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Israel Abanikanda NFL Draft
NFL Draft

Israel Abanikanda’s Desire To Compete Has Led Him To The NFL

  • Ryan Fowler
  • April 12, 2023
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A running back with the unique skill set to run through, around, and over defenders, Pitt ball-carrier Israel Abanikanda has risen on draft boards throughout the course of the last few weeks. An uber-productive offensive weapon whose blend of size and explosiveness doesn’t grow on trees, he’s begun to make his case to be RB3 in a class loaded with backfield talent.

A home-run hitter with the bulk (217 pounds) to holster an RB1-like workload, Abanikanda was simply unstoppable last fall. With 20 touchdowns and more than 1,200 yards on the ground to the tune of 6.0 yards a pop, opposing defenses knew he was carrying the rock… and still had no answer. Take his outing against Virginia Tech, for example, an afternoon that saw him amass video-game-like numbers to the tune of 320 yards and six trips to paydirt. A gaudy stat line that you glance twice at on the TV ticker, for Abanikanda, it was all in a day’s work as something no more than expectation. 

“In a way I kind of knew that day would be special,” Israel Abanikanda said. “We came into that game knowing we were going to run more. Personally, I felt that I needed to redeem myself after missing half of the previous game the week before against Georgia Tech with my injury. I just wanted people to continue to respect my name.”

An outing that saw him break Pitt, and NFL legend Tony Dorsett’s then program record for rushing touchdowns in a single game, after reaching the end zone for the third time early in the third quarter, he knew it was an afternoon of historic proportions. 

“After my third touchdown, my teammates gave me that extra boost and motivation to keep going. I remember them saying ‘Let’s go break some records today Izzy.’ I felt that the game was in my hand at the time especially with the game going back and forth against a good program. From then on out I wanted to keep my foot on the gas and keep chasing greatness.”

Greatness is something he’s worked for his entire life, whether it’s been on the gridiron or on the track where he attributes his running posture, stamina, and spring-loaded first step to his days as a sprinter in High School. And while reaching the pinnacle of your sport for some could be classified as manifesting a childhood dream, hearing his name called in April is only the first step in the process. Football runs deep, but blood has always run deeper for the family-driven Abanikanda, whose parents and siblings inspire him every single day his feet hit the floor.

“Family always taught me when friends or anybody you ever met isn’t there for you, your own blood would be there… just seeing my parents work day and night I just feel like I owe them the world. Without my siblings I wouldn’t be who I am today,” Israel Abanikanda said. 

“They alone taught me right from wrong. The younger version of myself suffered from a lot of adversity as a kid. Just being an African native, people told me I wouldn’t be anything in life and that football would never work out… I used that as a chip on my shoulder and motivation to be the best I can while playing football.”

A desire to not just compete, but dominate, remains in the immediate foreground for Abanikanda at the NFL level. His tape and recent pro-day performance have raised the eyebrows of decision-makers within league circles.

While increased sand in the pants often carries a narrative of being a slower, less fluid ball carrier, the 2022 first-team All-ACC back touts the necessary burst to explode to and through creases. Patient footwork is a beautiful thing to see as a young prospect, and Abanikanda’s consistent ability to slow the game down in between the mess of the trenches allows him to pop through the smallest of spaces in search of open grass. While he has a ways to go as a potential three-down back after receiving minimal targets in space, as teams hunt for bell cow talents who can shoulder a heavy workload, he’s become a name to bold once day two arrives in Kansas City. 

Abanikanda is a disciplined, humble, dedicated athlete on and off the field who isn’t afraid to both lead with his play or “get vocal in the time of matter.” The most points wins on Sundays, and offensive weapons that understand how to find the endzone don’t last long on boards.

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Ryan Fowler