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Pat Narduzzi has high expectations for Qadree Ollison, fellow Pitt running backs

Jerry DiPaola
| Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017, 7:39 p.m.
Pitt running back Qadree Ollison goes through drills during the first day of camp Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt running back Qadree Ollison goes through drills during the first day of camp Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Pitt running back Darrin Hall goes through drills during the first day of camp Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt running back Darrin Hall goes through drills during the first day of camp Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

Pitt junior Qadree Ollison said he is a “faster, stronger” running back than he was two years ago when he gained 1,121 yards barely past his 19th birthday.

His coach won't settle for a mere 1,000-yard season this year, however. That's almost become the norm at Pitt, which has had a 1,000-yard rusher eight of the past 10 years.

“One-thousand, he did that already,” coach Pat Narduzzi said, indicating he expects a big year from Ollison. “We expect him to make people miss, and it better take two or three (defenders) to get that big dog down.”

This season, Ollison (6-2, 230) will take the football as often as coaches believe it will lead to victories, but there are indications it won't be necessary to wear him down.

“A lot of guys in our room are going to play,” said Ollison, whose name appeared first on the depth chart this week as Pitt prepared to open the season Saturday against Youngstown State. “No running back wants the ball 40 times a game. Your body wears down.

“Our ability to keep guys fresh and keep rotating guys in and out are going to make us really, really good.”

For the past two seasons, Pitt has largely rode one running back most of the season. James Conner carried 216 times in 2016, compared to 42 by freshman Chawntez Moss, the next-busiest back. Moss' total was only 7.7 percent of Pitt's total carries. Two years ago, freshman Darrin Hall backed up Ollison (212 attempts), with only 64 (12.6 percent).

Those are the two smallest percentages for the No. 2 back at Pitt in the first seven years of this decade. But the reality is that an excessive number of carries can take a brutal toll on a running back. Conner carried 298 times in 2014 when he was named ACC Player of the Year, but he entered the final weeks of the season with a variety of nagging injuries.

There are reasons for a coach relying too heavily on one back:

• Chief among them: Coaches want to win. The best players get the most work.

• Pitt's backup running backs haven't been experienced enough to keep the starter on the bench longer than a few series per game. Pitt's second-busiest backs have been a first-year freshman for the past four seasons (Conner, Chris James, Hall and Moss).

• Starters have been productive. LeSean McCoy (1,488 in '08), Dion Lewis (1,729 in '09) and Conner (1,765 in '14) have gone well past 1,000 yards.

The 2012 and '13 seasons were the exceptions. Rushel Shell, the backup to Ray Graham, had 28.8 percent of the carries in '12 before Conner recorded 32.3 percent the following year behind Isaac Bennett.

Perhaps this season will bring a more equitable system of sharing, at least between Ollison and Hall.

“Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall are the two main guys right now,” Narduzzi said, “and we're going to let it roll with those guys.”

Although it's hard to tell before the first game if Hall has actually improved, Ollison's practice observations point toward positive results.

“Darrin is the most improved (player) in our room, if you ask me,” Ollison said.

Hall (5-11, 220) said he is a better pass blocker and is running harder.

“Making more people miss, more prepared, bigger, stronger,” he said.

Freshmen A.J. Davis and Todd Sibley have looked good in camp, but there is no need to force-feed first-year players.

“It's hard to play as a true freshman,” said Ollison, who was redshirted in 2014. “We have guys who are experienced and know the playbook, not just knowing what you have to do, but what other people have to do.”

Narduzzi said Davis will be the first freshman running back off the bench, if necessary, but Sibley is ready, too.

Injuries and uneven play, of course, could cause a change in plans. Ollison was one of three reserve backs (James and Hall) when Conner suffered a season-ending injury in the 2015 opener.

“I try to tell (teammates) the same thing I tell myself,” Ollison said, “ ‘Stay ready so you don't have to get ready.' You might not expect to be in the first quarter or second quarter. But don't think stuff doesn't happen.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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