Pitt's James Conner follows Donald's path

Pitt running back James Conner has a little bit of Aaron Donald in him. The traits they share do not seem coincidental when you consider the attributes that turn good players into great ones.

They are both relentless, aggressive, physical, constantly churning and mostly impossible to stop -- stat-producing machines who demand constant attention.

Is it any wonder they have become poster children for the Panthers' program over the past two seasons? Not in blue-collar Pittsburgh, a town that prides itself on its hard-working, no-nonsense tough guys. Conner and Donald fit the mold more than most.

Perhaps these qualities drove Pitt assistants to recruit them both hard. Nobody else really did, a puzzling fact given how they have developed. Donald had four offers out of nearby Penn Hills High, but only two from Power 5 programs (Rutgers and Pitt). Last season, he won every major defensive player of the year award and became a first-round draft pick.

Conner garnered even less interest on the recruiting trail out of McDowell High in Erie, Pennsylvania. Toledo, Bowling Green and Eastern Michigan were the only FBS programs to show significant interest in him until Pitt came along.

Right now, Conner leads the nation in rushing with 699 yards -- the most through four games in Pitt history.

"He's blessed with great size, a great competitiveness, power and strength, and he’s really started to develop and understand the position more," Pitt offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. "I'm not sure why things were a little slow early in his recruitment, but as he went through that senior year, a lot of people tried to get back in. He was adamant about wanting to be at Pitt. It’s worked out well."

The Panthers clued in late on Conner, but give them credit for tuning in when everybody else tuned out. Truth be told, he would probably be playing somewhere else if it were not for the relationship between Rudolph and Conner's high school coach, Mark Soboleski.

The two got to know each other well when Rudolph recruited McDowell quarterback A.J. Fenton to Wisconsin. After Rudolph arrived at Pitt in early 2012, Soboleski started pitching Conner, a 6-foot-3, 230-pound rising senior with the physical skill set to play both running back and defensive end.

To this day, Soboleski is not sure why Conner was virtually ignored.

"I was beating my head against the wall. I couldn't understand it. I don't know what it was," Soboleski said. "If a kid doesn't have a lot of film his junior year, sometimes those guys will wait for that senior film. James' film was really limited. He wasn't rushing for 1,500 yards or 2,000 yards as a junior, so people could say maybe we should look at this kid."

Conner was stuck behind running back Greg Garmon, who went on to Iowa. In an effort to get on the field, he voluntarily asked to play defensive end his junior year. Conner had never taken a snap on defense but ended up with 12 sacks, setting the school's single-season record.

Soboleski called Rudolph in the spring with a bold prediction.

"I said, 'Joe, you know me well enough. I'm telling you, put this kid in your program -- he's going to be the centerpiece of your freshman class,’" Soboleski recalled.

Rudolph listened.

"I trusted him," Rudolph said. "He’s a really good coach and a really good person, and he knew the type of person we’d be looking for. Those things are important. And he was right."

Rudolph invited Conner to attend a Pitt summer camp. Playing defensive end and linebacker, Conner did not lose any one-on-one reps. He was offered a scholarship on the spot.

Conner wanted his mom and four brothers to see the campus before he made his decision. In August, he committed.

"I was just one of those guys who was under the radar," Conner said. "I tried to work really hard and I thought I had pretty good numbers in high school, but I knew whatever school gave me an opportunity, I’d give my all to them."

Conner returned to running back his senior season and ran for 1,680 yards and 21 touchdowns, averaging 10.8 yards per carry. Though Pitt recruited him to play defense, the coaches could not ignore his productivity at running back.

"We were still recruiting backs at the time, but some of the guys we were on fell through or went other places," Rudolph said. "Then there were some guys we went back to look at. I sat down with other coaches here and came to same conclusion: There wasn’t anyone that we watched that was better than [Conner] at tailback."

Conner got a chance to play immediately as a true freshman in 2013 but battled injury and inconsistency. He knew with more time, he’d get there, especially with help around him.

Throughout his freshman season, Donald served as an inspiration. "I Googled his name and I looked on his Rivals profile, and I think he only had two offers, and it was like, 'Wow, all those trophies he accepted,' and he said the same thing every time: ‘Hard work pays off,’" Conner said of Donald.

Conner came on strong in the bowl game against Bowling Green, rushing for 229 yards while also playing defensive end. Donald took notice, screaming at his coaches, "He's carrying the ball for us and winning us the game. Get him off the field [on defense], I'll take care of this!"

Donald ended up making the game-winning sack.

Conner, meanwhile, tried to mimic the hard work and film study he saw Donald put in during the offseason. He has mastered the playbook, is in better condition and running with a better pad level. The offensive line has improved, too. All are big reasons Conner has gotten off to such a fast start.

If he continues his current pace, Conner would break Tony Dorsett's school record for fewest games needed to reach 1,000 yards. Dorsett needed seven games in 1976, the year he won the Heisman Trophy and led Pitt to a national championship. Conner is on pace to reach 1,000 yards in six games.

Dorsett and Conner are vastly different runners. While Dorsett relied on his speed and shiftiness, the 250-pound Conner relies on his power, reminiscent of the way Andre Williams bowled over defenders en route to a 2,000-yard season for Boston College a year ago.

While Conner still practices at defensive end, Pitt has not used him both ways in a game this season. There has been no reason to, not when he is running over people on offense.

"With me being a bigger guy, some DBs don’t really want to tackle, you put your pads down and make it happen," Conner said. "I’m blessed with the size and speed, so I take advantage of it. Running back is fun and I’ve been doing pretty good at it, so we just want to keep it rolling."

If he keeps rolling the way Donald did, Conner could end up with a full trophy case, too.