Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi believes James Conner will play next season
February 26, 2016 11:30 AM
Pitt's James Conner runs through a drill this morning at the Panthers' South Side training facility.
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi applauds a touchdown by his team next to James Conner in last season's game against Louisville. Conner participated in an offseason workout this morning.
Pitt QB Nate Peterman flips during drills on the South Side.
The Panthers’ James Conner was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma late last year.
By Craig Meyer / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Nearly three months after being diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma and nearly six months after suffering a season-ending MCL tear, James Conner was exactly where he wanted to be Friday. He was on the football field on the South Side, with nothing to distinguish him from a gaggle of gold-shirted Pitt teammates other than a surgical mask covering his mouth.
If Pat Narduzzi’s instincts mean anything, it’s a place where the star running back may find himself more than originally anticipated this year.
At his team’s offseason conditioning session early Friday morning, the Panthers coach said he’s not only confident Conner will overcome his current ailment, but he believes the 2014 ACC player of the year will play in the 2016 season.
“It’s incredible what he has done,” Narduzzi said. “I’ve talked to Dr. [Stanley] Marks and he said a lot of people who get chemo will go home and lay on the couch for a week. This guy sweats it out the next day. He said he has changed the way you get chemo.”
With a mask to shield him from any germs, especially if he were to fall to the turf, Conner continued to participate in the Panthers’ winter training regiment, which includes two workouts a week for five weeks from early February through early March. Conner, who did not speak with reporters Friday, is about halfway through his treatment, with six rounds of chemotherapy remaining.
Conner would provide a tremendous boon to a Pitt offense that returns its starting quarterback but loses its most talented and versatile weapon in wide receiver Tyler Boyd. As a sophomore in 2014, Conner rushed for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns. Before his injury in the 2015 season opener against Youngstown State, he rushed for 77 yards and two touchdowns on just eight carries.
If Conner is not ready, the Panthers have a decent amount of depth at running back, led by Qadree Ollison, who rushed for 1,121 yards and averaged 5.3 yards per carry as a freshman last season.
As Conner works to get back and find some semblance of normalcy, his teammates are doing what they can not only to help him, but others impacted by similar diseases. A group of 12 players, including Ollison and quarterback Nate Peterman, will participate in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s “Race to Anyplace,” a six-hour stationary bike ride that raises money and awareness for research, Saturday at Heinz Field. Each Pitt player will do two 15-minute sessions on the bike.
“He’s really what’s driving us right now because when you see him going what he’s going through, you get to reflect back on your own life and realize that things aren’t so bad for yourself,” Ollison said. “So he’s definitely a big inspiration to us and he keeps us going.”
Narduzzi said Friday that nothing has changed regarding the status of tight end Chris Clark and that he and his staff are simply “waiting for all the paperwork to be turned in.”
Ranked by Rivals.com as the top tight end in the 2015 class, Clark left UCLA last September after appearing in only one game. He committed to the Panthers two months later.
Though NCAA rules require transfers to sit out one season after transferring from one school to another, Narduzzi isn’t ready to completely rule out the possibility of Clark playing this season.
“I think there’s always a chance,” he said. “I never give up.”
Craig Meyer: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG.
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