Pitt's young stars Boyd, Conner embrace new role

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In each of his three seasons as Pitt head coach, Paul Chryst has assigned his players a summer book report to do in the months between spring practice and fall training camp.

This year, that book was the inspirational "Today Matters" by John C. Maxwell.

As part of the project, players are randomly asked to give their interpretation of that week's assigned chapters.

Earlier this summer, the first group was four players -- wide receiver Tyler Boyd, running back James Conner, quarterback Chad Voytik and safety Ray Vinopal -- who figure to be prominent leaders of the 2014 Panthers.

The unusual thing, though, is that just one was a senior.

Vinopal is the lone upperclassmen, while the other three all enter just their second year of eligibility for the Panthers, but do so under weighty expectations. Boyd and Conner, especially, as the two were named to the Hornung Award (most versatile player) and Maxwell Award (best overall player) watch lists Monday.

The message these players took away from Maxwell's book, which they communicated to the rest of their teammates, was that there's no use waiting to try to accomplish the goals they set out for themselves.

"Being about it and not talking about it," Conner said. "Every year we talk about winning games and doing big things, winning championships and stuff. Like I said, I think we have enough talent in the room at every position to do that and accomplish big things."

Conner acknowledged that he and Boyd are ready to assume more of a leadership role this season, despite having only one year of collegiate experience apiece.

Both had breakout performances their freshman year. Conner led Pitt with 799 rushing yards and eight touchdowns; Boyd was the leading receiver with 85 catches for 1,174 yards and seven touchdowns.

"I just told [the incoming freshmen,] 'Lead by example,' " Conner said. "I had a little bit of success last year, so they're going to watch me.

"I can't be putting the ball on the ground anymore, I can't be forgetting plays."

Conner's offseason preparation has been a bit different this year, as he readies to potentially play on offense and defense this season.

The 6-foot-2, 230-pound athlete played defensive end in high school, and made his collegiate defensive debut in Pitt's 30-27 victory against Bowling Green in the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl, subbing in as a pass rusher for a handful of snaps.

He said he has ramped up his conditioning workouts this offseason so he'll be in good enough shape to play both ways more next season.

"If I plan on going both ways, I'll be on the field a lot," he said. "[I need to be] just as in shape as possible."

Boyd, meanwhile, is trying to bring the winning attitude he fostered at Clairton High School to his college team. After not losing a game in four years in high school, Boyd admitted it was tough dealing with Pitt's 41-13 loss to Florida State in last season's opener.

He, too, has bought into the message of less talk, more action.

"That's pretty much what Pitt's been about for the last two years. Everybody talking like we're going to do something, win this, win that," he said. "But you've got to prove it.

"I hate when we talk about stuff and not do it. If we're going to talk about it, then be about it."


NOTE — Penn State sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg was also named to the Maxwell Award watch list, and Nittany Lions junior cornerback Jordan Lucas made the Bednarik Award watch list. Hackenberg threw for 2,955 yards with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions as a freshman last season. Lucas led the team with 13 pass breakups, and tied for the team lead with three interceptions on the year.

Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.

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