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Conner, Price, Whitehead named to Maxwell preseason awards watch lists

Junior+running+back+James+Conner+is+one+of+three+Panthers+named+preseason+candidates+for+the+Maxwell+Football+Club+awards.+Jeff+Ahearn+%7C+Senior+Staff+Photographer+
Junior running back James Conner is one of three Panthers named preseason candidates for the Maxwell Football Club awards. Jeff Ahearn | Senior Staff Photographer

Junior running back James Conner is one of three Panthers named preseason candidates for the Maxwell Football Club awards. Jeff Ahearn | Senior Staff Photographer

Junior running back James Conner is one of three Panthers named preseason candidates for the Maxwell Football Club awards. Jeff Ahearn | Senior Staff Photographer

By Steve Rotstein / Sports Editor

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Three Pitt Panthers are on preseason watch lists for the prestigious Maxwell Football Club awards.

On Tuesday, junior running back James Conner was picked as a preseason candidate for the Maxwell Award, given annually to the College Player of the Year. The same day, senior defensive end Ejuan Price and sophomore defensive back Jordan Whitehead were named candidates for the Chuck Bednarik Award, given to the College Defensive Player of the Year.

Defensive end Hugh Green was the last Pitt player to win the Maxwell Award back in 1980, and running back Tony Dorsett — who won it four years earlier, along with the 1976 Heisman Trophy — is the only other Panther to win it.

Former Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald is the only Panther to win the Bednarik Award, which was introduced in 1995. Now an NFL All-Pro with the Los Angeles Rams, Donald took home the Bednarik Award in 2013.

Conner was named ACC Player of the Year after rushing for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2014. But just a few months ago, he would have certainly been a long shot to appear on any preseason awards watch lists for 2016.

The All-American running back suffered a season-ending knee injury in Pitt’s 2015 season opener. Three months later, his recovery was cut short when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma on Thanksgiving Day. Conner’s battle just to get back on the field — let alone regain his spot as one of the premier backs in college football — has been unprecedented.

Wearing a protective mask over his face and restricted from any contact because of the port in his chest, Conner continued to participate in team workouts while undergoing chemotherapy. Less than six months after his diagnosis, he announced that he is cancer-free and on track to meet his goal of returning for Pitt’s Sept. 3 season opener against Villanova.

After leading the ACC in sacks per game last year, Price could be poised to repeat that feat this season while playing alongside University of Tennessee transfer Dewayne Hendrix.

Price finished his season with 48 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, a forced fumble, a 32-yard fumble recovery touchdown and a blocked kick for the Panthers in 2015, earning All-ACC First Team honors.

The first defensive player to win ACC Rookie of the Year in nearly two decades, Whitehead made an immediate impact in his first year at Pitt.

Whitehead’s 109 tackles led the team and were the most by a true freshman in school history. He also added six tackles for loss, six pass breakups, one interception and a 22-yard fumble recovery touchdown.

The sophomore also received playing time on offense in 2015, rushing 12 times for 122 yards and two touchdowns.

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Conner, Price, Whitehead named to Maxwell preseason awards watch lists