August 29, 2016

PITTSBURGH (AP) There are no limitations on James Conner. None.

Nine months after being diagnosed with lymphoma, the Pitt running back is cancer-free and atop the depth chart as the Panthers prepare to host Villanova in the 2016 opener on Saturday.

''I think he's really enjoying the moment,'' coach Pat Narduzzi said on Monday.

And while Narduzzi expects the sight of the 2014 ACC Player of the Year's running out of the tunnel onto the Heinz Field turf to provide an emotional pregame high, Narduzzi understands the adrenaline will quickly wear off. That's when the real work in determining just how far Pitt can go in Narduzzi's second season will begin.

Though a healthy Conner will play a vital role, so will the development of a wide receiver group tasked with trying fill the void left by Tyler Boyd's departure to the NFL. Senior Dontez Ford isn't worried about trying to match Boyd's production, mostly because it's nearly impossible after Boyd needed just three years to turn the school record book into a dry erase board.

''I think it's important for myself and all of our receivers to step up and produce,'' Ford said. ''We're not too concerned with replacing his production. At the same time we need to put out more.''

Especially if the Panthers want to exploit opposing defenses sure to cram as many men near the line of scrimmage as possible in hopes of stopping a running game that could be the best in the country. Ford gets the strategy. Heck he'd do it too if he was facing an offense that features Conner and 2015 ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year Qadree Ollison in the backfield.

''Teams are obviously going to have to defend against the run,'' Ford said. ''We have arguably the best line in the country, a loaded backfield and we have a quarterback able to make those plays. We're going to be able to go out there (and make plays.)''

For Pitt to take another step forward after Narduzzi's promising 8-5 start last fall, Ford and the guys behind him on the depth chart - including Jester Weah, Tre Tipton and Quadree Henderson - don't really have a choice. It will be a collective effort. Trying to task one player with replicating Boyd's success is unfair. Boyd, after all, had more than twice as many receptions last season (91) than the rest of the receivers on the roster combined. Yes, combined.

Ford is the Panthers' most experienced returning wideout and he offers one thing that Boyd - for all his talent - does not possess: game breaking speed. Ford averaged 19.4 yards per catch in 2015, nearly double Boyd's average of 10.2. Part of that is by design - Boyd would often take shuttle passes that were little more than extended handoffs - but struggled at times with making the difficult grab, something that never seemed to bother Boyd.

''That's not our job to emulate him,'' Ford said. ''We're just going to (try to) learn from him. We all have our own style of play, we all do different things.''

Starting the year with Nate Peterman firmly entrenched at quarterback won't hurt either. That wasn't the case last year as Peterman needed several weeks to finally unseat Chad Voytik. Peterman is clearly in charge now and new offensive Matt Canada wasted little time trying to diversify an offense that was predictable at times last season: either hand it off or throw it to Boyd no matter what. Ford expects Canada to allow Peterman to let loose more often.

''We have guys who can run,'' Ford said. ''Jester has crazy speed and if we can get him out there and get him 1-on-1 matchups, I expect him to make plays vertically.''

---

AP College Football site: www.collegefootball.ap.org

You May Like