Pitt running back James Conner had a monster year in 2014 rushing for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns. Most of his damage was done on the ground, but the backfield star plans to be doing a lot more than running this year.
We've heard talk before about throwing to the running backs a bit more. In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, Conner himself recently confirmed that he plans to do more than just carry the ball this season:
Q: Is there anything specific your working on this offseason to get ready for 2015?
JC: "Every aspect of the game. Being a running back, you know the passing game and the protections - catching the ball out of the backfield.
Q. Is there much of a change in your role in the new offense?
JC: "I’m excited. We’re still run-heavy. My role is to be more versatile and valuable for the team - in running routes and picking up blitzes. I’m just mastering that playbook. But I’m very excited for the upcoming season."
Conner also talked about sharing carries with other guys. Pitt has other backs to lean on, of course. Rachid Ibrahim and Chris James look to be the players immediately behind Conner. Waiting in the wings are also freshmen Qadree Ollison (redshirt) and Darrin Hall. There are plenty of guys to share the load - that much is evident. But despite all of that, Conner still is going to be 'the man.' Others should and will spell him when necessary, but if he's not shouldering the load, something is wrong.
I'm also interested to see how many of those backfield passes will go Conner's way. As I've said since he got onto the field, Ibrahim is perfectly suited for that kind of role and his quickness makes big gains possible. But while Conner's size could make him difficult to bring down on screen passes, there's more to it than that. If Conner is on the field and doesn't get a carry, defenses might not expect him to figure into the play.
Throwing screens to Conner is a way to keep defenses honest and there's always the chance that the Panthers catch some teams off guard. I don't see him getting a ton of passes, but a couple per game would be a good way to keep him involved on non-running plays.