Pitt's running back James Conner looks to catch more passes

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PITTSBURGH (AP) Pitt junior running back James Conner is a workhorse. In his sophomore year, he reset the record books with 26 rushing touchdowns and his 1,765 yards rushing were the fourth-highest total in school history.

Yet for all of Conner's heavy workload - he averaged nearly 23 carries a game - there was something missing. The reigning ACC Offensive Player of the Year had only five catches for 70 receiving yards. It's a stat both Conner and first-year offensive coordinator Jim Chaney would like to improve in 2015.

''It was obvious when I came out of the game what was going to happen,'' Conner said. ''I will still get my fair share of carries. I need to just try to expand my game.''

Conner said he didn't have extensive knowledge of the passing offense a year ago. Conner figured his main job was to ground and pound his way through any defense that was thrown at him. He is working to fix that during spring drills.

''I had a little trouble learning the playbook,'' Conner said. ''My role was to be successful running the ball. It is exciting. I haven't had a receiving touchdown since I have been here, so hopefully I will get one this year.''

Conner's optimism is resonating throughout spring drills for the Panthers, who have one more week left before the Blue-Gold scrimmage next Saturday.

As a defensive coach throughout his career, Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi knows the importance of keeping the defenders off balance. Conner had no problem running the ball, but adding the passing dimension will make it that more difficult to game plan around him.

''It isn't a matter of getting him more involved in the passing game, it is a matter of just keeping him on the field because he is so good at whatever he wants to be,'' Narduzzi said. ''That is the point. To me, if I am a defensive guy, and he is only on the field to run, that is a tip for the defense. If people see him line up in passing plays, it will throw them off.''

Through the first two years of his college career, Conner's had a pretty easy time running through defenses. He said hard work off the field helped him get to this point.

''Becoming faster and stronger,'' Conner said. ''At my position, speed kills and being stronger helps you.''

In his 25-year coaching career, Narduzzi has seen some elite running backs, and he's pleased to have Conner on his side. As for where he ranks, time will tell.

''It is hard because we haven't gone full-speed live all the time,'' Narduzzi said. ''He is a great player. He is big, physical and has great hands. I don't know if you can ask for anything else besides that.

''The great evaluator is when you get to Saturday afternoons in September, October and November. He is the ACC Player of the Year, I think that speaks for itself.''