Pitt’s search for next 1,000-yard rusher starts with A.J. Davis and Todd Sibley
When it comes to Pitt football building a brand, Pat Narduzzi isn’t as worried about becoming RBU — Running Back University — as the Panthers coach is about becoming ACC champions.
Where Walt Harris embraced the Wide Receiver U reputation with Biletnikoff Award winners in Antonio Bryant in 2000 and Larry Fitzgerald in ‘03, Narduzzi is always ready to run the ball.
From LeSean “Shady” McCoy to Dion Lewis to Ray Graham to James Conner, the Panthers had a 1,000-yard rusher eight times from 2007-16. Last year, Qadree Ollison (1,213 yards) and Darrin Hall (1,144) became the first Pitt running backs to eclipse the mark in the same season.
That begs the question: Who will be Pitt’s next 1,000-yard back?
Before spring break interrupted spring drills, junior A.J. Davis and redshirt sophomore Todd Sibley had set their sights on becoming Pitt’s next big-time back.
“It’s definitely very inspiring because you watch those guys — as a kid, you watched Shady and Dion Lewis — and then coming here and being a part of it and watching Q and watching Darrin is inspiring,” Sibley said.
“I’ve practiced with those guys and worked with those guys, so I know I have the ability to run for 1,000 yards. I have coaches that can lead me down the right path to help me to get to 1,000 yards. It’s definitely exciting, and I’m inspired. I want to be the next 1,000-yard rusher. And I know A.J. wants to be the next 1,000-yard rusher, so we’re both excited.”
That confidence isn’t misplaced, even if their returners combined for only 345 rushing yards last season. If the Panthers have stocked one position with potential, it’s running back. That includes a pair of former four-star recruits in Davis and Mychale Salahuddin.
“As a running back room, all of us can catch, run and run through tackles,” said Davis, a 6-foot, 215-pound junior from Lakeland, Fla. “We’ve got strong lower bodies, so we’re really like the same.”
That’s also the problem. They served the same roles last season as backups to Ollison and Hall, so neither has had as much as a 100-yard game. Davis ran for 40 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries as a freshman and 107 yards on 26 carries last season. Sibley only had one carry for minus-1 yard. Both Davis and Sibley believe their apprenticeship has prepared them to carry a bigger load.
“It’s definitely exciting,” said Sibley, 5-9, 220-pound redshirt sophomore from Akron. “It’s finally here. It’s been a two-year wait. I’ve been working hard since I got here, trying to learn from the older guys, trying to take notes and be a student of the game so when my time is finally here I can be able to step up and contribute just like they were able to. A little bit of pressure but it’s well worth it. I love a challenge. I love competition. That’s why I play the game of football.”
Going from that to 1,000 yards would be a huge jump, one that has Pitt’s next wave of running backs motivated.
“There’s a lot of people that don’t think we’re capable of doing that,” Davis said, “so we’re going to show them.”
Pitt also has an electrifying wild card in sophomore V’Lique Carter, a converted defensive back who had a breakout performance last season by rushing for 137 yards and two touchdowns on seven carries against Duke. With 202 yards on 25 carries, Carter is Pitt’s top returning rusher but the 5-9, 170-pounder isn’t built to be an every-down back.
“He’s got a little bit of a different gear than some of the bigger guys,” Narduzzi said.
The running back room will have more competition come fall. Salahuddin, a redshirt freshman from Washington, D.C., is sitting out this spring with a leg injury, and newcomers Daniel Carter and Vincent Davis won’t arrive until this summer.
“We’ll have one or two of them for sure,” Narduzzi said. “We’ll find out who they’re going to be. I can’t name them today. We’ve got two young puppies coming in. We’re going to find someone to carry the ball. We’re going to rush. We’re going to throw. We’re going to do what it takes to win the football game.”
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .