‘The best feeling ever’ — Fullback George Aston happy to be back healthy for Pitt
Did you hear? After missing virtually all of last season because of a foot injury, George Aston has returned to the Pitt practice field.
“Practices are a lot different when George is around,” Panthers running backs coach Andre Powell said Tuesday. “It sounds different.”
Really? How so?
“The pads,” Powell said. “The pads.”
Powell presumably was referring to the louder cracking of shoulder pads smashing together — a sound most likely to be created by a fullback among Powell’s crew.
In particular, a 240-pound fullback who loves contact as much as he loves the game itself.
“It’s always great to play football, especially coming off a year like that,” Aston said after Pitt’s fifth practice of the spring Tuesday. “Just being able to come out here and play, it’s just the best feeling ever.”
Feels pretty good for the Panthers offense, too, after a season in which it uncharacteristically ranked toward the bottom (12th) in the ACC in rushing. And while Aston’s personal rushing totals (75 yards in 2016) won’t make much of a dent, his touchdowns (10 in 2016) and blocking skills figure to give a significant boost.
There’s also Aston’s practice habits and the infectious, blue-collar example he sets.
″(Practice) moves quicker, (and) it’s normally more productive when he’s around,” Powell said.
Aston started 12 games over his first two active seasons with the Panthers (the Virginia native redshirted under Paul Chryst in 2014). He became something of a cult hero in part because of his bruising appearance and style of play. Of course, scoring two touchdowns during each of the two biggest wins of the Pat Narduzzi era (2016 victories against Penn State and eventual champion Clemson) had something to do with that, too.
In Aston’s stead last season, Pitt moved some of its surplus of tailbacks (Qadree Ollison, Darrin Hall) into the fullback role. And while Powell complimented their work at fullback and said they “did a really good job,” the domino effect not only created attrition at tailback, it simply wasn’t the same as having Aston.
“George can play the fullback position. He can play the tight end position. He’s got good ball skills. He can play the receiver position. He can line up at receiver and motion in the backfield, play fullback, line up at tight end,” Powell said. “He can do a lot different things. He’s like a Swiss Army knife.”
Aston appeared in two games last season (Sept. 23 and 30 against Georgia Tech and Rice).
Is he all the way back from his injury? Depends on whom you ask.
“I’d say I’m back 100 percent now,” Aston said.
Moments later, Powell had a differing view: “He’s not 100 percent back yet.
“I will be glad when we get him back 100 percent because George is a difference-maker in a lot of ways. So when we get him fully back, I think our offense will pick it up a notch.”
That’s as good for the Panthers as it is for Aston himself. He missed football last season, being relegated to a spectator watching Pitt finish 5-7.
“I mean, it’s already bad enough to not be able to be out there with my guys,” Aston said, “but how the season played out, that probably made it a lot worse.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.