Just how many hats can James Conner wear?
Conner returns as Pitt's star running back, but it's already sounding like he might do much more than carry the ball.
For starters, head coach Pat Narduzzi talked about Conner catching passes this year and lining up as a receiver. As I mentioned at the time, that's despite Conner never having much of a history as a receiver in high school or at Pitt. But that's just the beginning, apparently.
Narduzzi met with the media today and also talked of Conner playing defense again. Now, this of course isn't a new idea. Conner played some defensive end in high school and even did so for Pitt in their bowl game against Bowling Green a few years back. There was talk of him playing some defense in 2014, but that never materialized and he went on to become one of the top running backs in the nation.
Now, Narduzzi says Conner playing some snaps at end is a possibility:
Narduzzi: "We want to be versatile. Maybe James Conner will play some defensive end. We've talked about a lot of things." #Pitt #H2P— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) August 9, 2016
To be honest, this sounds more like a publicity stunt than anything else? Could he get a few snaps there just for the heck of it? I mean, I guess. But really, what would be the point? Narduzzi has talked about wanting to take things easy with Conner coming back this year so why bog him down with more responsibility? Pitt has a stacked backfield, but that still doesn't make much sense.
Also, consider that Pitt looks to have a few good ends as it is in Ejuan Price and transfer Dewayne Hendrix. Conner playing defense at all doesn't seem to make much sense on any level.
It doesn't end there, though. Conner apparently wants to play on special teams and return kicks. No, really:
Powell, who also is the special teams coordinator, said he was approached by Conner, who wants to return kickoffs this season. While it might seem like a strange request from the team's marquee running back who ran for 1,765 yards two years ago, Powell said he will give him a chance. “We want guys that want to do it,” he said. “He won't be the guy who is back there every time returning kicks, but he'll be a backup. I wouldn't hesitate to put him into the game.”
Again, just not something that makes much sense. Conner can be difficult to bring down but he isn't a speed burner. Not only would you be putting him at unnecessary risk, I don't think he's even all that ideal for the job. That's especially true when you have a guy like Quadree Henderson who can be a playmaker as he showed in returning a kick for a score in Pitt's bowl game against Navy last season.
Finally, let's not forget that Conner has been off the past year. Now, I fully expect him to be ready to play and I think he'll prove a lot of his doubters wrong by having a big season. But there's also something to be said for allowing him to get his rhythm back and keeping him at his position of strength. His 2014 season, after all, is a pretty good reason to make carrying the ball his only job. Not only that, but if this is Conner's last year before the NFL Draft, it makes even more sense to let him focus solely on honing his skills as a running back. He's not going to be a kick returner in the NFL or play defense there so those abilities won't help him going forward.
I should emphasize that most of this just seems like it could be empty talk. It's not worth getting too worked up over any of this just yet. The defensive end comment was pretty flippant and the comment about returning kicks is more about giving him a chance. What's to say that's not limited to only training camp. We're still a ways off from any of this happening and it's worth pointing out that Chryst sounded much more intent on playing Conner on defense and that never really happened.
Conner may be capable of doing all of these thing and let's be honest - if anyone has deserved the opportunity to do what he wants, it's James. That guy's been through so much that it seems tough to say no to him if he's interested in trying any of this. But I think Pitt would be better off by keeping their star running back's focus in the backfield. And ultimately, that's what I imagine will happen.
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