James Conner wasn’t going unnoticed by anyone two years ago.
The Pittsburgh running back had earned ACC Player of the Year honors in a sophomore campaign that yielded 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns on the ground. Once a lightly-recruited rusher out of McDowell High School in Erie, Pennsylvania, Conner was suddenly hearing his name mentioned in the same breath as Panther greats such as Tony Dorsett, Craig “Ironhead” Heyward and LeSean McCoy.
A lot has happened since then. He was putting on another dominant performance in Pitt’s opener last fall when a knee injury put him out for the rest of the year. Then, in November, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Conner bounced back from the knee injury and beat cancer this offseason. Now, he’s trying to reclaim his spot among the top players in the ACC.
“I’m going full speed, and everything is great,” Conner told reporters on Wednesday. “The couple live periods were good for me to get my feet back and get into the rhythm of things. It’s not getting rough. I need all the contact I can get to get back to my old self.”
His old self was pretty impressive. The 6-2, 235-pound back finished sixth in the nation in yards per game (135.77) in 2014. He was third in rushing touchdowns, although the two running backs who bested him in that category — Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon with 29 and Boise State’s Jay Ajayi with 28 — each played one more game.
Conner scored seemingly at will as a sophomore. He scored three or more touchdowns on five occasions, and that was with defenses keying on him, due partly to the Panthers’ mediocre quarterback play for much of the year. He was also efficient, churning out 5.92 yards per carry. (By comparison, 2015 Heisman winner Derrick Henry averaged 5.62 yards per rushing attempt a season ago.)
Over the last few weeks, Conner has been preparing to carry a heavy load again this year.
“Everybody over there has been roughing me up and getting me ready for the season,” he stated. “They are not taking it easy on me.”
Should the redshirt junior stay healthy, he’ll have several opportunities to post monster numbers. Aside from FCS foe Villanova, Pittsburgh will play four teams this season — Georgia Tech (tie, No. 91), Syracuse (No. 94), North Carolina (t-No. 109) and Miami (t-No. 115) — that finished outside the top 90 in rushing yards allowed per play in 2015. In addition, three squads on the Panthers’ schedule (Miami, Oklahoma State and North Carolina) gave up at least 25 rushing touchdowns last fall.
Despite playing alongside other talented backs such as sophomores Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall, Conner will get enough touches to do major damage against that competition. If his production comes close to what it was in 2014, he could end up back in the ACC Player of the Year conversation.
For now, though, he’ll be preparing for Pitt’s opener — and his triumphant return — against Villanova on Sept. 3.
“I’m just going to embrace it all. I know we will have a great audience. It will be a memorable day.”