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Pat Narduzzi not 100% in ruling out return by running back James Conner

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Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

When it was announced that James Conner needed surgery for an MCL injury, it was anticipated that he would miss the entire season. That still sounds as if it will be the case but during his weekly press conference, head coach Pat Narduzzi suggested that a return would be completely impossible.

"Ask James. I don't think so," Narduzzi said. "He'd be crazy and we'd have a big, long talk. That doesn't mean he won't be ready to play, but will we do that? I can't tell you he won't be ready. We had a player at Michigan State come down with cancer. They said he'd never play again. Well, he did. Doctors said he couldn't play, he almost lost his leg, and that's all someone had to do is say he couldn't. Then, all of a sudden, he came back. Maybe I should say he can't, and then he'll come back and play. For his best interest, he needs to get healthy."

This still sounds like a bit of a longshot to me, but here's the thing - if Pitt is playing for something significant by the end of the year, it wouldn't be crazy to see James get back in there.

Outside of that, though, I'm not sure I see it. In the aftermath of his injury, many speculated that an in-season return isn't out of the question. But with Conner set to launch an NFL career, as Narduzzi says, he really just needs to get healthy. There's no sense in rushing back to play in meaningless games if Pitt is completely out of the running.

It could, of course, be argued that Conner would be best served by actually trying to come back and get onto the field. After all, that could convince NFL scouts he's fully ready and help ease concerns if he is indeed leaving for the Draft following this year. But I also think his stock is somewhat safe and while he may not be a first-round pick, taking him in one of the other early rounds doesn't see like much of a gamble to me.

Narduzzi seems to allude to the fact that even if he is healthy enough to play, it may not be in his best interests. I'd probably agree with that and there's no question that his primary focus needs to be on getting ready and healthy for the NFL Draft if he is in fact leaving. I can fully see a scenario where Conner could be ready to play but doesn't get back onto the field just to ensure his health. The last thing he would need is to sustain another injury in a meaningless game just before the Draft and hurt his stock.

Another factor, too, is going to be the state of the running game. If reserves Qadree Ollison, Chris James, and Darrin Hall are playing well enough, there's really not much sense in making sure Conner gets on the field. He may want to suit up for Pitt again just to be able to do so, but if Pitt's running game is capable enough, that probably makes a Conner return more difficult since it's just not as necessary.

I think much of any decision to play again this year will hinge on where Pitt is in the standings. If they somehow find themselves playing for a division title or something else that's meaningful, I'm not sure I'd rule out a return by Conner. Short of that, though, it makes it harder to believe.

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