In the first part of our focus on College Football’s most exciting running backs, we look at a player who has really excelled in the 2022 season. His performance against Virginia Tech was a real indicator of what he has to offer, and really put himself on the map with his record-breaking performance.
This RBRB (record-breaking running back) is Pittsburgh’s Israel Abanikanda. The Junior from Brooklyn, New York, rushed for just 635 yards in 2021, with seven touchdowns, but he has already broken both his personal bests this year in half the time.
So just how has Abanikanda gone from being an average running back to one of the hottest in the country right now? We take a deeper dive into what he offers to Pittsburgh and the way he has adapted to be a pivotal part of their offense.
Who is Israel Abanikanda?
Abanikanda is a 5’11, 215lb running back that, in High School, was named as New York’s Gatorade Player of the Year, leading the Public Schools Athletic League (PSAL) in rushing and scoring as a Senior.
His ability on the High School football field couldn’t be doubted, and as a Senior he rushed for 1350 yards and totalled 166 points (25 touchdowns and 8 two-point conversions). On top of that his athletic nature saw him as a two-time 100-meter gold medallist in the New York City Mayor’s Cup. A physical runner blessed with power and speed; he is really starting to show his worth in Pittsburgh.
Let’s use some of his clips to show what he can do.
In this clip of Abanikanda tying the ACC and Pitt touchdown record, he shows that pure physicality and speed to make the defense look like they aren’t even there.
As soon as he receives the ball there is clearly a bunch of players through the middle, cutting off a clear running route, however, the way he shifts his feet and follows the blocker he targets the open space made for him.
Then the accelerators burst into life, and he drives through the middle of three defenders, ending up in the endzone about ten yards in front of them. Even more impressive was the fact this was nearly halfway through the final quarter, for his sixth touchdown and brought him up to 298 rushing yards.
His performance was frighteningly good. He was explosive on the getaway, but his ability to turn mid-yardage drive into big drives shows true ability. He racked up nine carries of 10+ yards and seven carries of 15+ yards, accumulating 237 yards on designed rushing attempts of 15 yards, and this came from starting the game with -4 yards after three carries.
The difference between this year and last seems to be a combination of Pittsburgh’s confidence in him being able to create big plays, but also the heavy importance of how the offensive line helps him by creating spaces for him to drive into.
The first clip is a true example of that, if it wasn’t for the block and the space for Abanikanda to drive into, it wouldn’t turn into an 80-yard touchdown.
The reliance on Abanikanda can be seen just by the sheer amount of volume he now sees the ball. He had double-digit carries in games just six times entering this season, and 20+ carries just once.
Now six weeks into the season, Abanikanda has only seen single figures once, in the opening game against West Virginia. Since then, he has broken the 100+ yard mark four times in five games, his least productive outing coming against Georgia Tech.
The last two home games, either side of the Georgia Tech matchup, have really put him on the map. Abanikanda has rushed for 10 touchdowns, and 497 yards, averaging just over nine yards a carry. His explosiveness, his ability to maintain speed over larger distances and his control over the football has been a real pleasure to watch. This has enabled Pittsburgh to turn into a run-first offense, and with Kedon Slovis yet to really kick on, it has lifted the pressure on him following the loss of Kenny Pickett to the NFL.
Has Abanikanda put himself into the NFL draft mix?
With his performances this season, there is no reason why Abanikanda can’t be a high pick in the 2023 Draft, but there needs to be consistency between now and the end of the season for him to be even considered for the mix.
The 2021 season, dominated by Kenny Pickett, didn’t allow him to really stand out as a big threat on the ground, but now in a team that relies on running, Abanikanda has been given a platform to showcase his abilities.
So, will he need to be in a team that focuses more on the ground attack rather than the air attack? Possibly. We are yet to see what Abanikanda can do as a receiving threat due to the issues Slovis has faced so far this year, but that’s something that could be improved upon as Slovis finds his feet a bit more. But there are plenty of offenses in the NFL whose running threats are much greater than their receiving threats so he could be a good fit to a handful of teams.
Abanikanda is an exciting running back who possesses the explosiveness, speed and dominance on the ground to be a top-level running back. However, the main concerns will be his consistency and whether he can put up the numbers against the better teams in College Football.
Pitt has a bye week this week but three games against Louisville, UNC and Syracuse could be the real indicator of what he has to offer and if he can produce against the better teams. There are some big divisional matches coming up, and if Abanikanda can produce then Pittsburgh has a great chance of being ACC Champions.
By Jake Tweedie – @ACCAnalysis1