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Bennett keeps Pitt offense grounded

| Sunday, April 15, 2012

Ray Graham and Rushel Shell stood side-by-side at Martorelli Stadium on Saturday, but all eyes were on a sophomore from Tulsa, Okla.

The talented Pitt backfield is starting to get even deeper.

Tailback Isaac Bennett put an exclamation point on his spring with another sparkling effort in the Pitt spring game. The 5-foot-11, 190-pounder carried 23 times for 121 yards, including a cutback 51-yarder. He also had a pair of 70-yard touchdown runs and a 50-yard score during the Panthers' 15 spring practices.

"Isaac worked this spring," coach Paul Chryst said. "He's young, and I think he had a chance to learn a lot and grow. The last three or four times we've gone pretty hard, he's done some things that have been good."

With all-Big East runner Graham recovering from early November ACL surgery and five-star recruit Shell on the way, Bennett is making the most of his chances.

He signed autographs for 15 minutes after the game and had a big smile during postgame interviews.

"I think (the spring) went pretty well," said Bennett, who rushed for 237 yards and two touchdowns on 58 carries last year. "Every day I had to get better. It's just a learning process."

Bennett's emergence could give Pitt the deepest backfield in the Big East depending on Graham's rehab and Shell's transition to major college for their run-first new coach.

"That will be a good problem," Chryst said, "if we have a lot of running backs."

Conway Award winners

A pair of fifth-year seniors, center Ryan Turnley and defensive end Shayne Hale, won the Ed Conway Award, given each spring to the most improved player on offense and defense.

"Anytime you give an award like that, there are a lot of guys that were worthy of it," Chryst said. "Yet those two, no one was more worthy."

Turnley, who started all 13 games last year, is being asked to lead a young offensive line. This is the last shot for Hale, who played three games in the past two years after arriving at Pitt as a consensus top-50 prospect. The 6-4, 255-pound Gateway product said he has embraced the defensive end position.

"My head was always at linebacker," Hale said. "(Even) at defensive end, I was thinking I was a linebacker. Now I've bought in full-out at defensive line."

Chryst benches Hollins

Junior starting left tackle Juantez Hollins didn't participate in the spring game for "disciplinary reasons," Chryst said. Fifth-year senior Justin Virbitsky and junior Zenel Demhasaj took the first-team snaps.

"There's no injury," Chryst said. "We just had a situation we wanted to address."

Chambersburg tackle commits

Chambersburg Area High School offensive tackle Aaron Reese verbally committed to the Panthers last night.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pound Reese is the second member of the Class of 2013 to commit to the Panthers, joining Seton-La Salle tight end Scott Orndoff.

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