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Wednesday, July 16, 2014
ACC's best backups: No. 3

By David M. Hale

Last season, Florida State won a national championship, while its leader in takeaways (Nate Andrews), yards per carry (Karlos Williams) and yards per touch (Kermit Whitfield) combined to start just one game. In the current landscape of college football, talent at the top is crucial, but depth is often what separates the best teams. With that in mind, we’re counting down the ACC’s best backups -- players who weren’t starters last year and aren't currently penciled in atop the depth chart, but who could make a major impact in 2014.

James Conner
Running back James Conner could lend more of a hand for the Pitt defense in 2014.
No. 3: James Conner (Pitt, So./RB)

Career numbers: As a freshman in 2013, Conner appeared in 12 games without a start, but he managed to lead Pitt in rushing (799 yards), yards per carry (5.5) and rushing TDs (eight). Conner racked up a whopping 229 yards and a TD in Pitt’s Little Caesar’s Bowl win over Bowling Green, earning MVP honors in the process. He also chipped in on defense as a pass-rushing specialist.

Projected role in 2014: Senior Isaac Bennett, who started all 13 games in 2013 at tailback, returns this season, and he, too, tallied nearly 800 yards on the ground. That likely means Conner will still be the nominal backup at tailback, but Pitt figures to feature a relatively even split, meaning both runners will get their share of carries.

Why he’ll make an impact: Conner is in an interesting position this fall. He’s obviously a talented runner, with four games topping 100 yards last season, highlighted by his bowl performance. But in the eight other games he played, Conner finished with fewer than 35 yards, including particularly ugly performances against Virginia and Georgia Tech. Whether he can find more consistency in 2014 will likely determine how much he’ll push Bennett for the starting tailback job.

But pushing his way into the offensive backfield might actually work even better for Conner as a defensive end. At 6-foot-2, 250, he has the size to play on defense, and Pitt’s coaches have obviously seen enough ability to be intrigued by the option of using him more often as a pass rusher. That has led to continued rumblings that a position switch is in store for Conner at some point.

The most likely scenario, however, is a little work on both sides of the ball, which should make Conner among the most valuable contributors on the Pitt roster, even if he’s not listed as a full-time starter.