Sidebar: Conner injury tests RB depth


When James Conner lay on the Heinz Field turf Saturday, grasping at his right knee while trainers circled around him, a hush fell over the crowd.

Already stupefied by the baffling start to the Pitt football game against Georgia Tech, fans had to cringe as a new nightmare scenario played out in front of them with the first quarter nowhere close to over, courtesy of a tackle by GT’s Isaiah Johnson.

Coming into Saturday, Conner led the ACC in rushing yards and touchdowns. If the apparent injury was serious enough to sideline him for an extended period of time, what would the offense, especially on the ground, do without him for the crucial, final stretch of conference play?

“For sure, you know. [I] felt some pain. You never know what it is,” Conner said when asked if the experience scared him.

As it turned out, such contingency planning was unnecessary. While Conner “was worried for a second” about the extent of his injury — everyone else was for a bit longer — he returned to the game a quarter later seemingly unhindered by any effects of the earlier sequence. His first play a one-yard touchdown. He’d pick up 37 yards and a couple more scores during the rest of the game, which culminated in a brutal 56-28 loss.

But what Pitt has at the position without Conner remains a point worth pondering should he suffer a worse fate in the future.

After the season-opening demolition of Delaware two months ago, head coach Paul Chryst was asked about his plan for the six running backs on the roster not named “Conner.” Were redshirts a possibility for some? A change in position?

“There’s a group of guys that we’re gonna play this year, and all of them played,” Chryst said.

That wasn’t the case for three of the backs: Qadree Ollison, Dennis Briggs and Jameel Poteat.

But two underclassmen, Chris James and Rachid Ibrahim, did.

Behind Conner on the probable two-deep depth chart all season has been senior Isaac Bennett, who amassed 105 yards and a touchdown on 17 touches before this weekend.

James, a freshman, has featured more in the secondary back role, running for 151 yards on 33 carries and three touchdowns before this past weekend.

Ibrahim had carried the ball 16 times for 106 yards, 91 of which came in that one game in August.

“We are deep if we stay healthy. If anything happens, we’re not as deep,” Chryst said of the sophomore then. “We’re gonna need him during the year, I believe.”

The latter two have featured in the passing game out of the backfield somewhat, combining for 15 catches for 95 yards.

Before his injury, Conner, along with quarterback Chad Voytik, James and Bennett, all shared the responsibility running against the Yellow Jackets with atrocious results.

In Conner’s absence, which lasted from around eight minutes left in the first quarter until approximately 11:45 minutes to go in the following period, James took all five carries for a combined 23 yards.

Ibrahim needed just three chances to collect 66 yards rushing, the bulk of that total coming on a 50-yard effort followed by a 15-yard gain the following drive, both in the second quarter. After the game, Chryst said that sort of performance from the sophomore didn’t come as a shock.

“I thought he was good, and we’ve thought that. I don’t think ‘Chid’ did anything that surprised us,” he said. “When [players] get their opportunities and take advantage of it, you’re appreciative of it.”

Maybe not now, but the time could come when we all do.