Pitt has no shortage of talented running backs heading into season

Jerry DiPaola
| Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014, 9:33 p.m.

If he could, Pitt coach Paul Chryst would extend training camp beyond what NCAA rules allow.

Not just because he thinks his team needs the extra work — the young group surely does — but because he is in a comfort zone on the practice field, wearing a pair of shorts, a whistle around his neck, instructing players on the finer points of the game.

But Chryst admits the time is approaching when decisions must be made. And the time to make them is running out. Camp concludes Thursday, classes resume next Monday and the opener is Aug. 30 against Delaware at Heinz Field.

Meanwhile, backups such as offensive tackle Jaryd Jones-Smith and defensive backs Reggie Mitchell and Avonte Maddox are challenging starters for playing time while a definite third wide receiver has yet to emerge.

At running back, a deep stable of as many as five players look like they can help the team this season.

“(This week) we have to narrow it down,” Chryst said.

Sophomore running back Rachid Ibrahim has stepped into the heat of the competition after a freshman season when he totaled 343 all-purpose yards and scored a touchdown. During the first two weeks of camp, he has been the coaches' choice for the third-down back, showing skills in the passing game and — with 10 pounds of added weight — some ability to run inside.

In the scrimmage Saturday, Ibrahim ran for a touchdown in the red zone and took a swing pass from quarterback Chad Voytik and sprinted 60 yards down the sideline. He also admitted that he ran right instead of left on a screen play, missing a blitz pickup.

“We are still learning,” he said.

Ibrahim said he was most proud of his shorter run because it developed through traffic inside the tackles.

“That's what I've been trying to work on, being a complete back,” said Ibrahim, who is listed at 6-foot-1, 185 pounds. “I've been trying to show the coaches I can go not just on third down, but first and second if they need me.”

Finding enough carries for everyone could prove to be difficult. After starter James Conner, Ibrahim is competing with freshmen Chris James (210 pounds) and Qadree Ollison (230), who are stouter than he but less experienced. All three players appear capable of spelling Conner, who continues to work both sides of the ball.

Then, there is the case of senior Isaac Bennett, who is limited after undergoing shoulder surgery four months ago. If Chryst continues to be cautious with Bennett, it decreases his chance of starting the season on time.

But even without Bennett, that leaves four running backs. Last season, Pitt used only Conner, Bennett and Ibrahim.

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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