Bennett working to join long list of standout Pitt RBs
In the middle of a late-morning practice, Pitt safety Jason Hendricks picked off a Tom Savage pass in the end zone and started running. Coach Paul Chryst blew the whistle almost instantly, killing the play.
No time for heroics when there's work to be done.
The players, though, acted like they couldn't hear: Hendricks kept going until he crossed the opposite goal line. Running back Isaac Bennett continued to chase Hendricks, unable to think of a good reason to stop.
“My dad always told me,” Bennett said, ‘‘ ‘No excuses. Just give it your all.' My mom said the same thing.”
The significance of the play — made in the confines of Pitt's indoor practice facility Friday — might offer insight into how Bennett will approach his junior season and the chance to be the starting running back.
Bennett and Hendricks, apparently, left everything on the field that day. They did not practice Saturday as the result of injuries that Chryst said are not serious. Bennett watched practice with ice briefly strapped to his right knee.
Even when healthy, Bennett is not the biggest or fastest runner. He always will be compared to former teammate Rushel Shell, the player he replaced. But Chryst said nothing has changed the way Bennett plays.
“He's had a good approach to things,” Chryst said. “I like that.”
Chryst noted Bennett is the same player he was last year, when he was the third option after Ray Graham and Shell.
“That's how it's gotta be, I think,” Chryst said. “The one thing as a player, maybe the only thing you can control is your approach, and I think he's done a good job of that.”
Raised in Tulsa, Okla., Bennett is in Pittsburgh only because former coach Todd Graham recruited him in the final weeks before signing day in 2011.
Yet when Graham left 11 months later, Bennett — unlike many of his teammates — didn't complain or look for a new place to play. He was the same way five months ago when he found himself atop the depth chart after Shell unexpectedly left the team.
“You keep the same goal in mind: Just to help the team get better every day,” he said.
Those Pitt fans wondering how the running game will survive without the team's top two ball carriers from a year ago might have forgotten about Bennett.
Two years ago as a freshman, he started two games and averaged 4.1 yards per carry, carrying 42 times for 189 yards over a three-game stretch late in the season that made Pitt bowl-eligible. Last year — in only 29 attempts — he gained 4.9 yards per try.
Although he didn't know much about Pitt before going to college, he knows about and respects its legacy of running backs.
“We are going to continue to keep the tradition going,” he said.
Where Bennett might fit in the conversation of the great Pitt running backs — 10 have rushed for 2,438 or more career yards — is anyone's guess. With only 378, he'll need back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons to come close to that list. But if he misses, it won't be because he failed to accept the challenge.
“I'm not afraid to get up in there in the hole; I'm not afraid to make a block,” he said.
Bennett said he lived in a tough neighborhood of Tulsa where he was among the youngest and kept getting harassed by older kids.
“They never would let me off easy,” he said. “I had a basketball goal in the front of my yard, and I'd be there in the third grade playing with guys in middle school. They'd be dunking on me and never give me the ball, even though it was my house.”
He acquired what he calls “a tough mindset” that he carried to Booker T. Washington High School, rushing for nearly 1,400 yards one season while missing four games with an ankle injury.
Remember? No excuses.
Back home, he's now noticed by the younger kids.
“They say they see me on TV, and it's motivational to them,” Bennett said. “I feel like I'm inspiring somebody.”
Back to reality at Pitt, Chryst points out Bennett missed a couple of cutbacks in practice last week, something the coach can excuse.
“He's working,” he said. “That part I do like.”
Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.
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