Pitt freshman running backs making steady progress
On his best days, Pitt freshman running back Chris James walks off the practice field wearing his shoulder pads proudly.
In his mind, his footwork was just right. He patiently waited for the hole to open. He understood the difficult concept of blitz pickup.
Then James walks into a meeting room, turns on the video machine and wonders if it's really him inside that No. 3 jersey.
Reality hits like a 260-pound linebacker.
Such is life for James and Pitt's other two freshman running backs — Qadree Ollison and Shady Side Academy graduate Dennis Briggs — who are competing for playing time behind starter James Conner, senior Isaac Bennett and sophomore Rachid Ibrahim.
“When you are out there, you think you are doing everything right,” James said. “But when you watch it on film, it's like, ‘Oh, man. The hole is huge. You just weren't there.'
“Sometimes I feel like my footwork is on point and everything is fine, and coach stops the film and says, ‘What the heck are you doing?' ”
Running backs coach John Settle runs those instructional videos, and until three days ago, he didn't always do it with a smile.
“Last week wasn't as good as this week,” Settle said. “The last couple days, something has hit a spark. We've been as good as I've seen them. They are playing like their high school tape, which we recruited them off of.”
The extent that Settle will need his freshmen is unclear.
Bennett would be the perfect backup, but he remains limited in training camp while recovering from shoulder surgery.
Ibrahim can help, too, after playing in all 13 games last year as a freshman.
Conner is the clear No. 1, but he spends part of every day at defensive end — he batted down a pass Wednesday — and the plan to play him on both sides of the ball remains intact.
In normal times, teams need more than one running back, but Settle said he doesn't know who or how many will back up Conner. But the freshmen are starting to make a strong case.
“Qadree is 230 pounds,” Settle said. “Now he is running like he is 230, not going down with an arm tackle.
“Chris is beginning to show wiggle in the hole, slide step, make people miss, then, boom, accelerate.”
James, who rushed for 4,220 yards and 53 touchdowns in three seasons at Notre Dame College Prep in Chicago, is learning the subtle tricks of the position, such as lining up a little deeper than the normal 6 to 7 yards.
“I am so fast (to the hole),” he said. “Cheat back and be a little more patient. The hole's going to be there. It's a matter of you being there on time.
“Sometimes you have to relax a little bit and let your blocks line up. Slow to it and fast through it.
“James (Conner) always tells me, ‘Be patient.' ”
Meanwhile, Settle realizes eventually he will need to trust a freshman or two to carry the football into traffic.
“I do like the progress,” he said. “If we get to that point where we had to play them, I wouldn't be totally nervous.”
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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