The Panthers running backs entering this season may have the most pressure on them of anybody on the team. While the team has a new starting quarterback, and numerous other new starters, the running backs are the ones feeling the most pressure to perform this offseason.
Coming in to the season, Pitt will be relying most on running backs James Conner, a sophomore, and Isaac Bennett, a senior. Conner tallied 8 touchdowns last year and 799 yards during the regular season and exploded for 229 yards in the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl. Bennett, in his career has totaled 1,175 yards and 12 touchdowns, with 797 yards and 7 touchdowns coming in 2013. The two had similar seasons and are similar style running backs, and will be asked to do much more this season.
A solid running game is a quarterback’s best friend and that is exactly what the backs will have to do this year. The new starting quarterback will be asked to hand the ball off plenty of times per game in Paul Chryst’s pro style offense and the backs will need to make the game more simple for the team’s new starter.
Similarly, their ability to run the ball will open the field up to the quarterbacks in play-action passing. Anything to make the game easier for the team’s new starting quarterback will be beneficial, and a lot of this relies on the backs.
A final aspect of what the backs will need to do this season to help the team’s offense and the new quarterback is pass block. The team gave up an incredibly high amount of sacks last season and with such big bodied running backs, their ability to block in the passing game is just another responsibility that relies on them this season for the offense’s success.
Speaking of blocking, the backs will be playing behind a much better offensive line than they have been in the last years. With continuity in the line this year, and while playing behind lineman they have already played with for a year, the backs should be able to find more holes than last year.
All of the stars seem to be aligning this year for the Panthers’ running backs and it is up to them to step up to the challenge. The team faces a much easier schedule than in recent seasons, currently with no top 25 ranked teams featured. The backs also now have at least 1 year of experience and know what to expect. They will be playing behind a familiar offensive line and for a new quarterback, which will demand them to advance the ball on the ground.
While neither back is necessarily exciting to watch when he touches the ball (much unlike former Pitt Panther LeSean McCoy), the two are both big bodies who can punish tacklers and run straight through them, which often times is actually just as fun to watch. Pitt fans have a lot to look forward to with this group of running backs and can expect a heavy dose of them throughout the season.