Pitt Has A Top Backfield with James Conner Back


James Conner tweeted Monday of his victory over Hodgkin lymphoma, taking the biggest step toward fulfilling Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi’s guarantee the running back will play in 2016.

Bringing back Conner, the 2014 ACC Offensive Player of the Year, gives Pitt arguably the best two-man rushing tandem in all of college football next season, and the Panthers new hope in the wide-open Coastal Division.

Running through ACC defenses pales in comparison to Conner’s offseason recovery from cancer. He has three months to return to playing shape after missing most of 2015 with an injured MCL. Conner participated in limited capacity during the spring.

The Pitt athletic department made Conner’s cancer diagnosis public in December. The necessary treatment derailed his plans to return from the knee injury early.

While rehabilitating his knee, which Conner attacked with the same vigor he went at his cancer treatment, Pitt’s feature-back role was in good hands.

Redshirt freshman Qadree Ollison climbed from third on the Panthers depth chart prior to the 2015 season, to earning ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year by the campaign’s end.

Ollison carried 212 times for 1,121 yards and 11 touchdowns — impressive numbers indeed, though well off the 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns Conner piled up as an All-American in 2014.

Conner’s return likely ensures a lighter workload for Ollison, but a heavier burden on opposing defenses.

Pitt now has a backfield that looks positively Saban’ian. A former defensive end, Conner goes 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds. The Panthers lose little in size from the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Ollison. “Change of pace” as far as Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Canada should be concerned means changing from bulldozer to jackhammer as downs dictate.

Pitt’s been home to several standout running backs for much of the last decade, dating back to LeSean McCoy. James Conner and Qadree Ollison both carry on the legacy, but having both in the lineup healthy gives Pitt its best single backfield since Dion Lewis and Ray Graham in 2010.

Add mobile quarterback Nathan Peterman — one of the nation’s 16 most irreplaceable players per CBS Sports’ Ben Kercheval — and don’t be surprise when Pitt ranks among the nation’s leaders for rushing yardage next season.

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