Pitt football has a history of producing great running backs. Not only do they excel at the collegiate level, but they go on to star in the NFL. LeSean McCoy rushed for over 1,000 yards in both his years at Pitt before being drafted in the second round. He’s gone on to rack up over 5,000 yards in the NFL, leading the league last year. In 2009 Dion Lewis finished third in the nation with 1,799 rushing yards before heading to the NFL the next year. Shady and Dion are only recent examples of great Pitt running backs. Larod Stephens-Howling, Craig Heyward, Hall of Fame inductee Curtis Martin, and the greatest of all-time, Tony Dorsett, all contribute to Pitt’s history of running back success. Sophomore running back James Conner looks poised to join the list. He just might surprise the nation as an underdog candidate for the Heisman trophy, and here’s why.
The Hot Start
After a strong freshman season in which averaged 5.5 yards per carry, Conner started off the season with a bang against Delaware. He carried the ball 14 times for 153 yards, and four touchdowns. Had Pitt not been crushing Delaware 42-0 at the half, Conner might have found himself with double-digit TDs rather than sitting on the bench. It isn’t just the touchdowns that were impressive. Seemingly every time Conner touched the ball he would break out into open field. He showed good patience and vision as he waited for the lanes to open up, giving him a clear look up the field. If Conner can continue to find holes as he did in the opener, he will have no problem putting up huge yardage each game. Having only carried the ball 14 times in the opener, Conner will be fresh and ready against Boston College this Saturday.
Freshman Year Momentum
As a true freshman last year, Conner showed great maturity. He opened his freshman year strong with over 100 yards rushing in two of his first three games. Conner was slowed by injury midway through the year before finally finding his form at the end of the season. He ended the season with 799 yards rushing and 8 touchdowns, an impressive showing for a first year back. Not only was injury an issue to deal with, but junior back Isaac Bennett took half the carries in a two-back scheme. Now that Conner is the feature back, the opportunity is ripe for him to dominate every game and run circles around opponent defenses.
Bowl Game Dominance
As the season came to a close, Pitt had one final opponent in Bowling Green as they faced off in the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl. Pitt would win the game 30-27 with James Conner carrying the team on his back. Starting quarterback Tom Savage went down with injury, leaving backup Chad Voytik in charge of the offense. With the passing game in question, Conner turned it on. He rushed for one touchdown and 229 yards on 26 attempts, a Pitt bowl game record. Conner stepped up when the stakes were highest. He shined in the spotlight, and proved he is the real deal. His performance left Pitt fans anxiously awaiting the start of the next season, all eager to watch him play.
While only one game has been played, James Conner showed us that his freshman campaign was no fluke. He showed true promise last year, and he is living up to it this season. Winning a Heisman trophy is no easy task. Pitt has had 14 Heisman finalists, with only Tony Dorsett bringing the award home. If James Conner is able to win the Heisman trophy this year, he will go down as one of the best Pitt players of all time.