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Pitt RB Bennett proves resilient

| Friday, Sept. 6, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt running back Isaac Bennett cuts back against Florida State's Tyler Hunter on Monday, Sept. 2, 2013, at Heinz Field.

Junior running back Isaac Bennett arrived at Pitt two years ago, lured by a scholarship to a BCS school and the desire to see the world beyond Tulsa, Okla.

A respected star in his hometown, he was a largely ignored freshman in Pittsburgh. Yet he was content to sit, watch and learn from veteran backs Ray Graham and Zach Brown.

Injuries forced him into the lineup, interrupting his redshirt year, but he happily bailed out the team by averaging 4.1 yards per carry over the final five games.

The next year, freshman hot shot Rushel Shell came along with plenty of hype and press clippings to back up Graham, reducing Bennett to 29 carries in 13 games. He didn't say a word.

This spring, Bennett was No. 2 on the depth chart until Shell decided to transfer and — again — it was Bennett to the rescue.

He's not the biggest or fastest, but no one worked harder. Whether it was good news or bad, he never flinched, and finally the No. 1 job was his entering summer camp.

Misfortune interceded, however, and Bennett hurt his knee after three days of practice. While Bennett spent two weeks recovering, his stomach churned from the angst of inactivity.

“It was hard,” he said, “seeing those guys, especially young guys, taking most of the reps and me wanting to get out there and grind with the team.”

Meanwhile, freshman James Conner started turning heads and stealing carries. Suddenly, Bennett had competition again.

Give Bennett credit for this much: He diligently did his duty during rehabilitation and — when it was time to start the season — he carried nine times for 35 yards while the running game was an afterthought in a 41-13 loss to Florida State on Monday night.

He said he'll gladly share time with Conner — or anyone else — the rest of the season.

“Just seeing him run inspires me,” Bennett said of Conner. “He's so big, 240 or so, and he carries it real nice. I looked in his eyes. He was ready to go, focused, determined.”

Bennett said the knee is pain-free, and he would have welcomed — and withstood — 15 or 20 carries, had the situation demanded it.

“I could handle whatever they throw at me,” he said.

Without a marquee star at running back, coach Paul Chryst will rotate Bennett and Conner, who also carried nine times for 34 yards against Florida State. Sophomore Malcolm Crockett and freshman Rachid Ibrahim could figure in the mix, too.

“Coach rotates as he feels is necessary, and we just go with the flow,” Bennett said. “If he wants to put everybody in, it's fine with me, as long as we get those yards.”

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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