When Pitt football coach Paul Chryst approached running back James Conner about the possibility of also playing defensive end this season, it caught him by surprise.
In high school football, it’s common practice for a team’s best players to play extensively on both sides of the ball. But that trend almost always ends in college, outside of a few exceptions. The competition is too big, too strong and too fast, so players stick to their positions.
Conner, a sophomore, will become one of the anomalies. Chryst intends to play him at the defensive end, in addition to running back. It’s an extreme rarity, according to defensive ends coach John Palermo.
“Over my years I can’t really think of an offensive player coming over and playing defense,” Palermo said.
It’s not a plan that came out of the blue. During the Panthers’ Little Caesars Pizza Bowl victory against Bowling Green in January, Conner took multiple snaps at defensive end, as well as rushed for 229 yards. Conner was effective on defense during his years at McDowell High School in Erie, Pa., recording 12 sacks his junior year and five his senior year. Pitt initially offered him a position as defensive end before eventually favoring him as a running back.
Conner said he welcomes the opportunity to play defense again. Though he prefers playing running back, Conner said he’s happy to help the team in any way possible.
According to Conner, Pitt’s coaching staff has developed packages, or formations, for him to see the field at defensive end. The team will employ these packages mostly on third downs to see Conner blitz the quarterback. Conner’s frequency on defense will differ from game to game.
“It all depends on the team we’re playing,” Conner said. “There might be games where I don’t play [defense] at all, but there’ll be games where I play more snaps.”
With the loss of defensive end Ejuan Price, who will miss the 2014 football season as he recovers from an injury, it appears Conner will have to pick up the slack.
“I would tell you that we will miss ‘Juan a lot but somebody else is going to have to step up to the plate at his position, and basically on third down we’re going to have to get that help out of James, I believe,” Palermo said.
Aaron Slocum, McDowell High School defensive backs coach and former assistant coach during Conner’s tenure, said he believes Conner will thrive in a two-way role.
“He’s got great feet; he’s got great technique; he’s fast,” Slocum said.
The decision to place Conner on defense seemed inevitable for McDowell’s defensive coordinator, Matt Melle. During Conner’s junior and senior years of high school, Melle coached against him while at nearby Cathedral Prep.
“He didn’t play 100 percent of the time on the defensive end, but when he did he was a difference maker,” Melle said. “I felt that his skills that he had would transfer more over to the defensive side of the ball [in college].”
But Melle said he was surprised that Conner will play on both sides; the move warrants concerns of fatigue and injury. Conner doesn’t think the concerns hold merit.
“I’ve done all the right things in the offseason to prepare for that. I’m not really worried of being tired,” he said.
Despite Conner’s lack of concern, Chryst is making sure to take precaution.
“You certainly have to be realistic. He can only do so much as he can truly be prepared for,” Chryst said.
Besides his work in the weight room, Conner cites his “will power and the want to do it” as reasons for avoiding fatigue and playing both positions effectively.
With so much potential and added responsibility, Conner said he realizes that he’ll have a large influence on Pitt’s success. With that in mind, he has a simple goal for the upcoming season.
“To win a lot of games and make it to a really good bowl game,” Conner said.
Besides having an effect on Pitt’s record, the move to defensive end could bear significance toward Conner’s NFL future.
“The particular set of skills that he has as a pass rusher is going to be real exciting for those guys in the NFL to look at. I think he’s got a real good chance to get a look there,” Melle said.
“For him at the next level, in the NFL, it gives him a lot more options,” Slocum added.
In the near future, Slocum is confident that Conner will impact games significantly, whenever he plays.
“He’ll have a tremendous effect, both offensively and defensively,” Slocum said.