Pitt back James Conner looking to become finished product
PITTSBURGH (AP) The quote is saved on James Conner's phone, a permanent reminder of the stakes. He sees it whenever he logs in, meaning the running back's eyes glaze over it dozens of times a day. Its presence is comforting in a way, a mental security blanket just in case the Pittsburgh star begins to get ahead of himself.
It reads ''Don't give up what you want most for what you want now.'' It replaced Ray Lewis as his screensaver a while ago, when the big kid with the ever-churning legs figured out his destiny lay in trying to run opponents over, not run them down.
The NFL became a real, living, breathing thing to Conner in 2014 when he mashed his way to 1,765 yards rushing, 26 total touchdowns and the ACC Player of the Year award. He had always been good. Growing up in Erie, Pa. with four older brothers, Conner always believed he was tough. He had to be if he wanted to become something more than the family mascot.
What took time for him to believe is that he could be special.
At some point last fall, maybe it was when he treated three Duke players with the same lack of respect a 3-year-old shows for his toys while throwing them aside for his third and final score in an overtime loss on Nov. 1, the switch flipped. He was no longer a prodigy but a full-blown player.
''I looked around and I'm putting up numbers with other great backs,'' Conner said. ''It sort of became like, `Now you need to handle yourself more professionally, take things more seriously and you've got a real opportunity.'''
Hence the daily reminder just a swipe of his finger away.
''A lot of people do things for the moment instead of thinking long term,'' Conner said. ''I've been trying to find that balance.''
It's funny to think about it now, the idea that Conner's sophomore season began with former coach Paul Chryst promising to give Conner a look at defensive end. The experiment lasted all of a snap. It's not that Conner couldn't - or wouldn't - do it. It just became so obvious Conner's true value lay with the ball in his hands that playing on the other side of the line of scrimmage hardly seemed like a good idea even if he misses it more than a little.
''I love seeing the crowd getting hyped, my teammates getting hyped after a big hit,'' he said. ''But scoring touchdowns is cool, too.''
Helps when you're good at it. Besides, the way Conner runs - a constantly churning mix of elbows, knees and fury - helps him get his fix of hitting guys anyway. Conner just smiles when asked if he runs ''angry.'' He thinks about it for a moment, tries to come up with something more apt, then promptly gives up.
''Angry is a good word,'' he said. ''I've always been a physical guy.''
And if he's being honest, a skeptical one, too. Conner seemed predestined to flourish in Chryst's system, which relied heavily on massive offensive linemen paving the way for a back just as happy running through somebody as running by them. When Chryst split for Wisconsin in December and the Panthers brought in Pat Narduzzi - a longtime defensive coordinator in his first head coaching job - Conner didn't exactly sprint to that first team meeting.
He was a little ''iffy'' on Narduzzi before being won over by his relentless enthusiasm and new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney's blunt assessment of what the Panthers need to do to find some semblance of traction in the wide-open ACC Coastal Division.
Chaney watched tape from 2014 and realized trying to switch it up on Conner seemed pointless.
''Why would I change a lot?'' Chaney said. ''There's no sense to it.''
Besides, better to let Conner do the changing and take it from there. The 20-year-old trimmed down to around 230 pounds after the film showed he left yards on the field because he would often get to the second level and get slowed down by a defensive back. So no gummy worms. No Doritos. No Twizzlers. A cheat day for Conner is a trip to Chipotle, but even then it's a burrito bowl filled with vegetables.
Sounds boring. Conner admits it kind of is. It's also necessary.
''It's more than just eating, it's going out on the weekends, having discipline,'' he said. ''Every decision I make in everything, if it's not helping me, it's hurting me.''
And every decision at the moment is focused on helping the Panthers get off the treadmill of mediocrity and on to something more promising before he heads to the NFL. Conner is trying not to get ahead of himself. He's aware he needs to become a better receiver and cut that 40-yard dash time to something in the 4.5-second range. If he's searching for an example of what one looks like, he need only hop over next door to the Pittsburgh Steelers training facility, where All-Pro Le'Veon Bell is big, fast and plenty dangerous.
''I can be a hard-nosed runner for those guys, but still with speed and great hands,'' Conner said. ''I'm just trying to put it together and have no weaknesses.''
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