Panthers running back Isaac Bennett, a sophomore, will play an important part in the offense this season.
By Sam Werner Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The play call is an inside zone run.
Isaac Bennett is lined up deep in the backfield, a few yards behind his quarterback. Over 65,000 fans are packed into Heinz Field, most at a fever pitch for the most anticipated football game in recent Pitt history.
Bennett looks up from his running back position and sees the garnet and gold Florida State defenders on the other side of the ball. He hears the signals and sees the snap in front of him. Bennett starts forward and takes the handoff, he bursts through hole and sprints, untouched, through the defense and all the way to the end zone.
This is the point where Bennett usually snaps back to reality. He's sitting in class or maybe even in the film room at Pitt's football complex. Kickoff against the Seminoles is still more than a month away, but it's the driving force behind every weight Bennett lifts and every sprint he runs this offseason.
"That's all I think about," Bennett said. "Night and day."
Just a few months ago, Bennett's mental picture of the first play against Florida State likely would have come from the sideline. The 2013 season was supposed to be Rushel Shell's breakout sophomore campaign at running back, with Bennett serving as the primary backup
Instead, Shell decided to transfer, and after an aborted move to UCLA, has still yet to find a destination. He won't be coming back to the Panthers, though, leaving Bennett at the head of a running back group looking to prove that Shell's departure does not spell doom for Pitt's rushing attack.
If there's one thing Bennett has learned by now, it's that you may not know when an opportunity will arise, but you better be ready when it does.
• • •
Unlike many football players, Bennett was not raised in pads. Growing up in Tulsa, Okla., his two primary sports were soccer and basketball.
In seventh grade, a group of friends convinced him to try out for the football team. He had the speed and athletic ability -- Bennett could dunk a basketball by the end of middle school -- to make a perfect wide receiver.
"When he told me he was going to leave soccer alone and change to football, I was a little bit surprised," Bennett's mother, Diane, said. "Of course, it was a good change for him."
Bennett starred at wide receiver in middle school, and went on to play at Booker T. Washington High School. Before his freshman year, though, the coaches had a surprise in store for him.
"I'm outside running early in the morning, and [my coach] came up to me and said, 'We're going to move you to running back,' " Bennett said.
"I had dreams, goals of playing wide receiver. He told me that, and I'm like, 'No I can't do this.' I almost wanted to quit."
Bennett eventually warmed up to the idea of playing a position that allowed him to get the ball in his hands more regularly and went on to contribute as a sophomore for a team that won Oklahoma's 5A state title. Two years later, Bennett starred as the Hornets went all the way once again, running for 222 yards in the championship.
When it came to making a college decision, Bennett only attracted modest Division I interest. He did have an offer from his local school, Tulsa, then coached by Todd Graham, but wanted to get out of his hometown and see new places.
"In my mind, I'm thinking I can't stay in Tulsa," Bennett said. "I want to get out, see the world. I've been in Tulsa so long, know so many people. I just felt like it wouldn't be right for me. I had to leave."
Bennett was set to attend Louisiana-Monroe when, just a few weeks before signing day, his coach got a call from Keith Patterson, the defensive coordinator who had just moved from Tulsa to Pitt with Graham.
After some quick research, Bennett took his official visit to Pitt, where he committed on the spot.
"As a mother, I had my apprehensions about him going so far from home," Diane Bennett said. "But it was a decision he made. He said that's where he wants to go, so we couldn't stand in the way of his destiny. I just think he was destined to be at Pitt, so there was no way we could stop him from fulfilling his destiny."
• • •
Like most freshmen, Bennett didn't expect to see the field during his collegiate first season.
He studied tape and learned the playbook, but the staff had told him he was going to take a redshirt.
Still, Bennett couldn't wait to get his first taste of college football. When running backs coach Calvin Magee asked the redshirting freshmen who wanted to stay at the team hotel the night before the first game -- meaning they got to suit up on game day -- Bennett jumped at the opportunity to be on the field and in uniform in the Panthers' opener against Buffalo.
When he heard of a Friday night party going on the next week, though, he decided he wanted to skip the hotel for that one. Magee just laughed, and said he didn't have a choice this time. From then on, Bennett was a full-time Panthers player.
"He acted like he never gave us a choice, like it was mandatory," Bennett said.
It was a good thing, too, because when starter Ray Graham tore his ACL in late October, the coaching staff decided to burn Bennett's redshirt and let him play as a freshman.
Two weeks later, his family made the trek from Tulsa to Louisville to see Bennett score his first career touchdown in a victory against the Cardinals.
"I don't even have the words for it," Diane Bennett said. "It was a dream come true for us."
After the 2011 season, Graham's staff, the main reason Bennett ended up at Pitt, left for various positions when Graham departed for Arizona State. Bennett never thought about transferring, and, while many Pitt players still resent Graham for the way he left the program, Bennett doesn't hold any ill will for his old coach.
"I still thank Coach Graham to this day for bringing me up here," Bennett said. "I know he felt like he didn't like it here, he wanted to leave. That's his choice. But I'm thankful to him for bringing me up here."
• • •
Entering this spring, Bennett knew his role. Shell was going to be the starter, and Bennett would be called upon whenever he needed a breather.
"I was just thinking that whenever he got tired or whatever ended up happening, when coach called on my name, I just had to be ready," Bennett said. "That's all I was thinking, just be ready whenever he got tired."
In early April, though, Shell delivered a shock to his teammates and fans when he decided to transfer from the program. Bennett was disappointed with Shell's decision, losing a friend and talented teammate, and even supported him recently when it looked as if a return was possible.
But when it became clear that Shell wasn't coming back, Bennett saw the opportunity in front of him.
"In a way, I guess later on, it came to me that he's gone, somebody else has to step up," Bennett said. "I know we have a great group of running backs right now. All of us are just ready to get out there on the field. OK, he's gone, he's not coming back, so it's on us."
In the weight room, Pitt strength and conditioning coach Brian Calhoun pushes Bennett and fellow running back Malcolm Crockett with exhortations of "1,000 yards, 1,000 yards," the goal for both of them this season.
"He's always turned it up, he's always been a hard-working, hard-effort guy," wide receiver Devin Street said of Bennett. "But I'm starting to see now it's not 105 percent, it's 110 percent."
That hard work will pay off for Bennett on Labor Day against the Seminoles. For the first time, Diane and the rest of the Bennett family are making the trip from Tulsa to see their son play in his home stadium.
"He's been patient," Diane said. "Even here in high school, when Isaac felt perhaps he should've been doing more, I told him 'Just wait, be patient.' God is working everything out. He's learned that and I think it's paid off in the long run."