This is the first of five questions we’re debating to preview and prepare for the 2016 Pitt football season. Lucky for us, some of our #PittTwitter friends were kind enough to contribute their thoughts for each question.
Today we discuss our expectations for James Conner. Be sure to listen to our mini episode at the end of the post after you read through what our panel has to say!
- Jim Hammett, CardiacHill.com
- Chris Bruno, CardiacHill.com (@BrunoPittsburgh)
- Justin Witmer (@NFLGimpy)
- Anson Whaley, CardiacHill.com (@AnsonWhaley)
- Corey Cohen (@CoreyECohen)
What do you expect to see from James Conner this season?
I think we can expect a version of James Conner similar to the one that won the 2014 ACC Player of the Year. And I say that for this very reason: It’s hard to bet against James Conner. I have no doubts that after beating cancer, that he will overcome his knee injury and be an effective player.
Conner adds a different element to the offense that it really lacked last season. While Qadree Ollison did an admirable job starting in place of Conner, you could miss his presence, especially in losses. Looking back at the Iowa and North Carolina games specifically, Pitt really could have used that elite level running from Conner to extend some drives and put more points on the board. So what they lacked in that department last season, they should gain this season.
While I expect Conner’s effectiveness to be comparable to 2014, his numbers may not be quite as high. The coaching staff won’t push Conner to any 30-40 carry type games not because he can’t, but because they have enough capable running backs to keep everyone fresh. Conner will get his touches and snaps, but they have the luxury of getting him a series off here and there and not drop off too much.
Do you really doubt he’ll be in beast mode this year? I mean, seriously…who wants to doubt that guy? I work with a LOT of PSU fans out here in Philly and even they look at him and just go, “WOW…what a beast!” He seemed to really take Eric Berry’s advice about working out as much as he could during the chemo treatments and from all accounts is already pretty close to full strength. I don’t expect him to get a big load in the Villanova game, but I do expect him to start and get the butterflies out. If the offensive line picks up Matt Canada’s system for blocking pretty well, early…I think the sky is the limit for Conner this season.
I expect Conner to be the primary RB, but with a much lower ratio of carries than he had in 2014. In 2014, RBs carried the ball 484 times. Conner had 298 of them, or 61%. That’s almost 23 carries per game. If it wasn’t for blowouts, (Delaware, Georgia Tech) and getting banged up late in the season, it certainly would’ve been higher. The reason I expect fewer carries? Pitt has much better depth behind him. In 2014, the primary backup was true freshman Chris James. There were times where Conner was the only way to move the ball. In 2016, the primary backup will either be Darrin Hall or Qadree Ollison, both of whom are experienced sophomores. Pitt will be better running the ball in 2016 than 2014 because the ball can be spread between those three.
I predict he’ll finish the season around 200 carries and 15-20 receptions. He’ll finish over 1,000 yards and bring in about 20 touchdowns. He’ll have a great season, just not the record numbers he had in 2014. The RBs as a unit though will be in the 3,000 yards/35 touchdowns range.
I expect quite a bit, actually. I don’t see the monster 2014 season he had, but do expect he’ll turn in another strong year if he’s healthy. Part of the reason for a drop in production is that he’s going to be without Tyler Boyd for the first time and the passing game is a significant question mark. Until Pitt proves to have an aerial threat, teams should and will line up to stop the run.
The Panthers’ depth in the backfield is another reason I don’t see him duplicating that 2014 season. Pitt has five guys they legitimately expect to play, and that’s not even including any work that Jordan Whitehead or wide receivers get on running plays. Perhaps things change if Pitt sustains some injuries in the running back corps, but as of now, plenty of guys should see a nice workload and that might contribute to a dip in production for Conner.
Conner will want to prove to NFL scouts that he’s completely ready and fully healthy – and what better way to do that than come out and have a giant season. If he had an 1,800-yard season with 20 touchdowns after all, would anyone say it was completely out of nowhere? I just wonder if there will be enough carries for him to have the kind of year he had in 2014 with so much depth back there. My guess is that he turns in a very good year but maybe doesn’t have quite the jaw-dropping stats from two seasons ago.
I expect James Conner to have a productive season in a stable of running backs that leads to an excellent unit for Pitt. While I’m sure he’s capable of taking on the load as the sole running back, he’ll have help from Ollison and others, so I can’t see him quite racking up his ACC Player of the Year numbers. That said, I think he’ll average over 5 yards per carry and add in about 18 touchdowns. And regardless of all the football successes, the fact that he’s made it back to the team after everything he’s been through is the biggest triumph of all.