For Chryst, emphasis on run game


Since Pitt football coach Paul Chryst joined the Panthers in 2012, he’s preached to his players many blue-collar expressions, which have become part of the daily locker room dialogue.

One of the most popular phrases among players is “just do your assignment.”

Pitt’s offense did exactly that in Saturday’s 62-0 rout of Delaware — play after play, with short-yardage gain after short-yardage gain. Although we can’t predict much about how a team will perform in weeks two or three from watching an opening blowout against an unworthy opponent, Pitt proved that it can earn points if it meets assignments.

This means a considerably improved offensive line must buy time for plenty of Voytik-to-Boyd connections, and it has to create virtual tributaries, so running backs can bulldoze the open field for consistent yardage.

From the play on Saturday, as well as throughout the summer, Pitt’s corps of running backs is as deep as it’s been in recent history and full of promising skill sets.

Chryst’s plan, which he revealed  last Monday during his weekly press conference, is for four backs — James Conner, Isaac Bennett, Chris James and Rachid Ibrahim — to share carries, with the majority awarded to starter Conner.

My initial reaction to this announcement: Really, coach? You need four running backs to get the job done this year, with one reserve back in freshman Qadree Ollison, another one sitting out the 2014 season after transferring in Jameel Poteat and three committed backs in the 2015 high school graduating class? Isn’t that a little excessive? Chryst doesn’t think so. 

“We’ve got a group that we’ll just kind of bring them along and see where their progress is and our team’s,” Chryst said after the Delaware drudging on Saturday. “Those guys that we plan on playing, we’re going to play them.”

On the flip side of the ball, Pitt’s shorthanded defense held its own Saturday against the Fightin’ Blue Hens’ penniless offense.

Off the field issues were the primary reason for offseason shake-ups at cornerback and safety, and Chryst looked further down the depth chart for players to fill starting and backup roles in his secondary.

One option that Chryst explored during the summer was to transition Ibrahim to safety. Or, actually, back to safety.

When Ibrahim committed to Pitt in fall 2012, Pitt’s staff reportedly brought him in as an athlete that would likely play safety.

In high school, Ibrahim played running back, setting a school record of 4,835 rushing yards, and after he’d prance into the end zone for six, he’d rejoin his team as a defensive back.

“Yeah, we did think about it,” Chryst said about moving Ibrahim to safety. “We’re deep [at running back] if we stay healthy. If anything happens, we’re not as deep, so right now, we went through the whole spring with him at the running back position. It’s hard to just flip right at mid-stream. So right now, I feel good with where Rachid is at.”

Chryst’s focus is now, and always has been, pounding the rock with a band of running backs.

When he was offensive coordinator at Wisconsin, his Badgers ran the ball 28 times in a row in a 2010 game against Michigan. The deflated Wolverines’ defense had no response, and Wisconsin’s Montee Ball led the Badgers’ group of backs for 357 yards on the ground.

Pitt’s corps combined for 409 yards Saturday.

“Each guy has talents and their separate abilities,” Pitt center Artie Rowell said. “But the plays are schemed a certain way, and no matter what the look we get, the ball is designed to go a certain place, and sometimes [on] certain plays, the ball has multiple options to go, so we just try to get those guys to just see all the options, not just one or two.”

As for the young and inexperienced secondary?

Senior safety and defensive captain Ray Vinopal leads the way and is five years older than some of his fellow defensive backs. He said they performed better on Saturday than he’d hoped.

“They didn’t play like freshmen, which is awesome to see,” Vinopal said. “Especially Avonte Maddox getting out there. He’s going to be a pretty big part of our defense this year. He’s doing a real good job of preparing and doing his job in being accountable for the defense.”

Several freshmen and sophomores saw the field in the defensive backfield for the Panthers: Cornerbacks Maddox and Ryan Lewis, safeties Pat Amara, Terrish Webb and Jevonte Pitts and the three-tiered talent Reggie Mitchell, who plays safety, cornerback and nickelback.

The youngsters were in part responsible for yielding the fewest yards (57) of any Pitt opponent in close to two decades.

Regardless of opponent, maybe Chryst was correct in his assessment that the defense doesn’t need added help.