Bennett giving Pitt hope after Shell's departure
It's a post-Rushel Shell world, and Pitt's just living in it.
Shell was expected to fill the void left by departed senior Ray Graham and become the next in a line of 1,000-yard backs at Pitt, a list that includes Graham, Dion Lewis, and LeSean McCoy.
Instead, Shell abruptly left the program following his freshman season and eventually transferred to West Virginia. His departure left a significant hole on the depth chart, one a host of backs are hoping to fill.
Isaac Bennett and Malcolm Crocket - who combined for 191 yards rushing in 2012 - are the only returning players who took snaps out of the backfield last fall. While they will get the first crack at the starting spot, they won't lack for competition.
''We're working on getting guys reps to see what they can do,'' coach Paul Chryst said. ''We've still got a lot of work to do.''
If anything has been learned from the first week of Chryst's second training camp as coach, it's that just about any position is up for grabs.
Joining Bennett and Crockett in the group receiving significant reps out of the backfield include freshman James Conner and redshirt senior Desmond Brown, the younger brother of Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown.
While multiple players are in the rotation, Bennett appears to be the early leader to be on the field when Pitt hosts Florida State in the season opener on Sept. 2.
''I thought he did some good stuff,'' Chryst said. ''He missed a couple cuts. He's working and I like his approach.''
Bennett, a junior, has the most experience out of the group. He carried 58 times for 237 yards and two scores as a freshman in 2011, but was pushed to the third on the depth chart with Shell's arrival.
Now that Shell is gone Bennett's opportunity at a starting job became much more attainable, and Bennett has set a lofty goal for this season,
''At least 1,000 yards minimum,'' Bennett said.
Behind Bennett, Crockett is in play for reps as well after he rushed 12 times for 50 yards in his freshman season. In Pitt spring game, Crockett took 11 carries for 48 yards and a touchdown. Brown is also in the mix. He lugged a game-high 18 times for 90 yards in the spring game.
Conner's current focus, though, is not on the starting job but adjusting his running game to the college football level.
''In high school you don't pay attention to details, you just run,'' Conner said. ''We're in the film room every day and taking the steps with our footwork.''
Experience puts Conner slightly behind Bennett and Crockett, but Chryst has seen good things out of the 18-year-old freshman.
''I love the way he's approaching everything,'' Chryst said. ''As he understands what's going on in front of him that'll help, and he's certainly earned the right to more reps.''
As of now, the coaching staff only has the spring game and a week of camp to base its decisions off when it comes to creating a depth chart. One thing working in favor of the backs is daily experience against a defense that should be one of the ACC's toughest.
''Running against them will make it easier come game time,'' Conner said. ''I believe our defense is one of the greatest.''
While the running backs go against the likes of Aaron Donald and others, don't expect to see Chryst tip his hand too long before the Panthers face the Seminoles at Heinz Field on Labor Day night.
''There is no depth chart right now,'' Chryst said. ''Everyone has to prove they can provide a role we can rely on and play with.''