Last man standing in Pitt's backfield gets a shot

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It only took about 20 minutes for Pitt’s running back depth chart to go from three to one on Friday.

First James Conner injured his left knee in a full-contact drill. A few plays later, Isaac Bennett hurt his shoulder.

“It was weird,” sophomore running back Rachid Ibrahim said. “James goes down, then it’s just me and Isaac, then Isaac goes down. So it was tough.”

Conner and Bennett were ruled out for the final five practices of the spring, leaving Ibrahim as the only running back.

There will be some other players who help out at the position the rest of the way — wide receiver Ronald Jones played running back Friday and fullback Anthony Rippole chipped in Tuesday — but for the most part it will be just Ibrahim in team drills.

“It’ll be good for [Rachid],” coach Paul Chryst said. “Obviously you don’t want to lose James and don’t want to have Isaac limited. Long term, I think we’ll be all right, certainly.”

The extra snaps will give Ibrahim a chance to build on what he started in his freshman season. Despite being originally pegged as a safety, Ibrahim played in all 13 games at running back, mostly in third-down situations. He finished with 27 carries for 136 yards and nine receptions for 88 yards and a touchdown.

New running backs coach John Settle said he has been pleased with Ibrahim’s work this spring and lauded him as a “smart football player.”

Settle cited footwork and pass protection as areas Ibrahim has improved, but said that — especially as a third-down back — he could stand to improve his receiving game.

“He’s dropped a few balls each practice,” Settle said. “I’ve seen it on film. I’ve seen him catch the ball early in camp, I’ve seen him catch the ball last year in game situations, so I know he can catch it. I want him to rebuild his confidence level up and come out and play like he’s capable of playing.”

Ibrahim relishes the opportunity for more carries, but also looks forward to welcoming his position-mates back into the fold. In Chryst’s offense, there’s plenty of carries to go around, so all three likely will see playing time this fall.

“We’re a tight-knit group, so I can’t wait for them to get back,” Ibrahim said. “But at the same time, it’s definitely an opportunity to compete and go out there and help the team out.”

One thing Ibrahim won’t do is be scared of contact in practice. Even though Bennett and Conner went down, Ibrahim, Settle and Chryst all said contact is an important part of practicing — even in the spring.

“I think you have to get used to being hit, you have to get the body conditioned to hit,” Settle said. “You have to practice tackling, you have to practice bouncing off tacklers and running through things. I’m an old-school guy, 3 yards and a cloud of dust, all that stuff. I think any of the guys would tell you that contact is good, it’s only going to make them better.”


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

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