Pitt running backs motivated for big season
Nine months and 223 miles removed from Blacksburg, Va., Pitt senior running back Darrin Hall stepped into the huddle Thursday morning, the football on the 4 and a goal-line drill upcoming.
He looked his 10 teammates in the eye and said only two words: “Virginia Tech.”
Perhaps that’s all the motivation Pitt’s offense will need this season in short yardage. The memory of Virginia Tech 20, Pitt 14, on Nov. 18, 2017, burns a hole in those players’ minds that will be difficult to erase.
Down by six points, Pitt had the ball on the 1, first down, with less than a minute to play. A big road victory against an ACC foe was, literally, 36 inches away.
Four tries later, Pitt couldn’t move the Hokies’ defense off the ball far enough to reach the end zone, and the game ended when Hall was caught for a 3-yard loss.
Center Jimmy Morrissey remembers it all too well.
“It’s embarrassing. I hate it,” he said. “It’s something I don’t like to think about, but it motivates me. Anytime anybody says ‘goal line.’
“(Strength) coach (Dave) Andrews talks about it once every two weeks. Coach Andrews takes that personal. He feels like he didn’t prepare us enough, which is not true.
“It falls on the players. We weren’t able to execute that.”
Hall said of the goal-line sequence, “That’s my fuel.”
“My job is to get a yard, and I didn’t. I held that in throughout the weight room this summer. I held that in on the practice field.”
The great thing about sports is there’s always another day to make amends. That day for Hall will arrive Sept. 1, when Pitt opens its season — his last in college — against Albany. The Nov. 10 rematch with the Hokies at Heinz Field might be a big day on his calendar, too.
Hall showed up 5 pounds heavier this year at 5-foot-11, 225 pounds. Perhaps the better to push the pile the next time he’s on the 1.
“The expectations are high,” said Hall, who ran for 486 yards in the three games before Virginia Tech. “My personal goals are high. The only way I’m going to get there is if I compete at practice.”
And there’s plenty of competition. Running backs coach Andrew Powell said Thursday there are four backs in his group he can trust.
Hall and senior Qadree Ollison ran for a combined 1,026 yards last season (628 for Hall, 398 for Ollison). Ollison also has done it by himself, rushing for 1,121 three years ago as a replacement for James Conner.
Then, there’s sophomore A.J. Davis and redshirt freshman Todd Sibley.
Coach Pat Narduzzi said he likes what Sibley has done after the team started practicing in pads.
“He’s gone out and shown that he’s ready,” Narduzzi said. “He had a great move (Thursday) and bounced it outside and had pretty good-sized run.”
Of Davis, Powell said, “A.J.’s got a knack. He’s slippery. He can twist and turn and contort. He goes to the ground and puts that other hand on the ground and always is coming up with extra yards.
“He’s probably the best guy we have at open-field running. A.J. has to shore up his pass protection a little bit and play with a little bit more urgency, but he’s a talented guy.”
Freshman Mychale Salahuddin also caught the coaches’ eyes early in camp, but he’s behind the other four right now.
“He’s got some natural talent,” Powell said. “We’re so happy and thankful we got him.
“He’s got a long way to go. We put a lot of offense in in six days (of practice), probably as much as Mychale has had in four years. We’ll spend more time with him, and we’ll get him caught up.”
Meanwhile, Hall will continue to impress Powell with his consistency.
“You know what you’re going to get every day,” Powell said. “You don’t have a good day and a bad day, a great day and an average day. He’s always just inching along, getting a little bit better every day.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at email@example.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.