PITTSBURGH (AP) — Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison said all the right things last summer. Tasked with stepping in after James Conner took his school and Atlantic Coast Conference record 56 touchdowns to the NFL, the two Pittsburgh running backs insisted they weren't intimidated by the prospect of trying to emerge from Conner's considerable shadow.

Then the season started and things unraveled.

The offensive line couldn't stay healthy. The quarterback situation rarely seemed settled. The "or" head coach Pat Narduzzi threw in between Ollison's and Hall's respective names on the depth chart seemingly every week never really disappeared because neither could firmly establish himself as "The Guy."

When versatile fullback George Aston went down in September, the coaching staff asked Ollison — the ACC Rookie of the Year in 2015 while filling in for Conner as he recovered from knee injury and a bout with cancer — to become a blocking back for the first time in his football life.

Asked why a position that's traditionally been a strength at Pitt — from Conner to LeSean McCoy to Tony Dorsett and beyond — failed to develop any consistency last year and running backs coach Andre Powell allows the challenge of living up to the lofty standards might have played a factor.

"I think they put a lot of pressure on them boys," Powell said. "Everybody was alluding to them and James and we lost George. It just wasn't fun. It was hard to work through. Did the best we could. It's behind us. Let's try not to get in that rut again."

If the Panthers want to truly bounce back after an uneven 5-7 season in 2017, they don't really have a choice. While sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett is firmly in charge in the huddle, the season opener against Albany on Sept. 1 will mark just his second collegiate start.

Pitt will need consistent production in the running game to take some of the pressure off of Pickett and a group of largely unproven wide receivers. This time, Hall and Ollison insist they're ready. That wasn't always the case in 2017.

While Hall ended up running for a career-high 628 yards, it also marked the lowest total by Pitt's leading rusher since 2005.

"Coach Powell didn't see enough to label out one guy," Hall said. "One guy wasn't making enough plays in practice. One guy wasn't making enough plays in games. You know, we just had to continue to get better."

Something both Hall and Ollison insist they are this year because of the growing pains they endured last season. Mention to Ollison that it seems like just yesterday he was a freshman with the world at his feet, and he smiles politely and shrugs the burly shoulders that sit atop his sturdy 6-foot-2 frame.

Did Ollison envision that by the end of his junior year he'd be the guy tasked with opening holes and not the one blasting through them? No. So what.

"It's not something that I guess came here to play, but like I said, anything to help the team win is huge for me," said Ollison, who has run for just 525 yards and seven touchdowns over the last two seasons. "Just anything that I can do to help the team win, it's really my thing being an unselfish player and trying to get wins."

Something that didn't happen often enough last fall. While Hall got hot for a three-week stretch in late October and early November — rolling up 496 yards combined against Duke, Virginia and North Carolina — he had just 39 yards on 25 carries over the final two weeks against ACC powers Virginia Tech and Miami.

Still, the Panthers managed to end the season with an upset win over the then second-ranked Hurricanes. It was a performance that left Hall equal parts euphoric and annoyed.

"We always have that one (great) game, like why can't we do this every game?" Hall said.

Hall was speaking about the team as a whole, but he might as well have been talking about the running backs specifically. Pitt's best chance to elbow its way into the Coastal Division race will rely heavily on Hall and Ollison finding a way to either work together or have one of them wrest away the starting position from the other for good.

Neither knows how it will go. Hall admits he owes Ollison "at least three games" of serving as the lead blocker so Ollison can go do his thing. They stress they're fine with whatever way it goes so long as it puts the Panthers back on track.

"We'd do anything for this team, and we're also capable of playing multiple roles," Hall said. "We're smart guys, and that's what coach Powell preaches is to be smart and consistent and be accountable. That's our goal."

___

More AP college football: https://apnews.com/tag/Collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25