As a true freshman last season, Pitt running back James Conner helped introduce the Panthers to the rest of the ACC with a flourish. He became one of the most recognizable rookies in the conference after he led Pitt in both rushing yards (799) and rushing touchdowns (eight). He averaged 5.5 yards per carry and was named the MVP of the Little Caesars Bowl after rushing for 229 yards and a touchdown in a 30-27 win over Bowling Green. What’s next? I caught up with Conner recently to find out. Here are the highlights of our conversation:
What has the past year been like for you?
James Conner: The past year was a real good experience, seeing the field early and working with Isaac [Bennett]. He’s been there for a while, so he’s been through it. Coming in with Rachid [Ibrahim], that past year has been a lot of fun. I can’t wait to see what this year brings.
Did you surprise yourself with what you did last year?
JC: Somewhat. I knew I wanted to get on the field, but what happened in the bowl game, that meant a lot to me. I guess you could say I surprised myself.
How do you top what you did last year? What’s next for you?
JC: Stay humble and proceed to work hard. Stay with our strength coaches; they both played in the NFL so they know what it takes. Stay confident, stay hungry, and never be satisfied and be coachable. I believe with that experience and just keep a level head, you’ll do pretty good in the seasons to come.
What’s your take on the offensive line this spring? I know that has been a troublesome area for Pitt in recent years, but you were still able to get your job done.
JC: They’re looking real good this spring. We’ve got Artie [Rowell], T.J. [Clemmings] and Matt Rotheram coming back, so they have experience now and they’re getting a lot better. Coach thinks the offense is doing a great job of bringing guys in. We have a couple guys who committed this year and it can only go up from here. Coach Chryst definitely knows what he’s doing. I think it will be good and the O-line will be a lot better.
I was told you changed your number. Tell me about the decision behind that.
JC: As of right now I have 24, but that’s for spring ball to see how it looks. One of my favorite running backs is Marshawn Lynch, but we’ll see. I just want to see how the number looks for now. I did it because I like the number 24 to show I have speed instead of being a power back, but also like Marshawn Lynch for the Seahakws. I could go back to 40; I just wanted to see how it looks.
Well, how do you think it looks?
JC: I think it looks pretty good so far.
What are your own personal goals for this fall?
JC: I want to try to find my way into the record books another way. This year I want to go for 1,000 yards. Personal goals? I don’t have too many personal goals. I just want to have a 10-win season and go to a really good bowl game. Not too many personal goals, but if I had to pick one, I’d probably say go for 1,000 yards.
What’s Chad Voytik been like to play and practice with and just as a friend and a teammate?
JC: He’s a very good friend and teammate. He’s a good guy on and off the field. You can talk about anything with him. He remains calm, and he stepped up big time in the games where Tom [Savage] went down. He’s definitely going to be ready. He’s just a great guy on and off the field. He’s a lot of fun.
Do you feel any responsibility to help take some pressure off him?
JC: Definitely. I want him to be able to trust me, if it’s a second-and-short, third-and-short, I want everybody on the team to trust me to get the first down so we can have a fresh set of downs. I definitely want to be trustworthy.