PITTSBURGH (AP) — The reminders of the greatness that came before Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall are everywhere at Pitt.
They line the hallways at the team practice facility, where a pair of mannequins dressed as Heisman Trophy-winning running back Tony Dorsett stand at the top of the stairs. They’re next door at the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, where ACC all-time touchdown leader James Conner is finding his way as a rookie on a club with Super Bowl aspirations. They’re in the team record books, where names like Curtis Martin and LeSean McCoy seem to have whole sections devoted to their remarkable college careers.
It’s a lot to live up to. Then again, that’s kind of the point.
“Anywhere where you are with tradition and history and a lot of great players before you have that,” Ollison said Tuesday. “I don’t think it’s a ton of pressure. You want to live up to those expectations. You want to be as good as those guys were.”
Ollison and Hall are at the forefront of the next wave, but they’re hardly newbies. Both filled in capably when Conner missed nearly the entire 2015 season while battling cancer and a knee injury. Hall ran for 257 yards and a pair of touchdowns as a freshman. Ollison was even better, sharing ACC Rookie of the Year honors after piling up 1,121 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Yet both receded into the background last fall following Conner’s remarkable return following a battle with Hodgkin Lymphoma. As teammates, it was an easy transition. As competitors, not quite so much.
“It was harder to have to take a back seat but we had a successful season and I contributed in other ways,” said Hall, who touched the ball just 38 times in 2016, barely half his 2015 total. “We still got better. We still competed at practice.”
Just not in the games. Ollison ran for only 127 yards on 33 carries. His longest rush was just 19 yards. He appeared in 10 of Pitt’s 13 games and five times had one carry or fewer.
Ollison doesn’t want to talk about what happened or what didn’t. Ask him the biggest difference between himself as a junior and the player who ran for 207 yards in his first collegiate game against Youngstown State two years ago and he shakes his head. His answer? Pretty much everything.
“I’m older, wiser, smarter,” Ollison said. “I understand the game more. I’m able to look at defenses and know what’s happening. The game is a lot slower. When I was a freshman, I was just running around like with my head cut off. Just running and it was a crazy year and it ended up being a good one. Now I’m way better.”
Pickier too. Two years ago he used his 6-foot-2, 230-pound frame to try and make a hole even if there wasn’t one. Now he’s more adept at pre-snap reads and has a better grasp of what the defense is trying to do.
“I’m seeing things happen before they happen,” he said.
Just don’t try to pin Ollison down on how he sees the roles shaking out when the Panthers welcome Youngstown State for the 2017 opener on Sept. 2. He pays no attention to the depth chart — the one filled with ‘ORs’ at several positions depending on coach Pat Narduzzi’s mood — or the amount of reps he, Hall, Chawntez Moss or the rest of the running backs split in practice.
“The ‘ORs’ are there because there isn’t just one guy,” Ollison said. “That’s what makes us I think. We’re all able to do a lot of the same things. Defenses can’t go ‘OK, Darrin is in the game, we don’t have to worry about him being a bruiser.’ … We’re all able to do a ton of good things and we’re all good at a lot of things and that’s what makes us dynamic and what makes us dangerous.”
The Panthers will need Ollison, Hall and company to be more than dangerous, they’ll need them to be consistent to give the quarterback (likely Southern California transfer Max Browne) and a group of largely unproven wide receivers time to figure things out.
That’s fine by Hall. In an era where spread offenses are everywhere, Pitt is a bit of a throwback. The Panthers ran the ball 218 times more than they passed it while going 8-5 in 2016. For them to be successful, that ratio probably shouldn’t change.
“That’s our DNA,” Hall said. “It’s our turn to step up and create our own destiny, our own legacy out of this class. Everything (Conner) did last year was good, but he’s not here to do it again. Someone else has to step up and be that guy.”