Pitt football: Conner has chance to become two-way terror

The idea spawned in December before a routine bowl practice.

Pitt running back James Conner was preparing to cap off a successful, if a bit uneven, freshman campaign in the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl against Bowling Green when coach Paul Chryst approached him with an idea.

"What do you think about playing defense?" Chryst asked Conner.

"Sure, let's do it," Conner responded.

And that was it. Conner played handful of defensive snaps against the Falcons, drawing a key holding penalty late in the game that sealed the win. On the other side, he had his best rushing game of the season with 229 yards and a touchdown.

"I hadn't really ran like that all season," Conner said. "[Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph] believes it was because me playing defense helped a little bit. Maybe I had a little different attitude, because you have to on defense. You have to be a grown man on defense."

As Conner prepares for Pitt's 2014 season, which opens Saturday against Delaware at Heinz Field, he does so not just as the Panthers' No. 1 running back, but also as a key pass rusher in their third-down defensive packages.

Basically, the blueprint for Conner is to play running back on first and second down, then work with the defense on third downs when the opponent is in a passing situation.

Rudolph admitted he never has coached an offensive player who plays both ways before, and defensive ends coach John Palermo said this is uncharted territory for him, too.

Chryst said he talked to a few other coaches this past offseason to help figure out how to handle Conner's workload, but, ultimately, it comes down to how much Conner physically can handle.

"I've had conversations with guys, but I think the biggest thing is just kind of gauging within our own world here," Chryst said. "Gauging where James was at with everything and where we're at offensively and defensively and then making it fit."

Conner said the prospect of playing both ways helped him get through the workouts this offseason.

"It was a great motivator, knowing I had to be tough, keep my conditioning up," Conner said. "Because if I wasn't going to play defense, I probably wouldn't have worked as much on conditioning. It was a good motivator for sure."

Coaches have compared Conner's third-down work to special-teams responsibilities. Conner won't be on any kick- or punt-coverage teams, so while special teams practice, Conner works with Palermo on pass-rushing techniques.

"Coach does a good job with managing my time for me," Conner said.

Time management and mental preparation combine to form the toughest part of the expanded duties that make Conner part of a new wave of two-way college football players. The movement's headliner last season was UCLA freshman running back/linebacker Myles Jack.

Jack won the Pacific-12 Conference's offensive and defensive freshman of the year awards last year, a first for one player. Other players, such as Washington's Shaq Thompson and SMU's Kevin Pope, will play on both sides of the ball this year.

Owen Marecic, who played at Stanford from 2007-10, was a fullback and linebacker for the Cardinal. He was one of the first players in recent years to try both ways and said it's cool to see the idea come back.

"I think now in college football, there's so much talent, so many guys have good talent that a lot of teams don't really need guys to go both ways," Marecic said. "But that's not to say guys can't do it, and I think we've seen that the last couple of years."

Marecic agreed with Conner that the added responsibility helped in preparation for a season and noted that the mental aspect is the toughest to pick up at a new position.

"I had played fullback for three years, so I kind of understood defenses through the offensive scope," he said. "It was a challenge at first to learn the defense, especially coverages and stuff."

Marecic's two-way highlight came in a 2010 game against Notre Dame, when he scored two touchdowns -- one on offense, one on defense -- within 13 seconds.

When Conner was asked whether he would rather record a sack or score a rushing touchdown Saturday, he hedged his bets.

"I want to do both," he said. "That's the goal, do both."

Pitt's James Conner can deliver punishment with or without the ball.

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

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