Freshman RB Conner hits the ground running for Pitt
September 18, 2013 8:00 AM
Pitt freshman running back James Conner carries as he is upended by New Mexico's Dante Caro in the first quarter last Saturday at Heinz Field.
By Sam Werner Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When James Conner gave his verbal commitment to Pitt in August 2012, he did so as a defensive end.
It seems amazing after his 119-yard, two-touchdown performance running the ball in Pitt's 49-27 win Saturday against New Mexico, but a year ago pretty much every school recruiting Conner was doing so for his pass-rushing ability.
As his senior season at Erie McDowell progressed, though, it became pretty clear that he had the skills to play running back in college. As the Pitt coaches watched his tape, Conner became their standard for other running backs they thought about recruiting.
"We began to watch him, and he had a want-to to play that position," offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. "We had a need as we were going down. He really became the benchmark for 'Do we need to sign another guy? Are they better than what James is?' "
By the end of the season, Conner had rushed for 1,680 yards and 21 touchdowns. In December, Rudolph told him that he would join the Panthers as a running back.
"I was pretty excited," Conner said. "I had been playing it ever since I was younger."
His senior year in high school showed Conner's ability to play running back, but there was still the matter of translating it on the field.
After Rushel Shell decided to transfer from Pitt this spring, the running back depth chart was thrown into flux. Junior Isaac Bennett was the presumed starter, but there wasn't a ton of depth behind him, and Pitt coach Paul Chryst has a history of using multiple running backs.
Conner took advantage of the opportunity. As training camp wore on, he slowly climbed up the depth chart. When Bennett with down with an injury early in the second week, Conner stepped in and started taking first-team snaps.
"You didn't know if he would come in quickly and learn fast," Rudolph said. "It's more been his work ethic that's helped him. He flat-out wants to work every day. He's just looking for the next opportunity to kind of keep rolling with it."
Like most of the offense, he never really got in a rhythm in season-opening loss to Florida State, but he broke loose Saturday against the Lobos. On his second touchdown, a 38-yard run, he unleashed a spin move and a stiff-arm that showed the 230-pounder doesn't just run downhill.
"My body just took over and did it on its own," he said after the game.
It was a breakout game, but it was not a perfect performance. Conner fumbled early in the third quarter on a play in which he said he was holding the ball just a little too high.
"Thankfully, it wasn't a close game, but the whole team told me to just shake it off," Conner said. "They weren't too mad at me. They just told me to bounce back. Coach [Rudolph] kept saying, 'It's about the next play.' So I just have a short-term memory."
So far this season, Conner has 21 carries to Bennett's 23, and the two figure to continue to share the workload. There's a possibility one of them could seize the job, but Chryst and Rudolph -- and Conner and Bennett -- are perfectly fine with the duo sharing the load.
"If he wants to play Isaac the whole game, I'll be his cheerleader," Conner said. "But if he plays me, I'll just run hard."
And now, more than a year later, is it strange for Conner to think that he could be playing defense?
"Yeah, seeing how big everybody is," he said. "When I was in high school, I was bigger than anybody. It wouldn't be easy in one on one's anymore. Running back's fine."