Sophomore Starlets: James Conner – by Josh Deisinger

Home Town Boy

Born in Pennsylvania, he attended high school in Erie and committed to play college football for the University of Pittsburgh. To cap off his home-grown story, he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft.

As a true freshman, Conner had an exciting 2013 season. He played in 12 of 13 games and tallied 799 rushing yards and 8 rushing touchdowns. This left Pittsburgh fans excited for 2014, when he capped off the season with a record breaking* 26/229/1 rushing line in the 2013 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl and was named the MVP of the game.

*(PITT, Bowl Game Rushing Record prev. held by NFL HOF Tony Dorsett, 1977 Sugar Bowl, NCAAF Title game, 32/202/1)

In 2014, James did much of the same, and continued to build on his already growing national recognition. He had a career game in a double overtime loss to then ranked 24th Duke with a 38/263/3 line. The very next week, despite another loss – he compiled another 200 plus yard game racking up 220 yards from 30 attempts and 4 touchdowns versus North Carolina. Conner would finish 2014 with an ACC TD Record-setting season and a 298/1,765/26 rushing line. You would have been hard-pressed to script a better sophomore Season. 

Photo Credit: Jeff Ahearn/Pitt News

With so much success already to his name, the 2015 season held much hope for the newly minted First Team All-American. After a quick start versus a warm-up opponent in Youngstown, Conner tore his MCL and would proceed to miss the remainder of his junior season. When he began his rehab, Conner started to experience excessive fatigue, and turned to medicine to find the answer. He would soon be diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. After 12 rounds of chemotherapy he was eventually able to announce that he was cancer free in May 2016.

Though no one expected anything from James, the miraculous recovery that allowed him to fill the lead back role for Pittsburgh in week 1 of the 2016 NCAA Football season made him popular to root for. James came through and produced a surprising comeback senior season for the Panthers, with over 1,000 yards and 16 TD’s.  Even more impressive was his ability to come back and establish new career receiving highs, with 21 receptions for 302 yards and 4 more touchdowns. That’s right, a man who fought cancer and tore his MCL recovered from it all and came back to produce 237 touches for 1,394 total yards and 20 total touchdowns. After researching this, I know I want to see him as an NFL RB1 someday, and we haven’t got through his college career yet!

On December 10, 2016, James announced that he planned to apply for early eligibility to the 2017 NFL Draft.

Conner’s Combine

Just shy of a year removed from chemotherapy, James was on the field in Indianapolis, doing his best to convince NFL scouts why they should choose him.

Conner was labeled a power back, and rightly so at 6’1” and 233 lbs. He showed a decent 40-yard dash time of 4.65 seconds, and a respectable 20 repetitions on the 225 lb bench press. His explosion wasn’t immediately evident, but for a man of his size with a 29.0” vertical and a 9’ 4” broad jump, it was certainly there.

He was compared to former NFL wrecking ball TJ Duckett, and was tagged with some less desirable traits such as: ‘Needs a clean slate of blocks to make his way around the corner’, ‘stiff hips and heavy legs’, ‘all power and no finesse’, and the half-assumed ‘medical concerns will continue to follow him’.

James Conner Combine
Photo Credit: AP Photo

Overall, Lance Zierlein of NFL Network thought highly of him and his potential, stating;

“Physical, battering-ram style runner, who makes the hitting a two-way affair. Conner’s lack of speed and reactive quickness could limit his role as a pro, but his heart, work ethic and ability to keep the chains moving could make him a red-zone specialist with the ability to handle some third down duties well.” (2017)

He was projected as a 4th or 5th round draft pick and the 12th best overall running back prospect. The Steelers thought better of him than that, selecting him with the 105th overall pick in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft.

James the Rookie

Would you believe that a 3rd round pick – yet to play a snap in the NFL, could put up jersey sales to rival those of Tom Brady? That he did is a testament to how quickly James’s story spread across the NFL fan base.

James had a quiet 2017 rookie season, as you’d expect of someone playing behind Le’Veon Bell – one of the greatest ever to play the running back position. There were a couple shining moments where he reminded everyone who he was and why the Steelers chose him, but overall it was a struggle, like it is for most rookies. He would finish 2017 with an unimpressive rushing line of 32/144/0.

So what does the future hold? 2018 is starting off in much the same way 2017 did, with training camp and another Le’Veon Bell holdout. This is a big year for James, which is why I am choosing him as a 2nd Year Stash Candidate. Bell is playing under the franchise tag once again, his final one this year. Much like Kirk Cousins, Bell is betting on himself and will hit the open market next year. While the Steelers did take Jaylen Samuels in the 2018 NFL Draft, he is more of an H-Back like Will Johnson was for Pittsburgh a few years ago. Make no mistake, this is an offense that heavily features the running back position, regardless if Bell is playing or not. For proof of this, look no further than DeAngelo Williams’s 2015 campaign – Bell tore his MCL and Williams came in and produced 200 carries for 907 yards and 11 TDs, adding another 40 catches for 367 yards. That was good enough to be the 4th best running back in fantasy football, believe it or not. Don’t forget the Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t draft a true running back in the 2018 NFL Rookie draft, instead betting on their in-house backup, James Conner. All of this suggests this could be a breakout year for the former First Team All-American and Panther who broke Tony Dorsett’s Bowl Game record, holder of the ACC Rushing Touchdown Season Record and the 2015 Pre-Season Heisman candidate. Definitely a pick up on dynasty rosters before he becomes the new hotness in the next off-season too.

By Josh Deisinger – @SconnieJosh


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