Is Pitt’s James Conner the Best Defensive Player in the ACC?
by Ayo Fapohunda
Posted February 18, 2015 4:14 pm
Photo Courtesy of sportingnews.com
Almost exactly three years ago from this day I was putting in my daily session, going through high school football players tape when I stumbled across the name James Conner. At the time the name didn’t ring any bells, but I proceeded to toss on the tape to see what this guy who had been Facebook messaging me was all about. At the time I had a fairly good knowledge of the talent pool in Erie (PA) due to players like Greg Garmon, Anthony Jordan, Damion Terry, and Delton Williams. All of these guys were studs and had me keeping an eye out for Erie’s top talent.
After about 45 seconds of going through the 230 pound junior DE/RB’s tape, I immediately picked up the phone to chew out Greg Garmon for not giving me the heads up on his running mate, Conner. Although Garmon was the featured back, Conner showed flashes of greatness running through, and past defenders along with being an absolute havoc off the edge. I finished watching Conner’s tape scratching my head, wondering how someone so big could be so fast and agile. I had just got done raving to coaches about Cathedral Prep standout Delton Williams, who shared some of the same qualities Conner possessed, and I refused to believe Erie was producing not just one, but two freakish athletes that could dominate both sides of the ball.
Fast forward a couple months later and I finally got the opportunity to see Conner live at the Rivals VTO camp working out as a defensive end. The Erie native may have put together one of the most impressive workouts I have seen from a defensive end in my time evaluating high school players. He spun, dipped, and bull rushed his way to complete dominance and established himself as a force to be reckoned with. Fortunately for the University of Pittsburgh at the time Conner’s name was still flying way under the radar, and after working out at Pitt’s early summer prospect camp, he came away with an offer and committed shortly after.
Connor, or what I like to call him, Beast Mode 2.0 went on to put together an absolutely ridiculous senior year that included multiple kickoff returns from the 230 pound bruising back, and to make it even more legit, he was doing it against some of the top teams in Northeast Ohio. After putting together Conner’s Senior highlight tape I started to realize we weren’t dealing with your typical power back here.
Conner entered Pitt summer camp as a relatively unknown, but all of a sudden was going to get a shot due to Pitt Golden Child, Rushell Shell choosing to move on from hometown Pitt and take his chances at rival WVU. Conner who came in as a defensive end, now was being thrust into starting running back hunt, in a run heavy Paul Chryst, former Pitt Coach, scheme. The freshman took the opportunity with open arms and secured the role as the feature back.
Fast forward again two years and Conner now has established himself as not only the top back on Pitt’s roster, but arguably one of the best in the country. After a standout sophomore year, Conner took home ACC offensive player of the year honor over former Heisman trophy winner Jameis Winston and, has a shot to be chosen in the early rounds of the 2015 NFL drafts if he chooses to come out early, but the question still lingers. How good of a defensive end/outside linebacker is James Conner?
At the end of the backs freshmen campaign, Paul Chryst experimented with Conner in the bowl game at defensive end, in his brief stint, Conner thrived once again at the position that got him the opportunity at University of Pittsburgh. Chryst flirted with the idea of playing him his sophomore year on both sides of the ball, but ultimately kept it conservative, feeding the man child the rock close to 30 times a game, leaving no opportunity for him to take reps as a pass rusher.
All bets are off now with new sheriff Pat Narduzzi, the defensive guru from East Lansing, who is known for his creative defensive play calling, and proven willingness to pull offensive players to fly around with the black shirts. With more company in the backfield, the question needs to be asked. Will James Conner get reps on defense? If so, is he the best pass rusher in the ACC?
Narduzzi comes from a regime that puts its players in the best position to showcase their ability that was proved by the way he used Tony Lippett as a defensive back in Michigan State’s impressive run late last season. Along with pass rushing deficiencies, the writing is on the wall for Conner to get the chance to pin his ears back, and get after the quarterback.
Based on what I have seen from Conner since his high school days, and the athleticism he shows as a tailback, the question now becomes; How good is James Conner on D? This isn’t confirmed, but I’m almost positive last year during spring practice Conner clocked in a 4.4 forty time. Add that to his impressive size, and agility, and all of a sudden you have a Vic Beasley clone.
Despite Conner’s fairytale career thus far, it has to cross Pitt fans and certainly new Head Coach Pat Narduzzi’s mind the kind of damage the violent power back could do on defense, and whether or not his presence could elevate Pitt’s defense to prosperity in 2015. For Conner it could be difficult for him to give up the carries and glory that comes with being one of the top rushers in the country, but the dollar signs clearly point the other direction.
It may be a long shot that we ever see the likes of James Conner ever chasing after the quarterback again, especially with the way he toted the rock this past year, but you must admit, it’s certainly a nice food for thought, that the best offensive player in the ACC, just may be the best defensive player too. Until next time.