Instant Scouts Analysis: James Conner Injured

Rob Willette

There was ample reason to get excited about James Conner in 2015. The former defensive end had bullied ACC defenders on his way to 2,564 rushing yards and 34 touchdowns over his first two seasons on campus. The eye popping numbers along with brutish power and the ability to handle a heavy workload introduced Conner to many devy rosters this off-season, with buzz around reported weight loss merely adding to the intrigue that surrounded Pitt’s offensive centerpiece.

The optimism that surrounds a new season and a man with a new approach quickly washed away when word spread Monday indicating Conner would miss the 2015 season after injuring his MCL against Youngstown State. Ignoring the impacts it has to Pitt’s football team, it is news that should give developmental dynasty owners all the sads.

The consensus favors Ezekiel Elliott as the top devy back eligible in 2016, with a few giving the nod to Derrick Henry. Conner was hammering his way into that conversation, and a new slimmed down frame led to the natural Le’Veon Bell comparisons. Much like Bell, Conner’s an incredibly accomplished collegiate back with questions surrounding his overall athleticism. The former Spartan erased those concerns following a reshaping of his body after his freshman season, and the ideal scenario had Conner doing the same in 2015. Instead of giving us a large sample size of what he could do after shedding a few pounds, we may be forced to judge Conner based on his what we saw during his monster 2014 campaign.

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conner2On the plus side, the injury occurred very early in the season, and it is not the type of devastating leg injury that spells doom for a career. There’s a chance he is ready for off-season activities, including some testing at the combine. The Combine would have been an excellent chance for the Pitt star to ameliorate all concerns surrounding his burst and overall athletic profile. Instead, if he opts to enter the draft at all, he will likely be somewhat limited or still on the mend. That is not the ideal recipe for securing a spot in day two.

Of course, there’s always a chance this delays Conner’s arrival in the NFL. Waiting the extra year on coveted prospects is a difficult pill to swallow, as accumulating assets is often framed by planning for which year they’ll enter the league. His ascension to legitimate draft prospect was supposed to buttress the hellscape known as the dynasty running back grouping. Even with this large negative now attached to the junior, I’m not budging from keeping him as a Top 10 overall devy asset and the third running back for the 2016 class. He’s a powerful back with nimble feet and enough burst even pre-weight loss to stick as an every-down back in the NFL.

His loss opens the door for Chris James to shine, if he has health on his side. James was limited in Saturday’s win over Youngstown State with an injury, yet acquitted himself extremely well as Conner’s caddy in 2014 as he piled up 437 yards rushing. A shifty runner with some surprising pop at the point of contact, he’s not dynamic enough at this point to warrant a roster spot but he’s got an opportunity to really emerge as an intriguing asset if his development curve trends in the right direction.

A revelation in week one, Qadree Ollison carved up Youngstown State on his way to 207 yards on only 16 carries. It was a surprising performance for a back even passionate college football fans were unfamiliar with. Built like the Panthers now sidelined lead back, Ollison is a rugged and bruising back with surprising long speed. He’s unlikely to earn many devy looks following a one game trouncing of a lesser football program, though he appears to have earned significant work in the Panther backfield. There’s a chance the Pitt backfield evolves into a true three man timeshare, with ballyhooed true freshman Darrin Hall sneaking in the mix. Hall did not record a carry in the season opener but did log a four yard reception and may be the most naturally talented of the trio. He’s not expected to lead this backfield, and I don’t expect a devy star to emerge, but it is at the very least a backfield to keep a close eye on throughout the fall.

Overall, however, even a full committee is going to fail to replicate Conner’s production. He’s a rare workhorse back with NFL talent. If any owners are scared of a college runner with a significant lower body injury, it is a good time to pounce. Even with the injury, Conner has a shot at day two should he declare and may even be a first round rookie pick in 2016 come this time next year.


rob willette