an average of greater than 6.2 yards per carry last fall. Behind them, Pitt averaged nearly 228 rushing yards per game over the entire season. Down the stretch, Ollison and Hall were absolutely incredible, helping the Panthers post an average of almost 265 rushing yards per contest over their final seven games.

That’s a heck of a lot of production to replace, especially for a team that still went just 4-3 in those seven contests. Without all those rushing yards and touchdowns on the ground, the Panthers wouldn’t have been competitive in arguably the weakest Power 5 division.

In essence, the ground and pound game is Pitt’s bread and butter. It’s not a running attack that often features a fullback or between the tackle runs, as was customary at one point for western Pennsylvania football fans, but it breaks down to the same philosophy -- run a ball control offense and deploy a game manager at quarterback. That will limit the opposition’s ability to expose the defense. The other team can’t win if it never has the ball.

This “old-school” offensive mentality still works. Pitt nearly upset Notre Dame on the road in the middle of October.

But without experience at running back, executing this offensive game plan will be much harder. What the Pitt backfield lacks in experience, though, they hope will be made up in talent.

Former 4-star prospect and junior A.J. Davis will likely have the first crack at the starting running back job. He has the most experience of anyone remaining on the roster. Last season, he rushed for 134 yards on 32 carries.

The Panthers also have two more former 4-star recruits and sophomores, Mychale Salahuddin and Todd Sibley Jr., they can utilize. The two combined for four carries in 2018.

Bringing back Pickett and his favorite receivers is a wonderful thing. We’ll have to wait and see if it proves to be the correct fit, but Pitt now appears to have the right offensive coordinator in place too. At the very least, the program won over fans with the hire.

Pitt replaced former offensive coordinator Shawn Watson with Mark Whipple, who served as Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback coach under Bill Cowher during the first three years of Ben Roethlisberger’s career. Whipple arrives at Pitt with head coaching experience as well from UMass.

Whipple’s biggest task in his return to western Pennsylvania is again developing a quarterback. But in order to accomplish that, Whipple must first again establish a Pitt rushing attack with a new crop of backs.

Roethlisberger had Jerome Bettis, Duce Staley and Willie Parker in his backfield during his first few years with the Steelers. There’s no denying Pickett’s play needs to improve, but the young signal caller needs all the help he can get.

To repeat as ACC Coastal division champions, Pitt must make its rushing attack its biggest strength again.