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College Player of the Year: James Conner, Pitt

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After a freshman season which saw him share carries with various upperclassmen, Pitt running back James Conner has emerged as one of the premiere players in the nation, carrying the Panthers’ offense in the process.

Through 12 games, Conner rushed for 1,675 yards and 24 touchdowns, all while averaging over six yards per rush. Those marks, as impressive as they are, do not begin to stress his importance to Pitt’s offensive game-plan.

Unfortunately for Conner, most of his truly legendary performances have come in losses, including a 263-yard, three-touchdown game against Duke, in which the Panthers lost in double overtime due to several defensive breakdowns. In his very next game, Conner ran for 220 yards and four touchdowns against fellow ACC opponent North Carolina, a game Pitt lost with less than a minute left.

“I just tried to do my job and lower my shoulder,” Conner said in a press conference during Pitt’s bye week. “Talking with one of our assistant strength coaches, he said ‘just play and give it everything you got on the field and when you look up when the season is all said and done you might be in the record books somewhere.’”

For many Pitt fans, Conner’s race for the record books has hidden the fact that they have completed yet another 6-6 season. In their 35-23 win at Miami, the sophomore broke former Panthers running back and pro football Hall of Fame member Tony Dorsett’s touchdown record, breaking across the pylon for the 24th time this year.

The scariest aspect of Conner’s progression is that he has so much room to improve. As a junior at McDowell High in Erie, Pennsylvania, Conner was not even recruited as a running back, as he was only used as a blocking back in the triple option featuring four-star prospect Greg Garmon, who played briefly at Iowa.

In an effort to get more playing time, Conner moved to the opposite side of the ball, starting at defensive end.

“I thought it would come easy,” Conner said in a Sports Illustrated feature in September. “One-on-one to the quarterback, and I didn’t think I’d lose one-on-one.”

He didn’t. Conner became a defensive monster for McDowell, racking up 12 sacks and earning all-state honors in the process.

After receiving a scholarship offer to play defensive end at Pitt, Conner spent his senior year of high school playing defensive end and running back, where he ran for 1,680 yards and 20 touchdowns.

This worked out great for the Panthers, as they were in need of a young back to replace senior Ray Graham and the recently departed Rushel Shell, who left Pitt for personal reasons.

As a freshman, Conner ran for 799 yards and eight touchdowns, and also played defensive end in the team’s bowl game against Bowling Green.

This offseason, Conner clearly set himself apart from the Panthers’ other running backs, as he’s had over 20 carries in seven or Pitt’s 12 games Pitt James Connerthis year.

In November, Conner was named a semi-finalist for the Doak Walker award as the best running back in the nation, and he’s the clear choice for PSR’s Performer of the Year as he runs his way into Pitt’s record books.

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