The plan to get Pitt running back James Conner more involved as a pass-catcher has long been discussed. After his monster year in 2014, there was talk of Conner becoming more of a receiving back for 2015. That effort, though, quickly went off the rails when he suffered an injury in the season opener and was gone for the year. This year, that talk returned.
And so far, it’s actually happening.
Through only three games, Conner has 281 rushing yards. That number, of course, is off of his 2014 pace when he ran for 1,765 yards. However, the running back also has nine catches for 105 yards.
Those numbers are astonishing when you consider what Conner has done as a receiver in his career. We’re barely into the season and he already has set career-bests in each of those categories. Even more shocking is that his nine catches already have equaled his past three years combined while the 105 yards have almost matched his three-year combined yardage (110).
Back when the talk resurfaced about Conner being more of a receiver this year, I mentioned that a 20-catch season would help his NFL Draft prospects by showing scouts he was a capable receiving back. Conner is actually on pace to nearly double that.
Also nice to see is that Conner has been used as a receiver near the goal line. Against Villanova and Penn State, he recorded a receiving touchdown in each game - the first ones of his career.
Further, Conner isn’t just catching bubble screen passes. As evidenced in the Oklahoma State game, he’s actually getting downfield a bit. This weekend against the Cowboys, he had a big catch and run going for 55 yards. Even if the pass wasn’t intended for him (it didn’t appear it was), he was still out on a passing route and was fortunate to catch the ball and make a big play out of it.
While his role in the passing game is great to see for Pitt’s offense, I’m also glad that it will benefit Conner. He’s just a more marketable draft pick if he shows he’s capable of catching passes and that will ultimately help his stock.
Conner isn’t the same rusher he was in 2014 when he was able to (excuse the pun) catch the nation off guard. His 4.5 yards-per-carry are down significantly from that season when he was at 5.9. He’s also on target to fall well short of his record 26 rushing touchdowns that year. But by adding the receiving dimension to his game, he’s becoming more of an all-purpose back, which is a good thing.