It looks like a strong running game followed new Pittsburgh football coach Paul Chryst from Wisconsin.
Sophomore Isaac Bennett rushed for 121 yards on 23 carries Saturday during the Panthers’ Blue-Gold game, their final scrimmage of the spring season. It was a spring where the Panthers players had to acclimate to their fourth head coach in three seasons.
After Dave Wannstedt left two seasons ago, Pitt hired Miami (Ohio) coach Mike Haywood, then fired him less than a month later following his arrest on a domestic battery charge. Pitt then hired Todd Graham from Tulsa and he stayed just one season before bolting to Arizona State.
Chryst, who came to Pitt after seven seasons as Wisconsin’s offensive coordinator, said the players and new coaching staff worked well together this spring.
”For the players, some of the anxiety that change presents, I think that’s behind us now,” he said. ”It’s about what we do as a group going forward.”
An effective running game, a staple for the Badgers’ offense under Chryst, should help that growth. Three Pitt running backs – Bennett, redshirt junior E.J. Banks and sophomore Corey Davis – all averaged more than five yards a carry Saturday. The Panthers also expect leading rusher Ray Graham – out since October with a knee injury – back for the fall and will welcome incoming freshman Rushel Shell, Pennsylvania’s all-time leading high school rusher.
There could be enough carries to go around. In 2010, Wisconsin had two running backs, John Clay and James White, who each rushed for more than 1,000 yards and a third, 2011 Heisman finalist Montee Ball, who rushed for 996 yards. Bennett said he’s excited about the offense’s potential.
”It’s a lot of fun, because when you get tired, someone can come in and take over where you left off,” Bennett said. ”It’s a lot of fun knowing that everyone is going to be really good.”
Chryst sees the potential as well, if Graham returns to 100 percent and Shell makes the transition from high school to college.
”Ray’s working and we need to get him back healthy,” Chryst said. ”With Rushel, obviously we all know what he did in high school. There are a lot of questions, but that’ll be a good problem if we’ve got a bunch of running backs.”
Chryst and the Panthers spent the spring not only learning a new playbook, but also learning about each other. Graham stunned the players with his abrupt exit less than two weeks after the end of the 2011 regular season. Chryst was introduced at Pitt’s new coach eight days later, and Bennett said there was no problem buying in to his philosophy.
”We picked up on what he was talking about and we bought in easily,” Bennett said. ”He’s down to earth.”
Junior linebacker Shane Gordon said the team is ready to move forward under Chryst after the previous two tumultuous seasons.
”All that coaching stuff, you just have to put it behind you,” he said. ”Coach Chryst and this staff are good guys and we trust them. . The whole staff, everyone is straightforward and will be honest with you.”