Pitt's Bennett leads race to be feature back
Through three legs of the qualifying race for the Oklahoma high school track championships, the Booker T. Washington mile relay team was last.
Surveying the situation, assistant coach Greg Nash approached his anchor runner and clearly spelled out the desperation.
“You have to do this,” Nash said, nearly pleading.
Isaac Bennett looked up at Nash, flashed a smile and said, reassuringly, “Coach, I got this.”
The memory still brightens the day of track coach Anthony Carpenter.
“He ran everybody down except one guy, and we went to the state meet,” he said.
Bennett smiles broadly when he says hello to mere acquaintances, but the memory of that track meet triggers a hearty chuckle.
“I want to say I put the team on my back,” he said, laughing again, embarrassed at his bravado. “But I just compete. It's in my blood. Where I grew up (Tulsa, Okla.), they're always competing, working hard, giving effort.”
Now, Bennett has another team that needs him.
First in line to become Pitt's next marquee running back, he inherits the position intended for Rushel Shell, who was dissatisfied with how the coaching staff was handling him, left the team and will transfer at the end of the semester.
Bennett, on the other hand, is happy about everything. Through 12 spring practice sessions, his bright personality has been accompanied by solid play.
Running backs coach Desmond Robinson said Bennett and redshirt sophomore Malcolm Crockett haven't changed their demeanor since Shell left.
“I would have been disappointed if I saw extra effort,” Robinson said. “I think they have been practicing pretty good all along.”
Robinson said Bennett is already ahead of last year's top backs — Ray Graham and Shell — in one key area.
“He is doing a better job of creating a hole (waiting for it to open) and then using his acceleration to get through it,” he said.
“I'd say right now he is probably doing that better than anybody we had last year, all year. I'm excited about that.”
Coach Paul Chryst has been impressed with Bennett's attitude, even last year when Shell passed him on the depth chart.
“He's not all of a sudden changing who he is, and that's good,” Chryst said.
Former Booker T. Washington football coach Darrell Hall said Bennett hasn't changed since high school.
“He doesn't have bad days,” Hall said. “He has the biggest smile. It kind of warms you up.”
Hall said Bennett was the best player on a 2010 state championship football team that included four players who went to Kansas State, Tulsa and Brown.
“To stand out, you had to be spectacular,” Hall said. “We had a lot of good players.”
He said Bennett led by example, and there was none better than his effort in one playoff game.
After missing five games with an ankle injury — and still finishing with 1,372 yards — Bennett insisted on playing.
“He only played a half, and when he crossed the goal line hopping on one leg, I said, ‘That's enough,' and took him out of the game,” Hall said.
Bennett, of course, laughed about it.
“Everybody has pain,” he said. “Whatever sport you play, the pain is just a part of it. You have to fight through it.”
Those high school stories are nice and reveal character, but Pitt needs Bennett to step into a starring role on the field.
The Pitt running game has lost its two best backs from a year ago while the offensive line has been totally rebuilt.
Bennett, who started two games as a freshman, is usually the first running back on the field for 11-on-11 drills. But Robinson said Crockett is “a little more aggressive at the point of attack.”
“They both fit what we are doing,” he said.
Bennett said no one is trying to replicate Shell.
“We just do our job,” he said. “Everybody has a role to play. Just go out there and give all you can.”