Pitt backfield loaded with depth after thin spring

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At the end of spring practices, Pitt had one healthy running back.

Rachid Ibrahim was the last man standing after injuries felled James Conner and Isaac Bennett. The Panthers were so desperate for bodies in the backfield, they used wide receivers and walk-on fullbacks just to fill holes.

Fast forward, and Pitt is just nine days away from its season opener against Delaware with five legitimate candidates to see playing time at running back.

“We’ll probably go in with five close [to playing],” coach Paul Chryst said. “Then you get into game week, the number of reps you’re going to get changes it a little bit. Right now I think we probably will stay with five.”

Conner, a sophomore, is the safest bet to see the field, but — especially with him splitting time at defensive end — the Panthers will need some contributions from the other four contenders.

Ibrahim seized his moment in the spring and has continued his strong play into fall camp. He played primarily on third down in 2013, and could be set to reprise that role this year.

Bennett, a senior, is the elder statesman of the group, but has missed the contact portions of training camp so far as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery.

Bennett was adamant Wednesday that holding him out was simply precautionary and that he would be 100 percent for the opener.

“I was always confident [I’d be ready],” he said. “I’ve been praying. Like I said, just coming in here everyday, having the trainers get me right. I was always going to be ready to play against Delaware.”

The two newcomers to the mix are freshmen Chris James and Qadree Ollison. Both have seen their fair share of snaps in training camp, but Chryst declined to say if one was ahead of the other. James is a shifty, speedy back, while Ollison (6 feet 2, 215 pounds) is more of a physical runner.

Conner said he has been impressed by both freshmen and has helped James corral his speed a bit.

“When you get recruited for college, everybody tells you to play fast and stuff like that,” Conner said. “So you think you’ve got to just get the ball and go 100 miles an hour, but that’s not true. You have to get the ball and be patient, wait for blocks to develop and wait for your offensive linemen to get there.”

Conner also said the running backs have started to get a feel for what the rotation is going to be like as the team shifts out of training-camp mode and into the season. Conner and Ollison are mostly first- and second-down backs, with James and Ibrahim coming in on third down and passing situations.

“If the linemen come off, fullbacks come off, receivers block, we could really do some damage running the ball this year,” Conner said. “When everything gets blocked up, it’s a pretty thing.”

Bennett is a bit of a wild card due to his injury, but he said he mostly has been working in third-down situations. As the lone senior in the group, his experience could come in handy in pass-blocking situations.

“I’ve always studied the playbook,” he said. “I roomed with the center, Artie Rowell, back in freshman and sophomore year. We used to go over certain plays in our apartments together, so I’m pretty comfortable with everything.”

Even for a run-heavy offense, five running backs is a lot to balance. Even if the snaps do get pared down eventually, Bennett said that, as a position, all five will be willing to accept whatever role they’re dealt.

“We’re fitting in wherever,” he said. “We all know all the plays and everything. He can throw anyone in at any time and we’re ready to go.

“We’re going to see. I know everyone’s excited to be out there and just bring [wins] to the program.”

•NOTES — Redshirt sophomore cornerback Trenton Coles decided to leave the program, Chryst announced. Coles was in line for a starting job this fall but an ankle injury kept him off the practice field, and he appeared to be passed by redshirt sophomore Reggie Mitchell and freshman Avonte Maddox. Chryst said Coles felt he needed a “fresh start” and that he would assist Coles in finding a transfer destination. Coles’ departure means redshirt junior Lafayette Pitts is the only cornerback with game experience at the position. … Chryst announced the captains for the 2014 season after a team vote. Redshirt senior right tackle TJ Clemmings (offense), redshirt senior safety Ray Vinopal (defense) and redshirt junior linebacker Nicholas Grigsby (special teams) earned the honors.

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

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