Pitt running back situation turns into mystery

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Entering the season without its two leading rushers from a year ago, Pitt had plenty of concerns at running back heading into the 2013 season.

Now, with the season opener less than a week away, the Panthers might be forced to reach deeper down the depth chart.

Junior Isaac Bennett and freshman James Conner suffered injuries at training camp and, as of Monday, Pitt coach Paul Chryst wasn't sure about their status for the opener.

Bennett, the presumed starter, injured his right leg in the first week of camp.

He returned to practice without a brace last week, but did not take part in team drills.

"[He] did some stuff [Sunday] in practice," Chryst said. "[He] obviously missed quite a bit of time, so still a little bit too early to tell."

In Bennett's absence, Conner took most of the snaps with the first team and was regularly the first running back on the field in team drills. Recently, he said he was preparing as if he were going to be the starter against Florida State.

In the final training camp practice, though, Conner injured his shoulder trying to make a tackle. Later that day, he tweeted "Shoulder is good!" but Chryst said his short-term availability remains in question.

"He did some things [Sunday], we'll see how it feels today and kind of go day-to-day on James as well," Chryst said.

Pitt's first official depth chart of the season listed redshirt sophomore Malcolm Crockett as the backup behind Bennett. In 2012, Crockett had 12 carries for 50 yards. Beyond him, the Panthers could call upon freshman Rachid Ibrahim or redshirt senior Desmond Brown, a former walk-on who played in eight games on special teams last year but never has had a carry.

Center solution

The release of the depth chart cleared up the final position battle: Redshirt sophomore Artie Rowell will start at center ahead of redshirt freshman Gabe Roberts.

Roberts ran with the first team throughout spring practice and at the beginning of training camp, but Rowell began taking first-team snaps midway through camp while impressing the coaches with his work ethic.

"Right now, we felt like Artie gave us the best chance, and both of them need to continue to keep getting better," Chryst said.

"For me, personally, when we were in bowl prep last year, [Artie] stuck out. He had a great winter conditioning and did some good things in the spring and continued to carry that through the summer and fall camp. He's earned it."

Freshman WR Boyd will start

As expected, freshman Tyler Boyd is listed as a starter at wide receiver across from redshirt senior Devin Street. Boyd, a Clairton High School graduate, is the only true freshman to be named a starter.

"I give Tyler a lot of credit the way that he's come in from Day 1; he's had a great approach," Chryst said. "I think that he sees himself on a big stage, and he's certainly going to get that.

"I've learned not to ever be surprised by Tyler in the short time I've been with him."


Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.


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