Before he made headlines for overcoming Hodgkin’s lymphoma and returning to the University of Pittsburgh, James Conner was an All-American running back who scored 26 touchdowns as a sophomore. Now he’ll stay in the same city.
Conner, a 6’2, 235-pound runner, emerged as a star in 2014 when he ran for more than 1,700 yards and was named ACC Player of the Year.
But catastrophe struck in his junior season. He gained 77 yards on just eight carries in the Panthers’ season opener against Youngstown State, but tore his MCL in the process. While rehabbing his injury, he received even worse news.
Conner might be the NFL draft’s most inspirational story, after he beat cancer.
A lump in Conner’s chest was diagnosed as Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a treatable but deadly form of cancer.
His 2015 season was finished, and ultimately an afterthought as he focused on battling his illness. He spent the winter and spring in chemotherapy treatments, finally earning a cancer-free bill of health the following May, at one point battling through drills while still in treatment.
His recovery paved the way for a tremendous comeback in 2016.
Conner returned to the lineup that fall and played in all 13 of Pitt’s games. He ran 208 times for 1,060 yards and 16 touchdowns. He caught 20 passes for 299 yards and four more scores. He was a participant in the highest-scoring FBS game of all time. He ran for 132 yards in the Panthers’ wild win at Clemson, which holds as the single best resume win by any team all year. He was an elite player less than four months after beating cancer.
In the process, he revealed his proficiency in the passing game. After recording only eight receptions his first two seasons with the team, he hauled in 21, including four touchdowns, last fall.
Conner is a power back who can also catch.
Conner doesn’t have tremendous straight-line speed. He ran a 4.65 40 at the Combine. But he does have remarkable strength, which allows him to muscle through tackles and plow forward, resulting in few lost yards on his carries. With platoons becoming the standard for NFL backfields, the Pitt product has the opportunity to carve out a successful career as a pile-driving power back who won’t be arm-tackled.
His comeback season last fall answered several questions about his viability as a prospect. Not only did he return to full strength, he also showed off a more diverse offensive skill set in 2016. Though be may not be a true No. 1 tailback, he brings plenty of talent to the NFL.
This seems like a great fit.
Pittsburgh fell in love with Conner during his time at Pitt. He’s spent his college career in the same practice facility and game stadium that he’ll now play in as a pro. The Steelers have long loved powerful running backs, and Conner could be a great one.