Isaac Bennett might be in the most unique situation of any Pitt football player this spring. The freshman running back from Tulsa, Okla., is running with the first-team offense, but, when the season begins in the fall, there are no guarantees he'll even be in the backfield rotation.
Bennett, 5 feet 11 and 190 pounds, is getting the benefit of working with the starters this spring while star back Ray Graham recuperates from reconstructive surgery on his right knee.
Graham is expected to be back on the practice field by the time camp opens in August. If Graham can return at 100 percent, he will get most of the carries in the fall, but Graham won't be the only competition for Bennett.
Rushel Shell, the Hopewell High School grad who finished his high school career as the all-time leading rusher in Pennsylvania history, will face high expectations after being labeled a consensus top-five back in the nation by the national scouting services.
"I'm not focused on that right now," Bennett said of the competition that lies ahead in August. "I'm just trying to make myself a better player this spring."
Running with the first-team is not a foreign concept for Bennett. He started two games late last season after Graham and his backup, Zach Brown, were injured. Bennett rushed for 241 yards on 58 carries (4.1 per carry) and scored two touchdowns.
That was in former coach Todd Graham's spread offense. Bennett and the rest of his teammates are busy this spring picking up the pro-style system new coach Paul Chryst is implementing.
"I'm picking it up pretty nice," Bennett said after practice Saturday morning. "I'm getting a lot of extra field time, trying to take advantage of that. Coach is emphasizing watching plays, making reads. I'm adjusting to it pretty well."
Chryst said Bennett is not unlike a lot of the players this spring. He occasionally will make a positive impression on the staff, but, then, just as quickly, he will make a negative one.
That was the case Saturday in a scrimmage against the first-team defense. Bennett had the play of the day for the offense, an 80-yard run when he blew past the defensive backs. But later, he fumbled and also failed to pick up a blitzing linebacker in pass protection that raised the coach's ire.
"He's getting a lot of chances," Chryst said. "He does some things. He had a big run, then he does some things that just kill you, like not picking up a backer in pass protection. It's day 6 of 15 [practices]. He's like a lot of them. He's into it and giving effort. Now it's, 'Can we learn?' Are we going to repeat the same mistakes? Or are we going to learn from them?"
Learning the mental aspect of the game is something all young players grasp at different times. Quarterback Tino Sunseri said this is when Bennett has to take advantage of Graham's expertise.
Graham, though not an active participant in practice, is on the sidelines and in the film room, offering encouragement to Bennett and the other backs.
Bennett said he is doing his best to get all the knowledge he can from Graham, the second-leading rusher in the country before his season-ending injury against Connecticut in the eighth game last season. Graham, who ran for 958 yards and nine touchdowns in little more than half a season, hopes to return to 100 percent for the season opener. For now, he is passing on pointers to Bennett and the other youngsters.
"Ray is a real encouraging guy," Bennett said. "He's cool on and off the field. He's telling me the things I should be focusing on, helping me out in the process until he gets back."