Pittsburgh- Last season, Kenny Pickett entered the year as a well-respected collegiate quarterback, but by the time the season ended he was in New York City as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. His rise to prominence surpassed all other passers as the only signal-caller selected in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft. Abanikanda entered this season as a relatively unknown commodity when comparing him to the top-flight running backs in college football. That mindset is changing quickly.
“I just keep pushing to be great,” Abanikanda said after his third straight 100-yard rushing game. “I just try to be great.” The junior from Brooklyn, N.Y., has 464 yards rushing over the last three games that includes six touchdowns on the ground. His breakout performances are a welcomed addition to a Panthers offense finding a new identity with the absence of Pickett. “In high school I was getting 100 yards every game,” Abanikanda laughed after the Panthers weekend 45-24 win over Rhode Island. He is not surprised by the current set of circumstances regarding his success. He just trusts in his skills to do what he is doing and get better in the process. The Panthers’ nostalgic history of developing collegiate tailbacks into professional NFL stars is as good as any in college football. Tony Dorsett and Curtis Martin are both enshrined in the hallowed halls of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Sprinkle in James Conner, LeSean McCoy, and Craig Heyward and one realizes the depth and quality of the school’s history of great backs. Abanikanda acknowledges knowing the names and the accomplishments of those who have suited up in the Pitt uniform. “Definitely,” said Abanikanda in recognizing the great running backs that have played before him. “I just say I want to not live up to them, but want to be better. “I’m not surprised. I know what I’m capable of and I’m just going to keep working. Even try to do better. It’s never been an expectation. I already know what I can do and what I can prove. I just want to be proven to people. I’m great.”
Hard to argue with the results thus far as the Panthers look to repeat as ACC champions. “Yeah, Izzy has been the workhorse,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said after the recent win. “Izzy has done a nice job. When he pops through there he can pop through there as you can see.” Narduzzi is referring to the big-time runs Abanikanda has flashed on his way to the end zone over the last three weeks. Rushing scores from 76, 67, 24, 13, 12, and 4 have produced an average of 32.6 yards per touchdown. There is absolutely no second-guessing his ability to exploit defenses and scamper off in the distance of defenders. Abanikanda is a pure mixture of speed and power. There are no gimmicks in his game. He is built like a thoroughbred and runs like one as well. He possesses NFL measurables and as the film has shown, the speed to get six points once he slices through the line of scrimmage.
He credits extra time studying the aspect of the game and working with Panthers running backs coach Andre Powell and especially his offensive line. “I just love my offensive line,” Abanikanda said about the big guys up front. “I tell them that after every play. I love y’all. I just spend more time with the running backs coach. I just spend time studying film and studying my opponent. Just studying what I can do better.” In the process of maximizing his game, Abanikanda credits being more decisive in his cuts and which holes to hit for the reason his numbers have skyrocketed in 2022. Ranking sixth overall in FBS rushers with 479 yards, it’s realistic to think he will be in the mix to remain ranked among the top rushers when bowl season comes calling. If his exceptional play continues, the NFL will also become a valid option for the sculpted 5-foot-11 and 215-pound back. “I definitely can receive,” Abanikanda explained when describing his abilities. “I can kick return. I can do everything.” Who can argue with that?