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James Conner set to make first NFL start with Steelers

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Former Pitt star James Conner will make the first start of his NFL career with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, when the team faces the Cleveland Browns on the road. He’ll be standing in for Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell, who extended his holdout into the regular season.

Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network reported that Bell did not travel to Cleveland with the team and left more than $850,000 on the table to sit out Week 1, clearing a path for Conner to play.

Bell has become a polarizing figure, as his negotiating tactics have drawn the ire of many teammates and fans, while members of the national media have tended to support his cause.

”A star is born every year in the NFL,” Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey said, per the NFL Network’s Aditi Kinkhabwala. “Did anyone know Kareem Hunt would be an All-Pro before last season? If James Conner didn’t have cancer, he’d have been a first-round pick. Just watch him.”

Conner lacks significant playing time in the NFL, as he’s amassed just 144 yards on 32 carries in 2017, but his average of 4.5 yards per carry in the regular season is heartening. He’s also looked good in the preseason, averaging 5.3 yards per carry and gaining 100 yards on 19 runs.

Prior to joining the Steelers, Conner also had an illustrious career with the Pitt Panthers, as he posted two seasons with more than 1,300 yards from scrimmage. He may well have gotten three, but as Pouncey alluded to, Conner was forced to sit out 2015 after a Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis. Ultimately, he beat the disease and bounced back for another great season at Pitt.

Conner would finish his collegiate career ranking second on Pitt’s list of all-time leading rushers, with 3,733 rushing yards. Only NFL Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett finished with more at Pitt.

The matchup between the Steelers and Browns will get underway at 1 p.m. ET.