By Dale Grdnic
The Pitt football team knows it’s going to be difficult to fill running back LeSean McCoy’s sizable cleats — and offensive output — after he turned pro, so the Panthers won’t try to do it with just one player.
Redshirt sophomore Shariff Harris, redshirt freshman Chris Burns and freshmen Dion Lewis and Raymond Graham are the frontrunners to replace McCoy — a second-round pick by the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL Draft this past spring — as Pitt’s starting running back.
Redshirt junior Kevin Collier, who moved to fullback, actually has the most experience with 37 career carries for 140 yards and two touchdowns.
Redshirt sophomore Henry Hynoski, a true fullback, also should get a share of the carries. Harris has 12 carries for 21 career yards with each coming last season.
“I see ability, but some inexperience,” Pitt running backs coach David Walker said during spring drills. “Guys are giving effort, and we’ve made some plays. But we’ve missed a few as well, so it’s been all right.
“Last year, we had veteran guys. They had experience in the classroom and on the field, but that’s not the case now. So, we have to coach every part of the offense in (both places). But it’s all right. They’re learning every day.”
Pitt basically has to replace three starters in its offensive backfield, as tailbacks McCoy and LaRod Stephens-Howling, as well as fullback Conredge Collins, have left the program.
McCoy and Stephens-Howling were drafted, and Collins hopes to get a free-agent deal.
That’s a lot of yardage and scoring. Last season alone, the trio combined for 1,885 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns. McCoy (1,488 yards and 21 TDs), Stephens-Howling (312, five) and Collins (85, 0) were Pitt’s top three rushers.
“We still want to run the ball on offense, so we have to find someone who will take charge and be the guy for us,” Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. “If we don’t find that guy right away, we’ll use everybody until we find one.”
Lewis, who completed his high school academic requirements and enrolled at Pitt in January, took advantage of his first spring practice. He ended the annual Blue-Gold Game as the Panthers’ starting tailback.
“I want to get to the point when I can just go out there and play and not have to think about everything I’m going to do,” Lewis said. “So, I’ll keep watching film and keep studying my playbook, and I’ll get there. I just need to keep working.
“I also need to hit the weight room hard this summer to get bigger and stronger, maybe even a little quicker, and all that should help me be a better player. The pieces are there, I’m sure of that, for us to be a good offense.”
“I ran with the first team the last couple weeks (in the spring), and that’s been a dream for me to come in here and make an impact,” Lewis added. “But I might not be there all the time, because we’ve got a lot of good backs.”
Lewis stood out the most during spring drills, however.
“Dion’s doing a nice job,” Walker said. “He’s a smart kid, and he’s been able to separate schemes and things where he can let his ability take over. Some guys don’t get that right away, but he has. … Shariff is playing a lot faster, and so is Chris. … Dion (made) plays, but that’s not a surprise to us.
“It’s why we recruited him. He’s got a little more shake than Chris and Shariff, but they’ll square up and lower their shoulder. So, we’ve got a nice mix there, (and) when we get to August, we’ll throw in a couple more. So, it’ll be good.”
*Dale Grdnic is a contributor to Inside Pittsburgh Sports, covering University of Pittsburgh football and men’s basketball programs
A Beaver County native, Dale Grdnic has covered the University of Pittsburgh football and men’s basketball programs for the past 15 years. Prior to that, he spent 10 years in Central Pennsylvania covering Penn State sports and area high school programs.
Dale also covers the Steelers and has written a book on the team: “Pittsburgh Steelers Glory Days.”