Column | Narduzzi must trust first-year talent to maximize offensive potential

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By Kyle Saxon, Staff Writer

The Pitt Panthers remain unbeaten through the first three games of one of their most highly anticipated football seasons in decades. But despite boasting one of the premier defenses in the country, Pitt has left something to be desired on the offensive side of the football.

Disregarding their 55-0 dismantling of FCS opponent Austin Peay in the season opener, the Panthers have not looked completely dominant in either of their conference matchups to this point. While they did defeat a ranked opponent in Louisville last week, their victory against Syracuse the week prior was largely lackluster. While the defense has dominated, the offense has simply missed something –– a dynamic playmaker in the backfield. 

For the Panthers, it’s not a matter of acquiring a better running back –– they must realize who the best one is. 

On its way to an ACC Coastal Division championship in 2018, Pitt had two running backs accumulate over 1,000 yards. But with new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, and no NFL-level talents in the backfield, Pitt simply hasn’t run the ball as much since that season. Senior quarterback Kenny Pickett has shown tremendous growth, and has gotten off to a solid start to his final season at Pitt. But for the Panthers to consistently move the ball through the air, they must establish the ground game.

Senior running back A.J. Davis carried the majority of the workload for Pitt last season, but averaged just 4.2 yards per carry, a less-than-ideal mark for a starting college running back. On the other hand, his second-year counterparts in the backfield, Vincent Davis and Todd Sibley Jr., averaged 5.1 and 5.0 yards per carry respectively during their first-year seasons in 2019. While they both received limited work, and Sibley was out from several games due to a Week 6 injury, Pitt fans hoped that an exciting new running back would emerge this year.

Head coach Pat Narduzzi announced Vincent Davis as his lead back, but the results have not shown up. Pitt has expressed a clear desire to run the football, doing so 119 times across this season, but has averaged just 3.6 yards per carry as a team. This is a highly inefficient mark for the No. 24 Panthers.

Pitt’s current leader in yards per carry is not any of the aforementioned players, but first-year running back Israel Abanikanda.

In his limited touches, the first-year has shown flashes of the speed and athleticism he displayed in camp. While Narduzzi currently uses him in a change-of-pace role, he must look to get Abanikanda more touches.

Pitt has plenty of dynamic pass-catchers on the outside, including senior Taysir Mack, senior transfer D.J. Turner and first-year phenom Jordan Addison. While Mack possesses the athleticism to make seemingly any contested catch — and Turner and Addison always threaten to burn the secondary deep — a run game that rarely churns out more than four yards between the tackles limits their impact. The Panthers run the ball, but don’t do it with enough efficiency to keep defenses honest.

Abanikanda is the answer to the lackluster running game so far in 2020. His aforementioned first-year counterpart, Jordan Addison, has emerged as the key to the passing game.

While Pitt returned 18 of their 22 starters from 2019,the loss of receiver Maurice Ffrench may have hurt the most. Every time he touched the ball on offense and special teams, Ffrench posed a threat to take it to the house with his speed, balance and agility. So far, Addison appears as though he can fill that role immediately, even as a true first-year.

Addison has become Pickett’s favorite target, accumulating 169 yards on 21 catches. Narduzzi also often utilizes dynamic receivers in the run game on jet sweeps, and Addison has run the ball four times in this manner, gaining an excellent 39 yards on those plays.

For Addison to continue to shine, the run game needs more potency. Therefore, Abanikanda must start to receive the bulk of the carries. He’s too dynamic of an athlete to have a mere 14 carries up to this point in the season, especially given how much Pitt has run the football. For an offense averaging a mediocre 22 points per game in conference play, they have to turn to burners like Abanikanda and Addison, despite their inexperience.

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