EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – As has happened so often across college football the last few years, Pitt was ravaged by opt-outs, injuries and transfers in the lead-up to the 2022 Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl.

The Panthers will face No. 18 UCLA without eight starters, including quarterback Kedon Slovis, All-American defensive lineman Calijah Kancey and All-American running back, Izzy Abanikanda.

Redshirt senior Nick Patti will step in to replace Slovis under center; at the running back position, a familiar face to Pitt fans will get first dibs at replacing Abanikanda’s production.

Rodney Hammond Jr. was locked in a battle for the starting role with Abanikanda back in the fall and actually ran much better than him in the Panthers’ season-opening win over West Virginia. Hammond Jr. scored two touchdowns in that game, before getting hurt and missing six weeks of the season.

By the time he returned, Abanikanda had taken over the bulk of the carries and was on his way to a 1,400-yard season. But with Abanikanda opting out of the Sun Bowl vs. UCLA, it’ll be Hammond the Panthers turn to in hopes that he can help lead them to victory.

“He’s a really good football player. We’ve got a lot of trust in him and we’ve got plenty of guys in that backfield and it was a strong point for us, so we feel really good about those guys,” said Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi.

Hammond Jr. isn’t the only back the Panthers could turn to vs. the Bruins on Friday. Vincent Davis and C’Bo Flemister both had over 40 carries and over 200 yards in 2022. Narduzzi could elect to do things by-committee on Friday.

“I’ve been prepared, I did it before, so it’s nothing new. Everyone in the room can do it too,” said Hammond Jr.

Pitt and UCLA are slated to kick off the 89th Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl at noon on Friday in El Paso.