James Conner played some defensive end for the first time in a game since high school. But even despite his record bowl performance when he rushed for 229 yards, breaking Tony Dorsett's record for rushing yards in a bowl game, according to the Trib's Kevin Gorman, he still hasn't been given any guarantees about his future.
Conner, though, says he prefers to stay on offense:
When Chryst approached Conner about practicing on defense, he didn't protest, although he knew it could come at the expense of carries.
And, even after his record rushing performance in the Pizza Bowl, Conner has been given no guarantee he will remain on offense.
“I've been playing running back ever since Little League, so I'd like to stay there,” Conner said. “But if coach says he wants me at defense, that's his call. I'll do anything to help my team win a game.”
First, a big kudos to the kid for the attitude. Conner was recruited to play defense at Pitt and played both defensive end and running back (mostly running back) in high school, so the move isn't really a reach. And it was clear that Conner had some experience there as in the bowl game, Bowling Green had a hard time stopping him.
After such a huge game on the ground, changing him at this point seems pretty foolish on the surface. T.J. Clemmings' switch to the offensive line made a lot more sense as he wasn't exactly a dominant player on defense for Pitt to that point. But Conner has a good chance to begin next year as a starter and is also only a sophomore - so he should continue to get better.
There are reasons Pitt is considering making the switch, of course.
With a lot of questions on the defensive line, I can understand the Pitt coaches' mentality of exploring all options there. And coupled with the fact that the Panthers have Isaac Bennett and Rachid Ibrahim coming back, as well as to highly touted incoming freshman at the position, there's certainly some depth there, even without Conner.
The other argument for a switch is that Conner has been a bit up and down all year. Conner rushed for 799 yards and a gaudy 5.5 yards per carry, but it's not as if he was dominant all season. One can excuse the subpar opener against Florida State since it was, well, Florida State, and also his first game of the year. But Conner also struggled badly against Virginia (27 yards on 15 carries), Georgia Tech (three yards on eight carries), and Notre Dame (35 yards on ten carries). He also didn't play all that great against Navy or Syracuse.
Still, if I'm Paul Chryst, I wait to see exactly what I've got at running back in the two freshmen, Chris James and Qadree Ollison, before making a change of any kind. Making a move now just doesn't make much sense and there's just no hurry to switch him to defense just yet.
As of right now, my preference is to see him stay at running back. It's where he wants to be and despite the depth at running back next year, an injury to Isaac Bennett could really get the team scrambling since you just have no idea what you'll get out of the freshmen. Plus, just as Conner has struggled at times, he's had his fair share of big games as well. In addition to the bowl game, he had a whopping 173 yards against Duke and 100-yard games against New Mexico and North Carolina.
After seeing him in the bowl, I'm convinced he could play on either side of the ball. But despite the record-breaking performance, his future on offense doesn't appear to be set in stone.