Time to shine: James Conner has the makings of a program great — now he has to win


By Stephen Caruso / Assistant Sports Editor

Whenever a young football player starts making an impact, the hyperbole emerges just as fast as the knock-off jerseys.

From the most serious journalist to the biggest homer, everyone jumps to proclaim “He’s the next Dan Marino” or “the next Larry Fitzgerald.”

But to be contrary, in junior running back James Conner, Pitt may very well have the next Tony Dorsett.

Conner doesn’t shy away from that attention either.

“I’m not embarrassed. It comes with [success] … I just focus on the team,” Conner said.

Conner has the power to be the next Dorsett. Images of him running through defenders hang at Heinz Field on gameday and grace the pages of this paper most Mondays.

He has the speed. Conner had runs of 74, 60 and 56 yards last year and averaged 5.9 yards per carry. No running back can have such an explosive average without quickness.

He has the numbers. After rushing for over 800 yards and eight touchdowns during a freshman year in which he did not start, Conner exploded for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns as a starter. Those numbers earned him ACC Player of the Year, as well as All-American honors. In the process, he broke Dorsett’s single-season touchdown record of 22, which he set in 1976.

Both stars arrived at Pitt at similarly pivotal points. Dorsett was recruited by Johnny Majors, who was rebuilding a struggling Pitt team in 1973. Conner, while recruited by an old regime, is hoping to turn around Pitt’s program with a new coach, Pat Narduzzi.

Their roles bring about an even stronger similarity. Both Conner and Dorsett anchored powerful Pitt offenses that improved each year they played. From Dorsett’s first year in 1973 until his senior year in 1976, Pitt’s offense moved from 78th to seventh in the country.

With Conner, Pitt has moved from 80th to 45th — and with how this team talks, the goal is to keep that trend going in the same direction.

After Tyler Boyd said Pitt could have the best offense in the ACC, Conner didn’t hesitate to back up his teammate.

“I totally agree with him. We believe in ourselves, in our chemistry and our coaches — there is no doubt in our minds,” Conner said.

Conner will even don the historic Pitt script on gameday, with the athletic department’s recently-announced efforts to rebrand to its retro logo.

But what Dorsett is — and what Conner is not — is a champion.

And he knows it.

“Everyone on the team is here for one reason — that’s to be ACC Champions,” Conner said in a training camp interview.

It may fall short of the national champion benchmark that Dorsett set in 1976, the last time Pitt won the title, but it is enough of a goal for a team with four straight 6-6 seasons in its past.

Of course, that championship season also occurred in Dorsett’s senior season, when he won a Heisman and was drafted with the second overall pick of the NFL Draft on his way to a Hall of Fame career.

“I have a lot to improve on before I get to that stage,” Conner said.

Conner has the numbers, the skill set, the wardrobe and the attitude of Dorsett. Now all he and the team have to do is win.

Leave a comment.