Panthers running back may double on defense

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In Pitt's victory against Bowling Green in December in the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl, running back James Conner broke Tony Dorsett's 36-year-old Panthers bowl record with 229 rushing yards.

But that might not have been the most remarkable part of Conner's performance.

He also played a handful of snaps on defense, coming on as a pass rusher in third-down situations. He even drew a key holding penalty on the Falcons late in the fourth quarter to seal Pitt's win.

Conner's two-way performance naturally led to the question of whether he could do it full time for the Panthers in 2014. Coach Paul Chryst hasn't exactly dissuaded the notion so far this spring, saying it was definitely a possibility for Conner to get playing time on defense.

Through two practices this spring, Conner has yet to work through any drills with the defensive linemen, but said he's still open to the possibility.

"The only ones that really talk about it are Coach Chryst and [defensive ends] Coach [John] Palermo," Conner said. "If he wants me to play defensive end, I'll do that, too, in a certain third-down package again, like I did last year."

Of course, Conner, who was originally recruited by Pitt as a defensive end, might end up being too valuable a running back for the coaches to experiment with him on the other side of the ball.

Coming in as a largely unknown commodity in 2013, he burst onto the scene as the leading rusher with 799 yards and eight touchdowns in 12 games.

Conner said he feels even better heading into these spring practices now that he has been around the team for almost a year.

"I feel a lot more comfortable," he said. "Coming out of high school, as a freshman, I was a little more nervous. But now, this year, going into my sophomore season, I'm a lot more comfortable this year."

There are some other changes, too. Conner said his weight hasn't changed from the 250 pounds he played at last season but he looks noticeably trimmer, an improvement he attributes to Pitt's new strength coach Ross Kolodziej.

He has switched his number, too, from 40 to 24 after his favorite NFL player, Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch.

"He refuses to go down," Conner said. "So that's what I'm going to try to do this season."

While he projects as the top running back for the Panthers heading into 2014 -- especially after that bowl game performance -- Conner isn't taking anything for granted. Senior Isaac Bennett also has taken his share of first-team snaps this spring, and Pitt has three freshman running backs joining the program next year, including four-star prospect Chris James.

"If coach gives me the ball, I'm going to run hard," Conner said. "If he wants to give me the carries, I'll take them, like Bowling Green.

"We have a lot of depth at running back now, so whoever's the key running back and whoever steps up, it doesn't matter to me. As long as we win games this season."

Sam Werner: and Twitter @SWernerPG.

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