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Cowboys draft 2023 scouting report: Pitt RB Israel Abanikanda

One of the biggest surprises in college football last year could be a target in Dallas for running back.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 26 Pitt at Miami Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A continuing series of scouting reports for potential Cowboys draft picks.

Name: Israel Abanikanda
Position: RB
Height: 5’10”
Weight: 216 pounds

Israel Abanikanda Career Stats, courtesy of Sports Reference

Combine Results: Did not participate

Israel Abanikanda came out of nowhere this year to inject his name into the draft conversation among a pretty deep running back class. The Brooklyn native committed to the Pittsburgh Panthers as a three-star recruit, but received minimal playing time for much of his college career. Abanikanda provided plenty of flashes in a limited role in both 2020 and 2021, but nothing to get NFL scouts even remotely excited.

Then Abanikanda entered the 2022 season as the lead back for the Panthers, and became a focal point of the offense after the program lost quarterback Kenny Pickett to the NFL and star receiver Jordan Addison to the transfer portal. Abanikanda responded in a big way, topping 1,400 rushing yards and scoring 20 rushing touchdowns.

Now, Abanikanda is firmly in the mix to hear his name called at some point in the draft. And for the Cowboys, led by a head coach whose own career began at Pitt several decades ago, Abanikanda could be a prime target after letting go of Ezekiel Elliott and only having Tony Pollard on the books for one more year.

Burst: Abanikanda has an elite first step. When he plants his foot, he explodes forward and instantly rockets to full speed. He broke off plenty of big runs at Pitt because he found a hole and managed to explode straight through it. he backed that up with an elite showing in the explosion drills at his pro day, with his vertical jump, broad jump, and 10-yard split all falling in the 98th percentile of running backs in this class.

Balance: Abanikanda has a really nice frame, and he looks to be fully filled out. He combines that with a low center of gravity, allowing for great contact balance when he has to take on hits. His 644 yards after contact and 46 broken tackles were inside the top 20 rushers this past year. Abanikanda isn’t a bruiser back, but he’s got the balance to play that way when the situation calls for it.

Lateral Agility: He worked primarily in zone running schemes at Pitt, giving him plenty of exposure to show off his lateral agility. He’s an effortless mover here, and does a great job of working in sync with his blockers to set up defenders.

Ball Carrying: Abanikanda fumbled three times this past year, his lone season as the primary back. He can get careless with the ball at times when trying to find a hole or break off a big run. He’ll need better ball discipline at the next level.

Pass Catching: His pass catching almost exclusively showed up as a checkdown option, with just one target coming more than 10 yards downfield. He doesn’t have the most reliable hands, with five drops on 50 targets the last two years, but Abanikanda’s athleticism and ability in the open field suggest there might be potential there if he can develop his receiving ability.

Blocking: Abanikanda has adequate size and strength to step up as a blocker and he frequently showcased the desire to be a part of the pass protection plan. Still, he isn’t the most reliable blocker you’ll find in a running back. He’s serviceable, but shouldn’t be given too many pass blocking reps at a time.

Athleticism: He was a track star in high school, winning the 100 meter twice, and that’s reflected in his tape. Abanikanda is explosive and fast, with both great burst and long speed. Pitt experimented with him on return duty because of his elite athleticism, though it didn’t translate.

Processing: He still seems to be learning the game, and there are times when the blocking scheme isn’t as clean that he tends to panic a bit in his running plan. He has the athleticism to be a game-breaker, and he did plenty of that this past year, but his IQ needs to take a couple more steps first.

Intangibles: Some scouts will look at Abanikanda and like that he has such little tread on the tires. Others will look at how explosive he was and wonder why it took so long for him to get on the field. He has all the traits to become a dangerous every-down runner in the NFL, but his processing requires some work. That results in a muddled picture of his draft stock, but Abanikanda is likely getting selected somewhere on Day 3 of the draft with solid upside.

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